Reflections on Genealogy (2)

…On some of the pitfalls of doing long-range genealogy, and I should stress again that I’m an Australian, so really, when I look at genealogies from the UK, or USA or Canada, I am seeing matters with the eyes of a stranger.

I’ve found that there are many reasons to distrust genealogical reports, and many reasons to trust them; but one does have to be clear about this. Genealogy is and remains a very uncertain art, often because of some very human frailties – the ability to lie, to hide from unpleasant facts, to hide the future from misbehaving ancestors, or faulty memories, maybe a need to guess. But I have found out several useful things.

One unexpected finding is that about 1900, and I suppose it was a fin-de-siecle phenomenon, a turn-of-the-century sort of thing for the English-speaking world at least, there were a lot of books of genealogy printed. It was the end of a century of complicated (and very interesting) technological change. Families who thought they were anybody must have been kept very busy sorting out their ancestries, and I suppose that printing companies found the period very profitable indeed, but I’ve found that a lot of errors or omissions were made. The perpetuation of errors, the use of old and incorrect material from the past, and often handed down in families, are almost a separate field of study. One has to keep separate files on corrections.

There are some errors which have crept into English aristocratic genealogy – the corrections can often be entertaining. Scottish genealogy is very turbulent and often inaccurate.

American colonial genealogy is remarkable for a consistency of errors – the “Mayflower thing“ is hugely overdone but all the same, necessary to do. There are unreasonable difficulties with handling the descendants of Pocohontas just because she was in Indian, and similar applies to many slave descendancies. There is one correction online re the name Drake for what is now the USA – there are errors made re the descendants of Sir Francis Drake, and so on.

USA people can seem amusing, and I imagine some of this is due to the popularity of Protestant religion in the USA, as they often seem to enjoy taking genealogies back into the very mists of time, to before the Middle Ages, to about 600AD in Europe (eg., in France or England), to the time of Christ, or to “Adamic times”.

Before 1775, many colonial American men had military rank in militias which often protected settlements from Indians; the numbers of American colonial men who were “soldiers” is truly extraordinary – and the facts have often crept into US movies, too. (One of the best such movies is The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger, which is ironic, as both of these actors can be claimed as Australians.) It seems then, no wonder that the USA is a heavily militarised, overly-patriotic and overly-aggressive nation; this is “cultural”, this has been going on since before the American Revolution and was heightened further by the Revolution, and it has had a founder effect for the USA as a nation.

With Australian genealogies, there is room for humour as well as sombre thoughts. Various “Anglo”Australians can be subject today to reverse snobbery, as with the genealogical website named “Australian Royalty”, which is very much for the descendants of convicts. I remain very amused with the nineteenth century pastoral sector for upper-class pastoral families, as they intermarried about as fast as is humanly possible in order to shore up their class positions in a new country, but some rather snobby twentieth century books of genealogy indicate that this is rarely how they see it themselves.

Culturally, eastern Australia has an excessive taste in history for the lurid and the scandalous, particularly regarding commercial histories in Sydney and to a lesser extent, Melbourne, which is perhaps due to our convict colony origins – and it affects genealogies as well. It is notable that Joseph Conrad, novelist and incidentally a much-travelled sea captain who knew his ports of the world, once said that the port of Sydney was the most corrupt port he’d ever seen.

And a sombre thought for the Australian experience? Just why Australia’s Aboriginal people speak of “Aboriginality” and downplay information on their European ancestry, if they have it, is I suppose for a reason that is easy to understand – that Aboriginals and part-Aboriginals fear they will become extinct as a race. But I wish they were more honest, clearer and up-front about their ancestries. Partly as it is clear, there are much less of such problems with a nearby country also with a recent European start, New Zealand.

And in New Zealand, it is remarkable, a series of governors/governors-general came from the same family, named Fergusson. This long-term charade involved a Governor of New Zealand Sir James Fergusson (1832-1907) Baronet 6 who married a sister of a Governor of South Australia; father of a Governor-General of New Zealand, Sir Charles Fergusson (1865-1951) who married Lady Alice Mary Boyle, daughter of a Governor of New Zealand, David Boyle (1833-1915) 7th Earl Glasgow; father of a Governor-General of New Zealand, Bernard Edward Fergusson (1911-1980), Lord Ballantine; father of a High Commissioner to New Zealand, George Duncan Fergusson.

All this seems to me to be one of the central absurdities of New Zealand’s history. (Ends)

Latest reading (more on)

Michael Dunn, Australia and the Empire: From 1788 to the Present. Sydney, Fontana Collins, 1984.

Stuart Kells, Shakespeare’s Library: Unlocking the Great Mystery in Literature. Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2018.

Jerry White, London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing. London, The Bodley Head, 2012.

Failure of the bank, Lane, Son and Fraser in 1793

There was a historical report on the 1793 failure of the bank, Lane, Son and Fraser, published in The Leeds Mercury, on 7 April 1894, Saturday, page 20. (This is available per Newspapers.com.) The failure in London of Lane, Son and Fraser had ripple effects causing the failure of some provincial banks which had been corresponding with Lane, Son and Fraser. The bank had earlier been influential in Anglo-American trading affairs but had suffered badly due to the American Revolution. Australians if no others will be interested in Lane, Son and Fraser as the post-1786 Lanes were personal friends of the first governor of New South Wales, Arthur Phillip. For this reason, this blog will soon post more material on the pre-1793 activities of Lane, Son and Fraser. (Information per Peter Dickson, UK)

The lack of mounds in Queensland

The flat lands of Central Queensland? Have I been reading too much archaeology lately, or not?
Archaeology tends to teach its readers that humans tend to build differently in different areas for different reasons. Or sometimes, as in Central Asia, they don’t build much at all, because a lot of them are nomads often on the move.
Australians – and the place has only been settled by Europeans for 230 years – tend not to build mounds. But perhaps they should?
I was watching TV and there appeared piteous pictures of cattle drowned by floods in Queensland, up to 500,000 of them it is estimated. This is out of about 10.5 million cattle in Queensland, so near to 1/20th of them have drowned. The economic costs will be enormous. And well, 500,000 dead cattle is piteous.
But nor in the photographs were there any mounds for the cattle (or any other animals) to use to keep out of water which might drown them? Why not? But you will ask, will it be expensive to build such mounds? I’d have to say, probably, expensive.
But maybe cattle men in Queensland need to consider such measures, instead of relying on carving cattle stations out of flat land that will flood if enough rain arrives. World anthropogenic climate change probably means that climate in Australia will change. Maybe we need more mounds to be built on cattle stations not just in Queensland?
Much as the grown men who are coal miners in Queensland tend to cry when they get too much rain and water floods their coal mines, boo hoo. But what did they expect to happen? They spend part of their adult life digging really big holes and then they cry like children when nature and rain  come along and fill their hole with water! Boo hoo!

Is it time for grown men in Queensland to grow up properly? Too much learned helplessness is bad for the sanity.

A good Brexit line

Today (4-2-2019) I read a brilliant line in an article on Brexit … “It was like trying to unlock a door with a slice of bread.”

But what I now want to know, is, did someone slave over this line for hours or did it come quickly? See a Washington Post article by Ian Dunt in the Outlook section, “The collective madness behind Britain’s latest Brexit plan.”


“You have the right to remain stupid.”

This is truly a stunningly good line. In Australia, I first saw it on a tall, affluent looking and probably well-educated 22-year-old lad, and have never seen it since in Australia? Why not? I once checked on the origin of this remark, it comes from a US male songwriter who lives somewhere in New England, whose name I don’t recall. His name is currently unavailable on the Net due to Trumpishness remaining stupid. (See, the line is true enough.)

On Democracy

The year is 2019, January. The remark about Democracy is…

“Democracy has lost the ability to make decisions.”

Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor, The Weekend Australian, . p.15, in an article on Brexit. Usually this blog holds Sheridan at arms length due to his right-wingerisms, but this time around I fear he is correct. World-wide, Democracy certainly seems to be in trouble.