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)

Author: Dan Byrnes

Dan Byrnes is an Australian poet, writer, historian, a one-time journalist in Tamworth NSW Australia (or, Country Music Capital, Australia). Born in Sydney in 1948, meaning in late 2018 he is aged 70! He is deeply interested in modern Australian history (since 1788), literature, poetry and music. He had a normal high school education plus several stints at university, ending with a double major in History/Psychology, then with an Honours degree in History. Of late, and as he gets older - in 2019 he will be 71 - he spends time compiling and recompiling old work, adding to this blog, and wondering deeply with the history of Australia since 1788, a relatively new country, which received up to 162,000 convicts from Britain, why there is such apathy to maritime history in general and in particular, such apathy to the question: who owned/insured the convict ships?

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