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Intergenerational memory in Australian Families
Lecture with Dr Ashley Barnwell
Talks / Lecture
Lecture with Dr Ashley Barnwell
17 July 2019
With the recent boom in family history research, many Australians are discovering that long-held family myths and mysteries can cover hidden truths about our past. Ashley will talk about her work mapping and analysing the Library’s collection of self-published family histories and examine how families use inherited secrets, stories, and memories to both reproduce and challenge silences about Australia’s colonial history.
Fellowship Presentation Intergenerational Memory in Australian Families
Dr Ashley Barnwell
*Speakers: Kevin Bradley (K), Ashley Barnwell (A)
*Location: National Library of Australia
K: I’m Kevin Bradley, Assistant Director General, responsible for the Library’s collections. As we begin I’d like to acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians whose traditional lands we meet and pay my respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people past and present and thank them for their care for this land.
It’s my pleasure to welcome back Dr Ashley Barnwell as the National Library of Australia’s Fellow which is made possible by the generous donation of the Stokes family. I say welcome back ‘cause Asley was our 2014 Seymour Summer Scholar for Biography, an event I remember well. The Library’s summer scholarship program offers young scholars and a scholar from rural or regional Australia of any age a six-week opportunity to access the Library’s collections to assist their postgraduate research and for many it’s a career-defining moment.
It’s a chance to develop skills that will benefit their working lives no matter which direction they take and it’s always a pleasure to see scholars and fellows returning to the Library and sometimes continuing their earlier research or following a completely new path, having discovered the many wonders of our collections and the opportunities they present. I should say that’s the most joyous thing about being here in the National Library, is the number of things you suddenly find you didn’t realise were here and after many years of working here I’m still surprised by what our collection can tell me.
Ashley’s summer scholarship focused on a study of family historians, practices and their use of the Library’s collections. Her thesis considered the social ethics of telling life stories. After gaining her PhD Ashley moved to Melbourne where she is pursuing her interest in writing and teaching as a lecturer in sociology and soon to be an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Congratulations on your DECRA. Her current research builds on her investigations into storytelling and looking at how authors contend with the discovery of past family secrets.
For the past two months Ashley has been ploughing her way through the more than 7,000 self-published family histories available within the collections and in fact we were having a discussion today of how we get more self-published material in, it’s the hardest thing to find. They still have to come to the Library on legal deposit so if there’s any self-publishers in the audience or listening to the stream be aware of that and how important that material is to this sort of research.
From early family histories of pioneers, colonists and settlers to a post-1960s fascination with convicts, bushrangers and rebels Ashley has been analysing how these family stories narrate Australia’s colonial history. If there is one characteristic common to all our fellows it’s curiosity however it could also be said that they share a common interest in pushing scholarly knowledge and debate. For Ashley, she’s not looking at the role these stories play – I’ll start that again. For Ashley, she is not only looking at the role these story play as the deposited memories of a nation, she is seeking to address an imbalance in academic studies relating to national silences and remembering, focusing instead of how families maintain or break these silences.
Her work will contribute new knowledge about how family stories contribute to, reflect and revise national histories. She may even reveal a few family secrets of her own. So please welcome Ashley.
A: Thank you for that welcome, Kevin. I’d like to start by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples whose unceded lands we meet on today and offer my respect to elders past and present. I also extend my respect to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that may be here today.
I want to flag that this presentation contains the names and images of deceased people and other culturally sensitive materials. Some of the family history texts I discuss also contain language that may be offensive.
Like Kevin I offer my warmest thanks to the Stokes family for funding the fellowships program and thank the National Library and its wonderful staff for offering me this rare opportunity to lose all sense of time and become immersed in reading and thinking in this very grand and very quiet building.
My fascination with the National Library’s extensive collection of self-published family histories began five years ago when I was a summer scholar here. I got a glimpse then of how many of these texts there were and I’ve been dreaming ever since with my sociologist mind about what they might say when read as a whole. I thought how exciting it would be to read all of them and then I discovered there were more than 8,000 texts. Suffice to say I have not read all of the National Library’s self-published family histories over the past three months but this evening I will share with you what I have discovered from my forays into working with these texts.
While my project has a specific focus my plan here while at the National Library has been to get a broader picture of where, when and how family histories are being written and collected in Australia. It is important to point out that the family histories I’ve been reading are not a collection per se in the same way that documents might be curated and held together as an archive in special collections. They exist as singular items within the vast print collection and the majority are submitted as legal deposit rather than deliberately acquired by the Library.
In many ways a self-published family history isn’t what you might expect a national library to collect. It is a very personal text, often written by and for one specific family. But taken together or read collectively these texts can tell us stories about the social worlds in which they were written. It has been my aim to ask what do they reveal about the connections between family and national histories?
To outline my talk to start I will give you a sense of my broader project and then speak in more detail about the work I’ve been doing with these texts. I hope to give you an insight into the research process as well as some findings then to finish I’m going to debut some very fresh research that I’ve begun into my own family history.
The study I’ll talk about today is part of a larger project called Family Secrets, National Silences, Intergenerational Memory in Settler Colonial Australia. This project looks at how Australian families are using their own histories to keep or confront secrets and silences about indigenous settler relations in Australia’s history. Efforts to break what Stanner famously called the great Australian silence have evoked heated national debate for decades.
Historians have made huge inroads bringing frontier violence, dispossession and indigenous settler relations into public memory. Yet the pressing question of what we remember and forget as a nation remains fraught. This is evident in recent bids to remove or rebrand commemorative monuments and to change the date of Australia Day. In this spirit the Uluru Statement also calls for public truth-telling about colonial history as part of the Makarrata Commission, to provide a proper forum where indigenous voices and histories can be told and where others must listen.
In order to listen as dialogues across the country leading up to the Uluru Statement insist and as many conversations during NAIDOC Week last week reiterated nonindigenous Australians, especially those with early settler histories, must also be willing to rethink narratives they have inherited, narratives which continue to sustain colonial myths and logics.
So far efforts to unsettle the settler narrative of the nation’s history focus on revising stories at the macro level with debates about what should be included in national museums and in school curriculums. Surprisingly the role of the family as a place where colonial histories are told, edited, ignored and hotly debated has received far less attention. But the stories we inherit within families, stories that anchor our very sense of identity and belonging may be the most impactful and deep-seated and the most difficult to transform. They are what Arlie Hochschild calls deep stories, inherited narratives that can operate as empathy walls, siloing our world view and blocking insight into others’ experiences.
Bringing family to the centre of conversations about truth-telling my project explores how families are using inherited secrets, stories and memories to rationalise and reproduce but also interrogate and challenge silences within Australia’s colonial history.
To do this work I’m drawing from Larissa Behrendt’s idea of colonial storytelling. In her book, Finding Eliza, from 2016 Behrendt tracks the telling and retelling the story of Eliza Fraser in Australian popular culture. So many of you may already know this story but I’m just going to give you a really, really quick rundown.
In the tale, Eliza, a Scottish woman and wife of the ship’s captain is shipwrecked off the east coast of Australia in 1836 and purportedly lives for a period of several weeks with the Butchulla people before being rescued by a search party. Behrendt unpacks how this story told and retold across popular novels and films becomes a conduit for myths about virtuous and vulnerable white women needing to be rescued by brave colonial men from savage cannibals. She is interested in what stories like Eliza’s do or what they sanction and this here, it’s a nice hand-modelling for me, is the National Library’s copy of John Curtis’ 1938 Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle which is one of the texts that Behrendt talks about so as I’m reading through her book I was able to call these things up and go and look at them in the flesh.
Behrendt argues that, and this is a quote, “these stories became an important part of the colonising process because they illustrated the reasons given to justify the surveillance of and violence against Aboriginal people and the taking of Aboriginal land. They became part of the popular narrative of Australian history, the white men battling the elements and taming the wild land and the wild people upon it for many years.”
Behrendt shows that such stories have a powerful social effect. They reflect the values of their storytellers but also reinforce these values on a social scale, contributing to ongoing inequalities and racial divides in Australian society.
Shifting focus from the civic sphere I am exploring how Behrendt’s notion of colonial storytelling might operate within families and how the stories families tell about colonialism shape people’s historical consciousness and potentially also their current political views. So while I’ve been here at the Library I’ve been asking how do written family histories engage in colonial storytelling?
In mapping out this project I’m also influenced by sociologist, Liz Stanley’s longitudinal project, Whites Writing Whiteness which tracks the formation of apartheid in South Africa via archives of family letters. Stanley shows how documents of life, especially intimate family correspondence, can reveal how social structures and divisions are created and sustained on an everyday level. Stanley’s project has been particularly instructive for me because she outlines a methodology for reading largescale collections of documents.
Stanley calls these collections like boxes, drawing from a term in computing which describes a device or system which hides its inner workings. She outlines a way of approaching an archive when you know from the outset that you cannot read and know everything closely and I felt that this certainly applied to trying to read 8,000 texts in a three-month fellowship. So Liz’s multilevel method of mapping, sampling and analysing gave me both hope and a way into the Library’s collections.
I’m going to take you through some of the things I have learnt working with the family histories at these three scales. So mapping is a deeply blasphemous method in the Library because it doesn’t require you to pick up a single book. The family history guru, Ralph Reid, who I met here as a summer scholar and who has dedicated many, many hours of his life to keeping a register of all the family histories published in Australia kindly made me a very long list of the holdings at the NLA.
In this list I have the data of title, author, year and place of publication for all the family histories from 1882 to 2016. The titles have been my main source of locating things and patterns. I’ve had to accept that short of reading all of the books there’s not much I can do with books that have titles like the family – the history of X family so don’t call your family history that if you're writing family histories at the moment. This is a lot of them so a lot of the family histories have these very simple titles.
So these will remain a mystery for me now and it’s important to keep in mind that when looking at the charts and findings that I present that much of the collection remains in what Stanley would call the black box. It is also important to note that there are plenty of family histories held in state and local libraries that are not deposited here. The figures may also reflect informal trends in the Library’s collecting priorities at different times. But there are still a lot of texts to work with for my experimental purposes and what is and isn’t collected within the National Library, the nation’s memory, is an important layer to include in this enquiry.
So to cut to the chase when you look at the collections from a macro level you can immediately see this relationship between intimate family stories and these wider projects of nation-building. So we have here a chart which I’ve cut off at 1960, it was a very long one and you can see straight away that there is this huge spike in 1988. So this is the Australian bicentenary and so immediately you see this connection between telling family stories and this period of telling nationalist nation-building stories at the same time.
I’m collecting guesses for this spike that’s in 1996 so if you have ideas please come and share them over wine and cheese afterwards. Also when you’re looking at the trends in some of the words that are in titles you can see here that the trend of including the term Australia in the title follows that same trajectory and is very high in the 1980s, peaking there.
So I pulled out lots and lots of family histories that were written in this particular period around the bicentenary and what I found was that there were a lot of ships on many, many covers and even people like this one on the far side, you can see people – someone has drawn – the author has drawn the bicentenary logo and included that in the work as well.
As well as having a strong theme in terms of covers the kinds of family history narratives and stories that were told across this period also had a very robust narrative of the family as part of this bigger nation-building process as you can see in this quote that I’ve included here.
So these charts informed my sampling and helped me to select text to surface-read going back to Stanley’s method and to build a more detailed picture of trends across where and when family histories were written. In this process I got a very rich insight into what these texts actually are as material objects. In my plan I was all set to use Stanley’s method but I soon discovered that family history books are not like letters. Where letters have quite a strict format family histories are incredibly diverse. I’ve got this image here and I put my pen there as scale for you. So when you summon them up from the stacks you don’t know if you are going to get an 824-page hardback tome or a 50-page paper pamphlet.
They also take different forms in terms of genre. Some are written as national histories or local histories or histories of professions with the family as just one narrative thread. Others focus solely on births, deaths and marriages of family members and eschew all social context. Where some reflect at length on processes of researching and writing history others skip narration altogether and offer pages and pages of genealogical charts.
Family historians might painstakingly add footnotes to primary sources for every claim, others fill gaps with their imaginations, purposefully writing speculative fiction about mysterious ancestors. Some authors want heroes and gushing tributes and others want villains and saucy exposes.
In comparison to letters family histories are also rarely serial, they are one-off texts that curate an array of secondary and primary materials, every text contains multitudes. Needless to say this made it quite difficult to straightforwardly apply Stanley’s method of sampling but I persisted.
There’s not time to take you through the process and findings of my adventures into sampling so I’m going to focus in on just one slice that developed into close readings. Going back to the mapping stage when I was working through comparing common keywords and titles I came across this.
The common story that we know is that there was a transition in interest from the respectable settler to the salacious convict. I was surprised to see at the same time there is this enduring and much larger interest in the pioneer. Discovering this I of course wanted to read all of the pioneer texts but I reasoned with myself that at close to 500 that was too many to read for this trip.
As I outlined before in sampling the texts one of my aims has been to think about family histories as colonial storytelling. To do this I decided to call up and read all of the family histories that had the term settled, settle or settlement in the title. This added up to 85 texts which seemed doable for close reading.
The term settled is a known site of contestation. For example you may remember the public scandal in 2016 when there was a public backlash when UNSW produced a pamphlet that encouraged schoolteachers to use the words colonisation and invasion in addition to settlement and discovery when teaching colonial history. In her 2017 essay, Settlement or Invasion, the Coloniser’s Quandary, Behrendt writes about the fatigue and importance of this debate.
There is the challenge of how the dominant national narrative, the story the nation tells itself deals with the invasion moment. This question has been bogged down in the emotions of the invasion or settled debate. The standoff gets in the way of a more sophisticated, nuanced and inclusive narrative unless and until we get that part of the story straight, finally the other parts matter less.
I agree that this word, settlement, obscures the violence that it truly depicts so I wanted to see how authors who are directly labelling their family story as a story of settlement narrate this history. What does this term do in family histories? Does it do the same thing that this word does in national history? Does it, as Behrendt describes, create a deadlock or seek to minimise, rationalise or silence dispossession and violence? Or does something different surround this term in histories at the family level?
Before I show you some examples I’ll note that there were no texts with the word, invasion, in the title. ‘Though I did find that especially older texts quite commonly used the word in the body of the work, also referring to colonists as invaders or white invaders. No indigenous family histories came up in this sample but part of my broader study, I did read all of the indigenous family histories that I could identify from the index or from the catalogue. The big difference I noticed with indigenous family histories in comparison to the texts in this sample is that the authors had less choice to just ignore, silence or omit indigenous settler relations in the stories of their family or communities because the settler state intervenes into their lives constantly at the most intimate levels across every generation.
When reading the 85 family histories written by settler descendants what I expected to find was a lot of silence and I did find that. But there were also detailed and frank accounts of frontier violence, especially in old works. Some texts contained excerpts from ancestors’ diaries and letters offering eyewitness descriptions that are not yet or at least not widely from what I could tell cited in academic studies. This shows that family histories can be a significant source of historical information.
There is also something unique to stories that are told in the context of families specifically. Those written by women for example focus on violence as it operates in and around domestic life, often on remote stations. For example in the Youngs of Umbercollie, the first white family in southwest Queensland, 1845, author Alison Edith Tong reproduces excerpts from the journal of her great-grandmother, Margaret Young. It contains much more candid accounts of the anger and fear and confusion that surrounds frontier violence than accounts written by men as well as more information about the intimate relationships and the lives of both Aboriginal and nonaboriginal women and children.
These texts often – also offered very detailed accounts of just how dependent settlers were on Aboriginal people, usually working as stockmen or housemaids, for their knowledge of the land and how to survive on it. Some of these stories fit directly into the model of colonial storytelling or mythmaking that Behrendt discusses in Finding Eliza. To show you one example in Francis and Mary Spence, first Burnie area settlers and Launceston pioneers, Claudia Emdine, recounts a family story about white children being taken by Aboriginal people. As the story unfolds it takes the genre of a family tale with credulity-testing details which in this case the author does not question.
We might think about what the retelling of this story does or what it sanctions as it circulates within the family in 1995, two years before the Bringing Them Home report is released. The quote that I’m going to read out to you is a little tricky to follow because it slips between direct quotation of the primary source and the author’s commentary on that so just do your best to follow along.
“Another look at their life in these early days of settlement in [Videau] 26:28 was given by their son, Francis, when he told the writer of an article that when he and his brothers and sisters were young children the black folk used to come to the family’s dwelling place and seek to exchange their black pickaninnies for the white pickaninnies and how a refusal on the family’s part was often fraught with danger. What a terrifying situation. It is no wonder that the young son, Francis, remembered it so vividly when he related it later in life.
On numbers of occasions the blacks sought to obtain possession of the children by force and on one occasion while withstanding a siege one native warrior succeeded in sending a spear through a chink in the wall. The weapon passed through one of his father’s legs and entered the other leg, pinning the two legs together. Wouldn’t Mary and the children as well as the father, Francis, be absolutely scared? He never fully recovered from the effects of that poison spear and he was compelled to use crutches all the later years of his life.”
It came up a few times, actually, this kind of mythology about white children lost and stolen so here’s another example on a cover here. So there are bold stories like this one which clearly fit Behrendt’s model of colonial storytelling and mythmaking but in a lot of the texts there is no or very little mention of indigenous settler relations, let alone storytelling so I’ve had to read very carefully for very small details. Like even how authors account for the fact that places have Aboriginal names even when they claim that there were no people living in those areas.
Part of the work as you might imagine has been reading for silences or revisions. I found that certain genres of silence emerge across the text and that these silences actually become very loud with repetition.
To give you a sense of these genres I want to take you more closely through details of the contrasting ways that authors deal with silences around Aboriginal occupancy of the land their ancestors moved onto as settlers. There were family histories that totally omitted anything to do with contact between early settler ancestors and Aboriginal people even though there is plenty of evidence that these encounters were happening at those times and places.
But in some texts there were slips of things, for example in pictures. So this is two examples here. In both texts there was no discussion – like there was discussion around this earlier period and talking about ancestors setting up farms and their great horsemanship and these kinds of things. You can see even in the captions, ‘though you can’t read them there, there’s no mention of Aboriginal people but in these pictures there’s clearly Aboriginal people depicted in the foregrounds of the images.
In the second one the image is from Thomas Donville Taylor’s eyewitness sketch of the squatter’s attack on an Aboriginal camp which is held here in the National Library’s collection. So images perhaps intentionally in these cases or perhaps unintentionally spoke louder than words.
Several family histories opened with florid and detailed natural histories of the places their ancestors settled, full of plants but seemingly uninhabited by humans. I’m calling these Family Tales of Terra Nullius. One example of this which is quite striking appears in Bernard Bellanger’s 1980 Champagne and Tingle Trees, a memoir of the Bellanger family who first settled the Nornalup district, Western Australia.
The book describes the life of a French family in WA with the author’s father arriving in Fremantle in 1899 and moving to set up a camp in Nornalup, a coastal area south of Perth in 1908. At the beginning Bellanger writes, Ted Marie and myself were the first white children to be born in the district but there’s no mention of Aboriginal children or people in the area in the book at all. He describes the land as wild, uninhabited, sparse, unchartered, unsurveyed, unknown and impenetrable. When talking about the land he describes the trees as custodians in language that strangely transposes Aboriginal ownership. So this is the quote.
“Out of the science the gigantic trees seemed to whisper, do not profane the aisles of our hallowed place, we are the guards of the soil, the custodians of a sacred heritage, our roots have been down in this earth for centuries.”
The Bellangers were a particularly literary family and I’ve also been able to read the family histories of Bernard, the brother and uncle and mother. Older family accounts do mention Noongar people being at Nornalup when they arrive, working for them and helping them set up there by showing them paths. As with the language around invaders this demonstrates how forgetting and remembering can be quite nonlinear in families with things that are discussed in early generations being silenced later on.
Other family historians told a story that Aboriginal people had left or abandoned a place, often right before their ancestors arrived. Sometimes this story of moving also echoed colonial claims that Aboriginal people didn’t cultivate the land and therefore didn’t really possess it. This claim has been thoroughly rebutted, most recently in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu.
An example where this narrative underpins the family story and impacts the author’s rationale can be seen in Nancy Edgar’s 1978 text, Burnt Eucalyptus Bark, early settlers of the far western district of Victoria. Even though the book does not deal extensively with these issues and mostly focuses on family relationships and farming the fact of dispossession haunts the author’s narrative. For example on the title page we find this quote.
“When European men came to this country it was in a state of ecological balance. Certain grasses grew, certain animals grazed and certain people lived. They were nomads.”
In later sections the story resurfaces in different places as the author tells of how early family letters referred to Aboriginal people with the quote, “to the death of others at their hands, to the sad massacres and to the fact they were a wandering people”. Then in a final section Edgar directly considers the issue of her ancestor’s responsibility. She writes, “Thinking back it is quite clear that the early settlers, or colonists as they were called, could have no conscious feelings of guilt whilst they were settling this land which is as far as they were concerned and by their standards was not being used. How could they have had any feeling of guilt for they were sent out here at first as convicts and those in charge of convicts then many were sent out induced to go as pauperised migrants to be made better off financially and at the same time to get the wool off the sheep’s back. As well others were sent out to try and cure chest complaints with our warm sunny climate.”
In this book we see how family histories can be a site for rationalising or trying to make sense of ancestors’ actions in ways that tap into family stories that we inherit but also wider colonial narratives and mythologies.
Along with genres of reproducing silences there were also clear examples of authors trying to challenge silences within their family stories. For example getting into the 1990s I started to notice more of these acknowledgment of country-type sections in the opening pages of family histories. In these people acknowledged that the land their families settled on was not uninhabited even if this is what has been passed down to them in family stories.
There are also more involved cases where authors attempt to fill in the silences via their own research into local history and Aboriginal history. Brian Walsh’s [Tokel’s] 35:40 First European Settler from 1999 is a good example of this.
Walsh begins the book by talking about his ancestor, James Philip Webber’s arrival in Sydney from London in 1822. He then traces his move to [Tokel] in the lower Hunter Valley of New South Wales to take up a land grant later that year. This chapter ends with the ominous line, “when James arrived in [Tokel] in March 1822 with four servants and six tons of baggage he did not move onto unoccupied land.”
I want to tell you a bit about the following chapter entitled, After the Dreaming, where Walsh seeks to fill in family silences. Walsh does not just accept that because the family did not talk about indigenous settler relations as part of Webber’s story that they did not take place. He consults other sources to see what occurred in the region at the time including Wonnarua scholar, James Miller’s 1985 book, Koori: A Will to Win. He writes, “when James Webber moved to [Tokel] in March 1822 it was most likely occupied by the Gringai clan of Wonnarua people. James Webber’s relation with the local Kooris is not known. Between 1820 and 1825 there is no recorded conflict between the Gringai and settlers in the lower Hunter area.”
But pressing further Walsh finds insights in local histories. He writes, “However in 1822 Major Morisset recorded that the military posts at Wallace and Paterson Plains, each had three soldiers and constable to protect the settlers against” – and he quotes from the primary source here – “the black natives who were very savage at that particular time”.
Walsh also gathers evidence from family histories written by descendants from other settler families in that area and to quote him again, “Edward Corey, a settler at Paterson not far from James Webber, came into conflict with the Gringai”. A descendent of Corey writes, “The Corey suffered their own losses, their barns and haystacks were burned, their sheep attacked, their workmen speared”.
Walsh finds primary sources that document the Gringai sharing knowledge about seasons and local farming practices with settlers in the area. The chapter affirms sustained occupancy and agricultural use of the land by the Wonnarua people for thousands of years including and beyond the time when Webber arrives. At the end of the chapter Walsh reframes his ancestor’s arrival from the recorded Koori perspective.
In texts like this one there is an attempt to counter colonial storytelling and seek other knowledge and perspectives that might shake inherited family accounts. So that is an insight into some of the diverse narrative work I found across the sample of family histories of settlement. While we can see that they are often very personal stories written by and for the family the self-published family histories held here in the print collection also hold powerful information about how history circulates within families as people work through stories, secrets, silences and myths or the colonial storytelling that we inherit at home.
To finish I’m going to take a very brief, and I promise very brief, tour into some work I have begun unpacking colonial storytelling within my own family. So while I’ve been interested in other people’s family histories for almost 10 years I’ve been very careful not to become too interested in my own. Working with family historians I’ve seen just how addictive it is and I imagine that my academic research would go down the gurgler if I fell into finding forebears. But for this project I thought it was important that I ask my research questions of myself too. What stories were told in my family about indigenous settler relations and how might working through these stories offer me a space to listen and learn about history?
Nicole McClellan from the ADB gave me a nice phrase for this kind of work. She called it method writing like method acting or the feeling of what it is actually like to do the work that you are observing and analysing.
My father is a Glaswegian so he is not much help to me in this but my mother’s family arrived in Port Macquarie on the mid-north coast of New South Wales in 1840, only 20 years after it was established as a penal colony. Asking myself what stories I was told about this history I remembered as a kid going through boxes of old slides at my Nan and Pop’s house and seeing a photograph of an Aboriginal man holding an echidna. Why was this slide set amongst other family photos of camping trips and wedding days in the possession of my family?
The photograph it turns out was taken by my ancestor, Thomas Dick. Writing about him the archaeologist, Isabel McBryde, says Thomas Dick’s world was not the cosmopolitan circuit played by the intellectual leaders of anthropology, it was that of a small fishing town. Born in 1877 Thomas was an oyster farmer and an amateur photographer, uneducated beyond primary school but deeply passionate about history, the science of oyster-culturing and the tradition of the local Birpai people.
On weekends between 1910 and 1920 Thomas took hundreds of glass plate photographs, staging Birpai people in precontact scenes in an effort to capture what he thought influenced by European scholarship at the time were the precious knowledge and practices of a dying race.
In researching his life here at the Library I have found his photographs published as postcards in the 1920s, an original copy of a paper he wrote about shield-making practices which was presented at a conference on his behalf, and his writings about local history in The Port Macquarie News via Trove.
But my most important find has been John Heath’s 2018 book, Birpai: Beyond the Lens of Thomas Dick. John Heath is a Birpai scholar and a grandson of one of the women in the photographs, Grace Bark. The preface to his book describes the strange moment when he sees one of Thomas Dick’s photographs in the Port Macquarie Museum and recognises his own grandmother as a young woman. [They] 42:53 posed as if she had lived a century before.
Where Thomas tried to freeze time or wind it back with his photographs John unfreezes them by talking about the lives of the Birpai people in the photographs and the very real colonial processes that were affecting them in the 1920s and beyond, being forced on and off reservations – reserves, sorry. While Thomas was documenting another time, seemingly not imagining a future for his collaborators.
I want to show you one of the photographs – and I show this with permission from John and the Thomas Dick Collection’s family stakeholder groups and in accordance with the cultural protocols that they’ve developed for use of this photographic collection. I chose this one because it captures the impossible fiction of Thomas’ arcadian vision. Taken in 1912 to simulate the sighting of The Endeavour in 1770 he later draws a ship on the horizon onto the glass plate negatives. I don’t know if you can see it that well here, I tried to darken the – you can see it? Okay, good. So Thomas did not include the names of people in his caption and it’s John that has done this work of identifying the men pictured and he tells their life stories in his book.
Like the genres of silence I described before Thomas’ photographs by recasting time silence the true experience of indigenous settler relations in that region in that moment but also capture, as Behrendt argues all colonial storytelling does, the distorting narrative of the coloniser. In an act of truth-telling John brings into focus the intercultural relationships that happen out of frame and documents the impact of colonisation including the ethnographic gaze on the Birpai community.
Reading John’s history, which is a history of both of our families, has made me want to understand my own family’s role in colonial storytelling and to seek out a different truth about the history of the Hastings than the one I learnt at school and at home. So this part of the project is to be continued.
I want to finish with a quote from Tom Griffiths about the underacknowledged value of family histories. Talking about his time working as a field officer for the State Library of Victoria he writes, “These forms of history-making have often been overlooked because they were amateur, negative, unobserved, gossipy or genealogical. Family history, my experience at the library told me, had to be taken seriously”.
I have made a similar discovery in my time spent at this library by looking at stories that circulate within families as they are both written and told. We can explore a bigger question about how the family might be a space for truth-telling about the colonial past. Thank you for listening.
K: Thanks, Ashley, you’ve given us a lot to think about and I had similar views of my own family history which is don’t muck around with it if you’re a professional in any way but maybe I’ll be convinced otherwise. My family won’t thank for me that.
We have time for some questions so raise your hand and Cat and Narelle will pass you a microphone if you have any questions.
Au: You mentioned some of the family histories, they regard the land as unoccupied so we come back to use the term, terra nullius. Did the terra nullius concept continue after the Mabo decision in the family histories that you know of and after the Mabo is there a possibility that the word invasion began to be used in the family histories?
A: To answer the first part of the question it definitely – that notion of uninhabited land continued after Mabo like in terms of the dates of the family histories I was reading. To answer the second part of your question I actually found that people were using the term, invasion and invaders more in earlier texts than in later ones which surprised me. Then – so I was looking at some kind of secondary writings from historians who have written a lot about that period and they also confirmed that the use of those terms like white invader, invader, invasion were much more common in earlier works than actually later. People stopped using that terminology and you can see in that 2016 public backlash to the pamphlet produced for teachers this type of contemporary response to that language.
Au: Thank you for a very enlightening talk. I’m just wondering given you’ve been through many tens of family histories in detail whether at a personal level what you found was most either surprising or shocking in these family histories ‘cause I'm sure they varied a lot in quality, in depth, in length etc and I’m just interested in whether there was something really unexpected at more the personal level rather than in terms of your research although it might inform that as well.
A: Look, it is so incredibly diverse what they aim to do. I mean I found that one of the things that really struck me about it is there’s often these very candid accounts of the kinds of conflict that go on in families around the writing of family histories. Particularly when I got the chance to look at different editions of the same family history I could hear this conversation explicitly sometimes but sometimes implicitly playing out around new information being allowed to be included in the edition or information being taken out on the other hand. So that was something that really struck me, the way that family historians write about their work as a process, as something – and often like much more than any kind of professional academic histories will say I haven’t got all this right, I know that and it’s been biased because I’ve got letters from this side of the family and this side of the family don’t talk to anyone.
So they’ll talk about that really historiographic issue around perspective and bias and those kinds of things and often have their phone number and email, please contact me if there’s stuff that I’ve missed or that you don’t like or that kind of thing. So I think that’s one – like as one answer that really kind of in process idea of what a family history is.
Au: It might be a little bit too early but are you – do you think you’re going to see some significant change in the way the family narrative is articulated with DNA results that are now sort of becoming much more part of the family history, the fact that people are finding out things that they never imagined?
A: Yeah, there was no discussion of – like I’m working on a different project with a team of people that has stuff around DNA and ancestry but I didn’t find any discussion at all in the text I looked at around that stuff so I think that there will certainly be – and our family history librarians here would probably be able to talk to you about that more so. But it’ll definitely shape it and I think in good ways and bad like in some ways this notion of DNA testing can really reify like racialised ideas of what identity is in a pretty static way which can be troublesome. At the same time a colleague of mine, Jerome de Groot, is doing a lot of research around how family historians are working with this DNA and he’s found that people are unhappy with the way the sort of transcript that Ancestry gives you for this and so they’re like learning about genetics to create all these different ways of reading the data like wanting to find ways of accessing that raw data and reinterpreting it. So yeah, it’s a pretty live space, I think, but interesting to see how it will transform written family histories.
Au: I'm here with my daughter and my mother who’s 92 and is just about to publish a family history and she’s –
A: Oh wow and you’ve got three generations here.
Au: Yeah and she’s just – I wanted her to come to see the significance so thank you for that because of the biggest story – ‘cause some of the stories – they’ve just had a recent discussion with her sister. Well can I put this in about her father with a lot of family violence coming from the first world war who is going to be a – he was a Shakespearean actor and was going to go to America and then he’s gassed in the war and all these things happen and it turns out it’s been a good understanding for the family finding out really all that was was a lot of PTSD which they didn’t know at the time, he was told not to talk. Just thinking it’d be good to know a little bit too about your ideas on naming it, perhaps everybody’s interested in the name of it and what – you mentioned that but what’s the value and – to naming the book and how to do that?
A: Yeah. I mean I think that – in the way that it opened it up to me of what it’s about because I guess one thing that family histories can do is that they can destigmatise what families are. We have this perfect idea of what a family should be but no families are like that and that’s like in my research about secrets like all families just have the same secrets so why are we all keeping this from each other? So I think that there’s something powerful that family histories can do to destigmatise these ideas about something like family violence as you’ve mentioned. To call your story something that opens that up to people, I think it means that it’s not just for the family or it doesn’t have to just be for the family, it could also be a resource for people wanting to understand kind of questions and lineages of family violence within their own family through empathising and learning from your experience. So I think that that’s what maybe a title can do, is opens it up to different audiences.
Au: A couple of years ago a book was published written by a Canberra author called Cotter and it was about the friendship between an Irish convict in the 1820s who was sent out to Canberra at the limit of settlements, outside the settlements for transgressing on some work gang up near Goulburn. Now that’s about an Irish convict and the other side of it is about the relationship he formed with the Aboriginal leader here in Canberra at that time. My background - I’ve written my family history – is Irish and German so I’m just asking the question, the history gets written from the [ascendency] 54:28 at the time and therefore the silences are parallel and I would argue that there’s only a few people who’ve written – like there’s a few people writing books about Irish history and how it relates to Australia but a lot of times it gets written from the bushranger point of view, Ned Kelly, or from Peter Lalor, in Eureka Stockade.
But the actual – the amount of people that came here as free settlers as well as convicts from say Ireland isn’t very well pursued in a lot of historical books when you go looking for it ‘cause I went looking for it when I was writing my history and I couldn’t find an awful lot. It was always written by historians but it was always based on the great man and the - great white man sort of basis so I find it very interesting running alongside the neglected unwritten history of the indigenous people who lived here well before us sort of stuff. So I think lots of – and at the same time my father was interned during the war so there’s a lot of undocumented history from that side of things as well that hasn’t been written. There’s a lot of oral history out there like Italians in the cane fields and Germans in the Barossa but there’s still a lot of unwritten history that hasn’t been done about that.
A: Yeah. I mean that’s something that’s fascinated me through doing this work is to see that there’s different stories told in family histories than there are at the national level like it is an incredibly rich resource for history in general and the different stories. As I was saying before like a big part of that I think is a lot of family history’s written by women or family histories that are written by men often will say the information that I'm writing about here are stories that I have been told by my grandmother and aunties and mother so it’s a different source of knowledge. Yeah so can I just ask for that text you mentioned, is it Cotter? Katter?
A: Was it with a C or a K?
Au: C-o-t-t-e-r. [unclear] 56:50.
A: Thank you.
Au: Hi, I was just wondering how your research is fitting in with the international –
A: I just can’t see where you are.
Au: Yeah so how family histories are researched internationally and if there’s a movement also internationally around that and if there are certain maybe immigrant communities or diasporas that are focusing on family histories at the moment?
A: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, certainly like I'm part of a network that’s called International Family History Network which is scholars from all over the world researching family history. I think much less on the texts, a lot of it is about oral family history or the practices of people writing family history. We’ve also got a fellow here currently, Alex Delios, who’s writing – I don’t know if you know her. You can come to her talk which will be at some point but she’s writing about Greek migrant communities and family memory so there’s certainly a lot of research going on around family history and migrant communities in Australia and internationally. I’m happy to chat to you after and give you some names and references and stuff if that’s helpful.
Au: You mentioned briefly that there were more histories written by women than by men. In your studies what were the main differences in focus and emphasis that you found in those writings? What were they more interested in portraying or emphasising in their histories of their families?
A: I mean in a way it’s like I’m hesitant to say it ‘cause I don’t want to re kind of inscribe this thing about women are more emotional ‘cause I think that’s not true but it’s certainly - emotion was something that came up so much more in the text written by women. The way that emotion did things in families, the kinds of effects that it had like particularly even when I was looking at as I mentioned the stuff around frontier violence like they would talk about the men and like their fear, all this anxious like they’re going out of their mind like - the representations of men by men certainly don’t capture that aspect. So yeah, I think emotion was a big part of the thing that I noticed that women were much more open about and I’ve coded up particular parts of texts to try and get a sense of exactly how that works within the narrative. But it’s something I’d like to think about more so thank you for the question, it’s a provocative one.
K: One last question.
Au: Just a question about how a family history is determined. If you call something a family history does it have to cover a certain number of generations? When the NLA accepts books are they X number of generations and if not through your research did you find that generally it was two, three generations included in a book?
A: Yeah, I mean I don’t think that – I don’t think the NLA makes any kind of – there were some that came up that I would have thought would be – I’d think they’re more of a memoir, it’s a memoir about my mother’s life or my father’s life and they were much more focused on a particular person and just that really close-knit generation. But for my purposes I was definitely selecting texts that have that multigenerational view because I want to think in a longitudinal way how these stories go across like a long period of time. But yeah, certainly there’s a big difference like a lot of the texts would just be much more focused on – one of the things I found actually was that people were really just interested in when their family arrived in Australia and after that. Like there’d be sort of a couple of pages at the beginning of like Ireland or Scotland or something and then quickly getting onto what happened here so that was certainly something I noticed.
K: Alright well Ashley, thank you very much.
A: Thank you.
K: Will you please join me in thanking Ashley for I think what was a really –
K: - and a fascinating dig into our collections to reveal all sort of information that was probably never intended by those who wrote it but reveals so much about the society we live in which is great. Would you please join us upstairs for a drink and you’ll be able to ask many more questions of Ashley which I’ve half a dozen already so thank you all.
A: Yeah, thank you very much for coming and listening, I appreciate it a lot. Thank you.
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