Travels with my ancestors #2: Darkness and light in family history
Every family history contains its shadows: people or events we might prefer to remain in the dark.
The problem with ignoring them is that we are only getting half a history: rather than the full story of our ancestors and the worlds they lived in, we get a trimmed, sanitised, unsatisfying narrative. We are no closer to understanding the context of our ancestors’ lives and the times in which they lived.
In my family history writing, I have chosen to incorporate information which can be confronting, because I want to present a richer, more truthful story of their lives.
I haven’t done this to make anyone feel guilty or resentful. We can only understand the wider history of this country and its people if we are mature enough to look at the darkness as well as the light.
There is the inevitable theme of ‘land grants’ given by colonial authorities to many of my ancestors, who came here either in chains or as free immigrants. It is important to remember that this land was taken by the British government as theirs to give: however, it was never ceded by those who came first—indigenous Australians. All land purchased by non-indigenous people since colonisation in 1788 is therefore based on the same error.
In writing about my ancestors, I have tried to refer to the places in which they lived by the original names, the ones used by the First Nations of Australia, as well as the names commonly used today. I have consulted maps and online sources for this: any errors are my own.
The so-called ‘frontier wars’ of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (more accurately called the wars of resistance, or Australian wars) were widespread and prolonged. They were the result of First Nations people being forced off their lands, away from livelihoods, history and sacred places: the Country to which they had been deeply and profoundly linked for millennia. The wars featured horrible violence, massacres, and sickening atrocities. As with any war, violence was perpetrated on both sides.
I have no evidence that my family forebears were directly involved in such acts of violence. It is possible that some were. But what is undeniable is that by arriving here (willingly or unwillingly) and settling on land, building homes, fencing off land for livestock or crops, and changing the landscape, they contributed to the dispossession of First Nations people.
I believe it is possible to stay with the discomfort of simultaneously feeling proud of what our forebears endured and achieved, while recognising the part they played in this fracturing of ancient cultures and ways of being.
It’s all part of our real, collective Australian story. By acknowledging it, even if that is difficult, we can better understand our own place here. To feel truly Australian, we must connect with all parts of Australia’s past—even the darker ones.
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Beautifully stated and written Denise!!
Thank you for reading Susie!
Thank you for your thoughtful article, Denise. I have been reflecting on the article. My family received land grants. In those early days, if settlers purchased land they received an adjoining parcel of land for free. One result being that white European settlers spread further out from Sydney. The effect of these grants continued down through the generations for all. Lots to consider Denise …
Thanks Joy and yes, there’s much to think about when you start digging into this stuff and reflecting.