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.
This is the twelfth in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
Recently, due to visiting restrictions at my mother’s aged care home, I had to ‘visit’ with her via Zoom. Not ideal, especially for someone with serious vision and hearing impairments, but better than nothing. At least I got to see her face and she could (more or less) hear me. We had just over thirty minutes together, and Mum began by wondering if she’d just come back from an overseas trip.
That led to talking about Covid-19 and how most international travel had been stopped since earlier this year.
To fill in a lull in the conversation, I asked, ‘If you could travel anywhere you wanted, where would you go?’ I thought I knew what her answer would be (a cruise along some famous European rivers, admiring castles and mediaeval abbeys as the boat slipped past German or French towns – a long time dream of Mum’s.)
I got it wrong. Mum thought for a while and then she surprised me.
‘Somewhere along the coastline, I think. I like looking out at the sea. I think I’d like to go to Scotland.’
I must have sounded as surprised as I felt, because Mum let out a peal of laughter.
‘I’ve never been to Scotland. I think I’d want to go somewhere I’ve never gone to before.’
This, I could understand. I also enjoy exploring new places, although old favourites can also exert their pull. But although Mum has done a respectable amount of travelling in her long life – much more, I’m sure, than she would have dreamt of as a younger woman – she has not been to any parts of Europe or the UK. Somewhere I’ve never been before did leave a fairly wide field to choose from.
So, why Scotland? I’m still not sure, but I had to agree it was a destination that left plenty of scope for our imaginations.
After discussing it a while longer, we agreed that on our trip, we would take in the Shetland Islands (inspired, for me at least, by the breathtaking scenery in the TV series Shetland. Plenty of sea scapes and coastline there for Mum.)
And, the Scottish Highlands, which would also (we hoped) include the odd castle or two.
We were both very satisfied with this itinerary.
In this time of Covid-19, when the only travel that most people can do is to dream, our conversation made us feel that we were aligned with the rest of the world. And given that it was a ‘virtual’ meeting, it seemed entirely appropriate to be planning a ‘virtual’ trip.
Whether real, virtual or imagined, travel does broaden our horizons and often teaches us new things. Mum’s travels continue and I’m happy about that.