Discovering an ancestor's crime creates a burden for a present day family member.
Who can or should you tell? Do others really want to know the details? What do you do with this "sensitive" knowledge, particularly when the crime is of a heinous nature?
I've carried that burden with me for some time now in relation to my great, great, great grandfather, William Adams, a labourer from the village of Tingewick, Buckinghamshire who committed a very serious crime - even by today's standards - and was subsequently transported to Australia in 1844 for it.
Although most Australians are now proud to claim convicts as legitimate family members, my impression is that our proud embrace of convicts is strangely selective.
A petty thief, a trickster, political agitator or a prostitute in the family is nowadays a source of great pride. The rogue, the under-dog, the victim motivated in their "wrong doing" by economic circumstances, appears perfectly legitimate .
But who really wants to claim a murderer or rapist for an ancestor?
The first chapter of my book, Opening Chapters which I wrote in 2001, tells William's story.
I carefully crafted a precis for the web so that distant family members could contact me if they required "the sensitive details" which have (until now) been suppressed. I wished not to offend others in the family who I suspected felt uncomfortable about its publication.
The precis reads:
Chapter 1 - William Adams & The Tingewick Labourers : Reflections on an Ancestral Crime & Conviction
In this Chapter I review the history of my great, great grandfather, William Adams who was convicted and transported to Australia to serve a life sentence for ************, in 1843. He was transported on ‘The Agincourt’ which sailed on the 28th of June, 1844 from Downs and landed at Norfolk Island on the 9th of November that same year. William was transferred to Van Diemen’s Land in 1847 and worked as a labourer on the famous Woolmers Estate at Longford until 1850. He was given a Ticket of Leave on the 7th of March 1854 and was conditionally pardoned on the 22nd of April, 1856. William married Elizabeth Southernwood in 1853 and sired thirteen children including my great grandmother, Mabel Ruth Howard nee Adams.
William's life journey is amazing. The details of his crime, trial, punishment and transportation as well as his new life after being issued a ticket of leave are fascinating, and I now think deserve scrutiny.
How did I come to this decision?
I think it might have something to do with my first posting on this blog which raised similar issues regarding the depiction of intimate moments and whether there are subjects which are off-limits to Art. If you roll your mouse back to that posting you'll see that one critic ardently believed that there are experiences which are so personal (the birth of a child, the death of an elderly loved one) that they should necessarily and always be kept out of the public gaze(Mueck Mania, 25 February, 2010).
The idea that anything unseemly in family life (and by extension, family history) needs to be hidden and silenced disturbs me. Would depictions of child abuse or wife beating also be included in the list of hushed subjects?
I am not arguing for dragging family skeletons before the public for ridicule or going out of one's way to rub noses in historical dirt.
Feelings of shame or hurt are obviously heightened the closer the person is to the perpetrator of an actual crime or the perceived transgression committed by a member of one's tribe. But I wonder for how long others are expected participate in a de facto conspiracy of silence?
Should we really be colluding in a never ending cover-up and censorship of the information? Should later generations of family members never be allowed to know about the crime committed?
Please correct me if you think my logic is unreasonable but I've started thinking that staying silent - mainly because of others' quivering sensibilities and squeamishness - about a crime committed by a relative 166 years ago is bordering on the ridiculous!
What is there to fear? What is there to be ashamed of? Others in my family need to consider these questions. Is there some irrational sense in which we feel our connection to William and his crime "taints" us?
And for how long should anyone be defined or characterized by a crime they committed?
It might be argued that this depends on how serious the crime was but I still wonder whether if it is right to only see William as a criminal - and nothing else but a criminal?
To fill in the censored section of the precis above:
In this Chapter I review the history of my great, great grandfather, William Adams who was convicted and transported to Australia to serve a life sentence for aiding and abetting in the rape of an itinerant peddlar, Ann Pepper and assault on her husband, in 1843.
Of course there is no need to justify, excuse or explain away what William did. My sympathies are squarely with his victims. In the book I write:
When finding out about the rape of Ann Pepper I searched endlessly for online Pepper family trees, raked over databases, looked through birth, marriage and death records and censuses - all without luck. What beame of Ann and her husband? Did they have children? Has a descendant of the Peppers taken an interest in family history and discovered the awful events that befell his or her forebears? I keep imagining the couple trudging across the English countryside with heavy sacks slung over their backs hoping to make a sale at the Tingewick Fair. I see them before me, their hair is dishevelled, sweat pouring down thier necks. They are tired, thirsty, hungry, worried whether they will have enough money to pay for lodgings by the end of the day, a day that would blight their lives forever. Family history research often catapults one into the past life-worlds of strangers who play their parts in the drama of an ancestor. In the excitement of unearthing a new and significant family story we can forget that the 'bit players' are the protagonists for someone else - for a member or descendant of another family.
After a century and a half a family secret has been been uncovered. I appreciate that the crime was a great source of anxiety for the Adamses - and the Peppers - who struggled to build a respectable life for themselves in its shadow.
I rather think, however, we should take some interest in what William became. As the Archer family diaries show, he was a highly valued and trusted worker at Woolmers Estate in the Tasmanian Midlands. He was a husband and father who successfully raised several children, suffered the tragic death of a son and became a fairly well heeled property owner in his own right. He sponsored (and paid for) other members of his family back in impoverished Tingewick to migrate to the colony. In fact William turned their fortunes around - for the better - in the long run.
When I visited William's grave in Tasmania some time back I was reminded of what George Eliot had to say about our forgotten ancestors, their hidden lives and what connects them to us and our present day prosperity:
For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.