Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Reclaiming the Ancestral Past: Narrative, Rhetoric and the `Convict Stain'

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Reclaiming the Ancestral Past: Narrative, Rhetoric and the `Convict Stain'

Article excerpt

Convicted for stealing two law books at the age of 14 or 15, Matthew Everingham was transported to Australia on the First Fleet in 1788. Remorseful over the severity of the sentence, the lawyer from whom Matthew had stolen the books corresponded with him in his years of exile. Elizabeth Rimes, convicted of stealing a blanket and sheet at age 17, was transported in 1790 on a Second Fleet ship, the Neptune, many of whose passengers died in transit. In time, Matthew and Elizabeth married and produced nine children. Upon the completion of their sentences, they farmed in several locations and endured many hardships, including flogging, natural disasters, and violent conflict with Aborigines. Matthew is remembered for his explorations seeking a route through the Blue Mountains that separate Sydney from the interior. He was also appointed a district constable, in which position he died in 1817. Today, there are some 7,000 Australian Everinghams, both White and Black. Matthew and Elizabeth are remembered in many genealogies, family histories and sundry other publications. (Adapted from Everingham, 1988)


The 20th century was marked by the growth of political democracy throughout much of the world. Within nominally democratic societies, the franchise has been extended successively to previously excluded categories of people, most notably women, racial and ethnic minorities, and the economically dispossessed. Attendant on the democratization of state and society, or perhaps in its wake, there has also emerged a democratization of culture as diverse groups of citizens have demanded that their experiences and histories be admitted into the canon of civilization.

The idea that `ordinary' lives possess value and are worthy of remembrance provides the point of departure for this paper. In the case of war, for example, Laqueur (1994) dates the `democracy of death' to January 1915. Prior to that date, he argues, the European war dead were consigned to common graves and might be commemorated in the names of their commanding officers or even regimental mascots. After that date, `a new era of remembrance began: the era of the common soldier's name or its self-conscious and sacralized oblivion' (Laqueur, 1994: 152; for Australia, see Inglis, 1998: Ch. 2, 179-89).

In a similar vein, genealogy--tracing family trees in terms of vital statistics (i.e. records of births, marriages and deaths or BMDs)--has been transformed from a means for validating lineage status claims into a heritage activity for restoring individual ancestors to living memory, without regard to rank (Dulong, 1986). Contemporary genealogists attempt to cloak BMD records with stories celebrating lives lived, in their time and place. Genealogy's popular appeal is reflected in Australians' answers to the following question in a national survey in 1999: `How interested are you personally in learning about your family tree or your family's history?' (Gow et al., 2000). Almost 42 percent claimed to be `very interested', 46.6 percent `somewhat interested' and only 11.5 percent `not at all interested'. In the same survey, approximately a quarter of the sample reported that they had searched for information about their family tree or family history on the Internet.

Gergen and Gergen (1983: 270-2) identify five features of a well-crafted narrative or story: (1) the `establishment of a goal state' gives purpose to a story and establishes it as worth telling; (2) `selection of events relevant to the goal' includes personal attributes of the principal characters that make achievement of the goal problematic; (3) the establishment of a temporal order within the story directs attention to its intended lesson; (4) asserted or implied `causal linkages' between story events give it coherence; and (5) various conventional `demarcation signs' mark the story's boundary, providing a recognizable beginning and ending. …

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