Oh the joys of the internet. More sites than you could possibly explore even in a grossly extended lifetime. So many: too many? That was how I felt when I decided to do a ‘quick’ online search for some information about family history.
Glaring back at me were 90 million sites which claimed they might be able to tell me something about my ancestry. How on earth was I to wade through this virtual sea of flashing advertisements, ‘read my success story’ case studies, and black and white pictures of desolate looking children in 19th century overalls? I took my chances with one particular site whose home page claimed in large blinking letters ‘WE KNOW WHO YOU ARE’. The next step on said website invited me to enter in my surname to help them in their search for my roots. Smith-that really narrows it down. Unsurprisingly, my brief flirtation with these few genealogy websites didn’t reveal any family scandals, aristocratic roots or illegitimate children, but my curiosity was not deterred.
In reality the results of my little investigation wouldn’t have produced anything that my family don’t already know. I am lucky enough to have a grandfather who has spent his thirty year retirement avidly researching our family history and has discovered some truly fascinating things in the process. His journey through the hundreds of archives, church records and registry offices began with the simple discovery of his grandfather’s death certificate and the realisation that the name had been printed incorrectly. From one piece of paper to thirty years of detailed research and discovery. Why? He seemed a little perplexed when I asked him. ‘It becomes a compulsion’ he said ‘the more you discover the more you want to know’.
Millions of people try to trace their roots every year. A recent poll by the market researchers Maritz has shown that the number of people researching their family history is up 45% from five years ago. What is even more staggering is that 35 million Americans said they had researched their family history on the internet- that’s nearly half of all American internet users.
Ok, so there is one big glaring question in all this: Why? What’s the big deal? The funny thing is, that it’s not just our own backgrounds that interest us, but those of others too. Take the BBC programme ‘Who do you think you are’- why did 6.3 million viewers care about the distant exploits of some incessantly annoying celebrities’ father’s mother’s father’s brother’s wife?
For me this is a big question. Is family history gripping because it gives you a sense of where you came from, or because researching it is just a bit of light entertainment? Does tell you something about who you are actually are, or is it just a collection of half interesting stories? Can it reveal anything about your inner character, explain your traits, make sense of your habits and shed light on the fundamental dynamics of the way your immediate family functions…or is it just a bit of fun?
Historically, of course, genealogy was hugely important in dictating who you were, your status in life and the way you were treated. It was so important that several Anglo Saxon Kings had their ancestry traced back to the God Woden – ambitious genealogical research indeed. In the Indian state of Bihir there is a written tradition of genealogical records among the Maithil Brahmins and Karna Kayasthas called ‘panjis’ which date back to the twelfth century CE. Even today these records are still consulted prior to marriage. But in our modern day society, the fundamental importance of your background has faded somewhat. Nothing your distant ancestors did will directly affect your own path; in reality they are people we have never known and never will know and most probably have little to nothing in common with. Despite all this it seems incredibly hard to tear your emotions away from what you discover.
Let me give you an example. In the process of research it was discovered that one of my great great (plus a few more greats) grandfathers was in the navy during the battle of Trafalgar. On closer research it came to light that this lieutenant John Smith (sadly not the same one that married Pocahontas) had pushed a man overboard. The man had died. Ridiculous as it may seem, I found myself making desperate excuses for this John Smith. Perhaps it was an accident, perhaps it was self defence, perhaps there was some terrible insult done to my ancestor, a previous murder maybe or an affair? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
Having given it a huge amount of thought I still can’t work out why I so badly want to excuse him. Does what he did make me a murderer? Of course not. I’m just person who hears the story with a twang of emotion that others probably wouldn’t experience. Maybe I could give you another example. Another great, great, great, grandfather of mine was a lieutenant in the East India company Army during the 1857 Indian mutiny and the siege of Cawnpore (modern day Kanpur). Of a population of seven hundred British men, only four survived the massacre by swimming six miles down the Ganges River to safe territory- my ancestor was one of the four. What is this to you? An interesting story I expect. What is it to me? A fascinating twist of fate without which I would not exist.
I asked my Granddad if there has ever been anything in all his searches that he would have preferred not to have known. He pauses, perhaps tellingly, and then answered, ‘No, it’s still fascinating’. This is a pretty big thing for my grandfather. About two years ago, having just installed broadband and being able to spend much more time searching through internet sites, he discovered that his own mother had had an illegitimate child in 1918, ten years before he was born. He had never had any idea and is almost certain his father didn’t either. The child, Phyllis, now a 91 year old lady, was adopted when she was two and has apparently spent her whole life wanting to know who her family were but being told she should never try to find out. Tragically, Phyllis is now gripped by dementia and was confused and unsettled when my grandfather went to meet her for the first time.
There is something desperately sad about this story. For Phyllis, the women who always felt lost; for my grandfather, who will never properly know his sister; and for his mother, who lived her life in silence, never being able to tell those she loved about the child she lost. For me, this more than anything captures the essence of what I’m talking about – stories which really are so much more than just stories.