Originally published at my RedBubble portfolio, 2010.
The visitors’ centre is busy today.
Children rummage through boxes of plush toy horses.
History books line the shelves.
Tall boards detail the local identities.
There is one face from history that intrigues me.
Something familiar about that man’s profile.
A century-old photograph enlarged and grainy.
Captions and paragraphs detailing the life of a convict and gambler.
He settled this place long ago.
He raised a family there.
Spent his wife’s inheritance.
Left her for another woman.
The guide laughs at the old gambler’s life.
It’s one of those amusing biographies from an era long-past.
“Let’s talk about…” The guide points to a different board.
Where a heroic settler is remembered for his greatness.
This other man, the gambler, his profile is tucked in the corner.
It’s not the centrepiece.
His house is in a lonely part of the island.
A tiny little poster mentions his family.
Tell me more. I want to know.
My grandfather steps up to the display.
He looks up at the image of the gambler and adulterer,
the convict who abandoned his wife and children.
I see it then. In the face of my grandfather.
In the face in the black-and-white photo.
The same shape. The same brow.
The same jawline. The same expression.
That old gambler. He may have been an historical quirk.
A joke to the guides at the park.
A man who lived a life of debauchery and crime;
but I am his descendant.
A direct line inherited in my blood.
In the blood of my grandfather.
This old gambler. I was born into the same family name.
I have the same jaw and brow.
The old gambler and convict and adulterer.
What does it mean to carry these bloodlines?
Does it even matter a century later?
The Australian dilemma.
Written January 2010.
A few years ago, I attended a family reunion on an Australian island (Churchill Island) that was settled by my great-great-great-great grandfather (not entirely sure how many generations ago!). As most of my ancestors came to Australia as free settlers, it was something of a shock to uncover a convict past. This man who was stereotyped by the visitor centre as a drunkard, gambler, adulterer and all-round dodgy-guy was a direct ancestor.
My most distinct memory of the day was seeing my late grandfather looking up at the photo of our ancestor and seeing the family resemblance: they may as well have been brothers or twins.
[Edit, May 2016: I hasten to add that while my grandfather may have borne a physical resemblance to his great grandfather (however many generations removed) he by no means emulated the lax morals of our convict ancestors… I also now would reconsider my use of “settlement” narrative in regards to my later studies in Indigenous Australian history, as “invasion” may well be a more fitting term.]