This will probably be one of my last posts about my journey to the Nordic lands, including my residencies with the Clipperton Project and SIM. I apologise in advance that this post is a bit all over the place. There is a lot going on in my head right now.
Wednesday morning I arrived by train to Drammen, the place where my ancestor Anton was documented as coming from. This step in the journey is the culmination of a lot of thinking, dreaming and imagining about my connection to the Nordic lands. And I have decided that the more I learn, the less I know.
Drammen is a river city, a pretty place, nestled in a valley along the river, with forest-covered mountains in all directions. Strangely enough, Drammen felt comfortable to me, not because of any real or imagined familial connection, but because of how it is now, right now, as opposed to the late 1800s when Anton left his homeland.
I sat in the cafe and people watched, noting people from many different places – it is a vibrantly multicultural place. Something similar that I do truly love about Australia. This is echoed in the variety of cuisine on offer – Turkish, Indian, Thai, Japanese, Pakistani and more. I realise that on a global scale our communities are becoming more heterogeneous, enriched by the diversity of cultures that travel to the new country. Migration has positives and negatives.
This in turn makes me think about the unbroken threads that First Nations peoples have with their culture. Threads that reach back thousands of generations. However, the tyranny of colonialism sought to deliberately break these ties through despicable means. For so many people there still remains lost connections to kin and country. I could not imagine the pain of such systematic cultural attack.
That said, I have had the benefit of connections with First Nations Peoples who do have strong and continued links to their country and culture. For some of these Nations the mother tongue is being revived, through the use of technology as well as through determination to strengthen culture.
On these matters I feel great hope and inspiration for what our community could look like – kids learning the First Nation language of the region at school, a shared knowledge of dreaming stories and a stronger connection to place for everyone. Also, there would be a greater understanding of managing the environment, intergenerational caring for family, and an open and honest telling of history. This awareness and sharing of Indigenous knowledge would make for a much better society in my humble opinion.
An unbroken thread to ancestors I have ultimately realised is something that I will never experience and something that I need to accept – grieve and move on. This is the fate of people of migrant ancestry. In my heart, I have known this all along, but this little glimmer of hope, a small flame urged me to look deeper anyway. No regrets.
My journey to Drammen made me realise how tenuous my knowledge about Anton is. In our family we had discussed that his name was different, though most of his arrival records documented him as ‘Benson’. This I now know, is not the case. We also assumed that because his point of departure from Norway was Drammen, that he came from here. Wrong again. After going to the Drammen town hall and with the help of the staff, I found out some new information about my ancestor. I learnt:
- His name was Berntsen – which literally means son of Bernt. This was the naming practice used at this time. His sisters were Berntdatter – Bernt’s daughters.
- He was not born in Drammen. The family lived in the nearby Hurum district and were recorded in the Parish census of 1865 – when Anton was 10. What makes it complicated is whether there was a separate church at Holmsbu, as the census covered the two parishes in the Buskerud district.
Unfortunately I do not have the time to go to Hurum, so I think a return visit is in order.
I have seen pictures of the Hurum Church (which dates back to 1150) and it is beautiful. Check out these pics.
Interestingly, the style of the church (long church) is intended to symbolise a ship – guiding the congregations towards God. Wikipedia says:
The ship with any aisles symbolizes the sacred path ( “via sacra”) from west to east and ward haunt during worship . Word ships symbolize church built like a ship with God’s people on board on its way across the sea of life to heaven harbor. The term ships of this part of the nave is international. The English word is nave .
It is obvious in Norway (and in the other Nordic places I have visited), that the sea was an incredibly powerful symbol – for the economy, cultural identity and even on a spiritual level. The boat represents abundance, mastery and mobility.
I am so happy that my journey to these lands started with joining the Clipperton Project aboard the Johanna. On reflection, I could not have asked for a better context for my Waters of the Past project.
What is also fascinating about the Hurum region is that there is evidence of humans living here much earlier that the 1oth century. This brochure promoting Hurum (PDF) talks about ancient stone carvings in the region.
In earlier posts about Anton, I talked about how our family speculated about him changing his name – which has now been confirmed. The mystery is when that occurred – did he change it when he jumped ship or earlier – when he joined the US Merchant Navy?
To be candid, I feel very sad about the loss of his original name. I understand at the time, that the patronymic naming practice was considered old-fashioned. By the end of the 19th century Norwegians were being encouraged to adopt a surname. Interestingly, Iceland still maintains a patronymic naming practice.
Anton’s branch of the family is not the only one in my family tree which was Anglicised – my German ancestors also changed their name. This was not uncommon in colonial Australia, where the non-English sought to fit in, otherwise suffer the consequences. An article titled The consequences of having a foreign name calls it ‘radical assimilation.’ When I was growing up, the German ancestry was sort of hidden, a source of shame for our family.
In Australia during WW1 and WW2 many people of German, Italian and Japanese heritage were interned in Prisoner of War camps as ‘enemy aliens’. National Archives has this information about the internment camps of WW1:
Initially only those born in countries at war with Australia were classed as enemy aliens, but later this was expanded to include people of enemy nations who were naturalised British subjects, Australian-born descendants of migrants born in enemy nations and others who were thought to pose a threat to Australia’s security.
Australia interned almost 7000 people during World War I, of whom about 4500 were enemy aliens and British nationals of German ancestry already resident in Australia.
Although my family came well before WW1, they could have been interned, which would have been horrific. It would have been a frightening prospect. No wonder when I was growing up, it was not a subject for dinner table conversation. Our family wanted to ‘fit in’. As far as I know, none of my ancestors were interned, but this is not something I have really looked into.
It is also interesting to note on the subject of radical assimilation, that on my father’s side of the family, the religion also changed to Anglican, the Church of England. There is some very interesting history in colonial Australia, particularly in the formation of the Federation that there was a strong preference to the Anglican Church. Donald Horne’s, The Lucky Country discusses this in some detail. I feel like I need to reconnect with Horne’s text given the new information about my family history.
There are many dark moments in Australian history, layers and layers of the shit (to be blunt). What concerns me greatly is that there has been a shift over the last 20 years to a less tolerant and accepting society. That people in the media and far-right politicians speaks so casually about introducing racist and bigoted policies that would create great social division. I do not want to name who these commentators are as I do not want to feed into this debate and give them air. Most of my readers will know who I am speaking of.
When I meditate on all of this – my family history, the broken threads, the need to assimilate, I can clearly see why racism and bigotry have been abhorrent to me from an early age. What was the biggest blessing for me growing up was the recognition of other ways of being. I am very grateful to have lived in Darwin as a young person in the late 70s and early 80s. It was an immense privilege to make friends from all over the world, including the Tiwi and Yolgnu cultures of Northern Australia. Without a doubt this experience has shaped me and continues to impact on how I see the world.
There is so much I need to digest, so much to think about. So many more questions. On that note, I think I will leave my divergent thoughts to another day – there is a lot that needs to be unpacked.
To conclude, I would like to go back to the beginning and simply state – I more I know, the less I know.
Thank you for following this journey.