Writing Public Colonial Family History

FT_Oct2013_cover-212x300This summer I have been writing a series of articles for Family Tree Magazine, a small genealogy magazine in the UK with a print-run of about 32,000-35,000. The theme of the articles has been emigration from Britain to the British Empire in the nineteenth century – a mixture of what they wanted when they commissioned me, and what I wanted to do with the pieces once I started writing them. What was initially supposed to be two 1,500-word articles (one on Australia & New Zealand, the other on Canada) has grown into four articles of 1,500-2,000 words on Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand. The first was published in the October issue (published in September), and the plan is to have one a month over the next four months. I don’t know yet what the reception has been, but I have decided to take it as a good sign that the original commission doubled after the first piece was written!

emilymanktelowblogpicWriting these articles has been an interesting and informative experience. Migration is not my research speciality, but is something I have taught on for a few years now – though most recently in terms of immigration to Britain, something I would like to also write on for the public. I went into the process with certain assumptions about what would be required, and what people would be interested in, as well (of course) with the expectations and requirements of the editor. Thus the first piece focussed on female migration to Australia, and while the first draft was filled with facts, figures and dates, it soon morphed into something more crammed full of quotes and anecdotes. Surprisingly, it was the quotes and ‘colour’ that got cut in the editing room (having submitted an article more than 500 words over the remit – as usual!), while many of the facts and figures remained. My first assumption, then, on what the public would want was knocked off its pedestal.

'Wards of the nation--their first vacation from school'. First Nations' Residential School Students returning for 'vacation'.  Harper's Weekly (1899)

‘Wards of the nation–their first vacation from school’ (Harper’s Weekly, 1899)
First Nations’ residential school students returning home for ‘vacation’.

In the second article, on Canada, the piece evolved into something rather more melancholy, with a focus on the appropriation of indigenous land, and the child migration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, with a particular focus on the scandals associated with the Dr Bernardo’s Homes. Again, I wasn’t sure what  the editors would make of it, particularly the sections on indigenous history, and meanwhile I was worrying that the first article had not talked at all about the Aboriginal peoples of Australia – mostly because of the extremely tight word limit (no excuse; lesson learned). When the edits for the second article came back, however, I was pleased to see that rather than cut or tone down the section on Canadian First Nations history, the sub-editor had picked out this sentence as a page quote (to be highlighted on the page): ‘The story of indigenous peoples in the empire is a difficult one to confront, but one we should all be aware of, whether we have family connections to that history or not.’ While the section was by no means revolutionary, and felt far too small, again my assumption that readers would only want the Niall Ferguson version of imperial history was quickly dismantled.

Meanwhile, I had been in conversation with the editor about my worries concerning the first article’s lack of aboriginal history, and while she was unable to provide extra space in the magazine, she did suggest that I could post a blog on their website. I was pleased to do so, and the blog can be found here: http://family-tree.co.uk/2013/09/aboriginal-family-history/

I’ve not of course had any kind of final verdict on the articles; nor have they exactly made a bold stand in the writing of imperial history! The circulation of the magazine is small, and if there is any feedback for the article, I will probably never see it. But writing these articles has been a great experience – methodologically as much as creatively! Having to think about how to write for a public audience, what will engage them, and how to express complex ideas in short order (not my strong suit) has been fantastically useful. For me, the ultimate aim was to start fleshing out what I mean when I talk about connecting family historians with scholars in colonial history. It’s a small start, and at the moment remains something of a one-way relationship, but I think it has been extremely useful (for me at least!), and has certainly reminded me not to make assumptions about what the public want to know about empire and family. How we can transform this into a meaningful relationship between academe and genealogy, is something I’m still working on…

FCRN Research Guide ImageThe offshoot of this, meanwhile, is the new Colonial Families Research Guide – currently under development, but preliminarily available with some general resources through the link above (https://colonialfamilies.wordpress.com/colonial-families-research-guide/). The aim is to gradually build up this guide with sections on emigration, immigration and trans-imperial migration. This will ideally become a finding aid for family historians excavating the colonial connections in their family tree – and hopefully we’ll get some good stories back in return! The guide should thus be useful to family historians and scholars alike, and we would love to hear any and all feedback on it – be it in the shape of additional resources, stories of using the materials highlighted, or colonial family stories more generally.

–    Emily Manktelow

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1 Response to Writing Public Colonial Family History

  1. David Guyton says:

    I have been reading your articles in Family Tree including the most recent one on New Zealand. I have done quite a lot of research one one branch of the Guyton family which has early connections with New Zealand and Australia and one of the marriages was to a Paula Manktelow who died in New Zealand in 1973. I am wondering whether you are related and whether you are interested in exchanging more information. Regarding the general theme of your website, I have also done quite a lot of research on several Guyton members who were missionaries in India and the Congo.

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