The family tree


While frootling around in the old family tree the other day, I found some records which made me sit back and really consider the meaning of family.

They were the 1752 manumission records of my 7x great grandmother, Rachel van der Kaap, and her four children, freeing them from slavery at the request of their owner. The stated owner was Johann Andreas Bam, a baker of German descent. He was also Rachel’s partner and the father of her children.  Their youngest son Johan Christian was my direct ancestor. He was two years old at the time. A little boy the same age as my nephew, but whose life was world’s apart from Logan’s.

Can you imagine “owning” your children, or your wife?  Was it a real family as we would describe it, or just some variation on the master and slave theme? How would a happy or healthy family be possible under those circumstances? Was there love or just convenience?  I suppose it’s no good judging 18th century families by 21st century standards, but it’s hard not to question what kind of man he was.

Parenting styles and family life have moved on somewhat in 250 years, at least.  The world is different now, and aren’t we glad?

My gnarled and crooked family tree is full of examples like these. Give it a shake and all sorts of interesting people fall out – slaves, thieves, gravediggers and labourers and all of them, parents raising children. Nobody rich or famous, only ordinary people like me. Some were victims of circumstance, others were downright nasty. Some were both at the same time.

So who do you pick to put in your family album?  You can’t divide them into “good” and “bad”. You can’t pick and choose which heritage to acknowledge. They’re all part of me, of who my children are.

It would be wrong to say that I’m “proud” of any particular ancestor. Pride is something I reserve for people I actually know, and whose actions I can judge for myself in person. But I do feel a connection to all of them, and a need to remember them all.

I wonder what Johann and Rachel would make of their blonde blue-eyed great-grandchildren, living in world they could not begin to imagine?  Even more weirdly, what will my descendants look like 250 years from now, and what will they think of me? Will they even know my name?  

Heavy stuff this. 

Are you interested in your family tree?

Got questions about your ancestry? Ask our ancestry expert.
Read more by Tracy Engelbrecht
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