Finding your family has never been easier, thanks to Auckland Libraries. Greg Bruce gets hooked.
I have never found it harder to start writing than I do right now; intoxicated, paralysed, debilitated by the desire - nay, the need - to type new and additional names, dates, life events and family members into the magical mystery boxes of the genealogy websites made freely available during lockdown by Auckland Libraries. Every inch of me wants to stop typing this sentence, open ancestry.com and spend hours there, disappearing into myself. Over the past few weeks, I have done exactly that, hitting return like a lab rat salivatorily chasing the hit of the historical titbit that might unlock the life of Henry Bruce, died 1916, Murringo, New South Wales, born circa 1840, parts unknown.
Henry, so mysterious, so intriguing that his obituary in the Young (NSW) Witness, 1916 was headlined: "An Interesting Personality" told everyone he was born in America but over the last three weeks, with the help of Auckland Libraries' family history librarian Seonaid Lewis, I have found not a single piece of evidence to support that claim. Who were you, Henry Bruce, and why do you seem to have appeared in Australia, age 20, without evidence of your prior existence beyond your own fantastically unlikely tale of high seas adventure?
Family history research is the adult version of the high school AV club: You really need someone to sell you on it, but once you're in, you're in. When you type that first ancestral name and date of birth and hit return and feel the sweet pay-off of the results page with its stream of blue, clickable links, maybe featuring the tantalising words "NSW Police Gazette", you understand immediately the power of knowing who you are.
People have been hooked on this stuff forever, but the barriers to entry have always been so high: long and frustrating visits to faraway libraries and sweaty archives; letters to hateful, distant clerks full of contempt and better things to do with their time. But now tech behemoths like ancestry.com and findmypast.com have arisen and swallowed into their swollen corporate bellies enormous quantities of official records from across the globe, you can sit in front of your computer from dawn to dusk and back again, forgetting to eat and drink and text your spouse, demanding the computer spew up at you the lives of your ancestors in all their mess and mystery.
It started with a Zoom call. Seonaid Lewis shared her screen with me, opened Australian online newspaper archive Trove, typed in my grandfather's name and there he was, suddenly alive, in The Young Chronicle, October 4, 1940, a week after the birth of his son, my father:
"DRUNK IN EARLY HOURS OF MORNING: 'I'll give you a chance this time,' said the presiding magistrate to Herbert Bruce (25) at the Young Police Court yesterday morning after it had been revealed that defendant, who was charged with drunkenness, had not been before the court for two years. Constable Greig said that Bruce had been arrested in Burrowa Street at 1.30 that morning. 'He is a hard-working lad,' added the officer."
It was such a rush. The 80-year-old newspaper, there on my screen, with my grandfather's name in all its sordid glory. I had never known him in life but now I would know him in death - and in perpetuity. He also made the newspaper for having an expired number plate, for illegally drinking in a pub after hours and for spending his leave from the army at Binda with his wife and young son, my dad, in 1942. His final appearance was in the Goulburn Post in 1953 when he was arrested for riding a bicycle with no hands. His defence: "I put one hand up to my nose and the other into my pocket for my handkerchief." The magistrate, in fining him £1, said: "I think that one is a bit poor."
In the weeks since, I have discovered the names of ancestors going back to the late 1700s, have discovered three family convicts, one of whom, (more a step-convict really), was sentenced to death for highway robbery, had that sentence commuted to transportation for life and was, after a few years in Australia, granted a conditional pardon. Another ancestor was sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing oats. These discoveries have been great and interesting, don't get me wrong, but through all of it, the name that's kept me coming back is Henry Bruce.
My dad was Gavin, whose dad was Herbert, whose dad was Herbert snr, whose dad was Henry. His obituary in the Young Witness in 1916 began: "The deceased, who was a well-known figure about Marengo for nearly 50 years, was born in the United States, America. When a boy of 10 he used to accompany his father on whaling and trading expeditions, many times crossing the seas to Africa, Australia and the Islands in the Southern Seas. After three of [sic] four years in this occupation, during which he experienced many and varied happenings, he and two other lads ran away from the boats, whilst they were anchored on the African coast. Where they ran away was inhabited only by blacks. One of the boys died a few weeks later and it was some months before Mr Bruce and his companion were able to attract the attention of a passing boat. On being taken aboard, they found it was bound for Australia."
I read it agog. A 10-year-old boy on a whaling ship? "Many and varied happenings"? Deserting a ship in Africa, aged, presumably, 13 or 14? Watching a friend die, wondering if you would be stuck here forever? Are you kidding? This is the greatest story ever told so badly.
I found a good number of Henry Bruces born in the United States around 1840. I checked every one and, unlike my great-great-grandfather, they all left records, like normal people. I searched and searched for him over the coming days. I started constructing theories: He was a civil war deserter, an international fugitive, a murderer who killed the real Henry Bruce and stole his identity.
It struck me that there might be a comprehensive historical whaling database and because it's 2020 there was. I typed in "Henry Bruce". It returned one hit. Other than his name and the name of his ship, there was just one pertinent piece of information: "Deserted at Point Galeca." I looked up the crew list and saw that two other men had deserted in the same place on the same day. One had a name so unusual that when I searched it on ancestry.com, it returned only two relevant results: one relating to his presence on board the Russell and the other his entrance, decades later, to a prison in Australia.
I typed "Point Galeca" into Google. There were three results, all irrelevant, one offering hot links if I was 18 or over. I tried again - this time just "Galeca". I scrolled through dozens of irrelevancies and was about to give up when I came across an interesting looking Chinese website with a satellite image of scrub and grassland. I zoomed out and discovered I was in Angola. Bingo. It was a perfect evidential fit with my great-great-grandfather's tall story - three boys, one called Henry Bruce, deserted a whaling ship in Africa, and two of them ended up in Australia. But, like life, genealogy is not so simple. The three men deserted the Russell in 1842. According to my great-great-grandfather's death certificate, he was then 2. There were no other Bruces on the Russell. I went through the whaling database looking for other 19th century Bruces. I found 54. I checked every one. No dice.
Once he arrives in Australia, he's all over the public record. He's in the goldfields in Victoria, catching a ship to the goldfields in New South Wales, getting a timber licence in Young, getting married, being fined for being drunk and disorderly and using obscene and profane language, having 11 children and so on. Why does he not exist before?
I was on deadline and couldn't help myself. I opened the website of the Australian National Archives. If you'd asked me, I would have sworn I'd done this before. By this point, I had typed the name "Henry Bruce" and related items hundreds of times into every available box on the internet. I dreamed about Henry, awoke feeling as if we had spoken, felt and pondered the everlasting tentacles and mysteries of genetic material and wondered how much of him was in me. I talked about him most nights at the dinner table, my kids bored by it all or at least I thought they were: As we sat down one night, Tallulah, 6, whispered to me "I think Mummy would like to hear about our family history tonight," which I knew to be a lie.
Online family history research returns you information that is mostly cursory. For useful details you typically need to send money to a government department or related record-keeping body. But when I hit return on my search of the Australian National Archives, there alongside the entry "Henry Bruce, series number A1, control symbol 1907/5217" were nine scanned pages of 113-year-old paper, yellowing and covered with my great-great-grandfather's barely legible handwriting and poor spelling.
The sight of the pen strokes alone was worth the weeks of frustration. I am looking at it now and finding it hard to look away: "I Henry (Henery?) Bruce, of Marengo, Laborer
I am by birth a: America, United States
I arrived in Australia from: America
In the year: 1860
I was born on the: 26th
Day of: July
In the year: 1840
In the: State of Masschutes (sic)
Barnstable! Masschutes [sic]! 1860! I was so excited. A breakthrough. I typed it straight into Ancestry. Nothing. I typed it into Findmypast. Nothing. I typed it everywhere I could think of, extended the broadness of the search parameters, added and subtracted and modified. Nothing, nothing, nothing.
On his application, next to "ship arrived on" he had written something illegible: Zone? Tone? Wone? I emailed Seonaid Lewis, because she reads bad handwriting for a living. She looked through the record of every ship that had arrived in Sydney in 1860, but could find nothing resembling what he'd written. It's possible he wrote "None", having forgotten, but it's also possible he didn't want anyone to know.
The more time I spent with Henry, the more I liked him - not to live with probably, but definitely in the abstract. He lived a life and was not afraid to spin a bit of bulls***. Who could honestly say they wouldn't be happy with an obituary reading "an interesting personality" with all the moral ambiguity that entails?
Nevertheless, the question remained: Who deserted the Russell in Angola in 1842 with two others, one of whom ended up in prison in Australia in 1892, and why does my great-great-grandfather appear to have inserted himself into their story?
I asked this question of Seonaid Lewis and proffered my theories, none of which she called crazy. Eventually, she replied: "We often find that people took the opportunity to begin a new life. Changed names, ages, developed cover stories." She suggested I send away for Henry's marriage certificate, which should have the names of his parents, which would open things up.
Even though it's $35, I probably will because solving mysteries is a primal human drive and more primal still is the desire to know who you are. But as soon as I find the truth about Henry Bruce, I'll want to know the truth about his forebears and then their forebears, and so on. What I ultimately want, I guess, is to reach the point where I can type into the ancestry.com search box:
First and middle names: Eve
Last name: Mother of Humanity
Spouse's name: Adam
Mother's name: N/A
I'll hit return, send $35 for the birth certificate and hopefully then I can get on with the rest of my life.