Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Getting it Right

The gate to Pitgaveny, the house near Elgin owned by John Brander's father 
  © Copyright Des Colhoun and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
All families have apocryphal stories that are told and retold at family gatherings and handed down through the generations. As in a game of “telephone” or “Chinese whispers,” they often get altered with each telling until the final version is very different from the original incident that was the germ of the tale.

My own family has anecdotes like that, many passed down through my paternal grandmother who was the world’s greatest storyteller. This kind of story is important because it takes on the imprimatur of each generation that passes it along. This makes it “true” in the sense of being faithful to the evolution and spirit of the family in question.

However, it does not necessarily make it accurate.

Historical scholarship is all about finding out what actually happened. This means uncovering every last scrap of documentary material that has survived and then coming to conclusions on the basis of that evidence. There will always be gaps in that body of material of course, and no historian or biographer would suggest otherwise. But every story told must have its foundation in the evidence. Wishful thinking has no place in historical research.

Here’s an example. For years, I have been trying to authenticate a wonderful story about John Brander (Princess Titaua’s first Scottish husband) that someone once told me but for which he was unable to give me a source.

The story is that young John Brander, born the illegitimate son of a Scottish laird, saved his much older half-brother – the legitimate heir to Pitgaveny – from drowning. In gratitude, the older brother is said to have given John a reward of £400, which John used to finance his emigration to California where he is supposed to have made his first fortune selling equipment to the Gold Rush miners.

It’s a great story – encompassing drama, heroism, adventure, and success – so I’d love to include it in Children of Eden. But is it true?

Not one word of it, at least as far as I’ve been able to discover.

To my great disappointment, I’ve been unable to find a single shred of evidence to substantiate the saved from drowning part. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen - just that, until I can find an account in a contemporary newspaper or letter, I cannot be sure that this incident is anything more than a Scottish urban legend.  

As for the part about Brander’s half-brother giving him the money, I’ve found nothing to validate that either. What I do know is that John Brander’s natural father left him £1,000 in his will when he died in 1826. In modern terms, that would be around £50,000 or $78,700 – in other words, plenty of cash with which to start a new life anywhere in the world.

And it also seems unlikely that John Brander ever set himself up in business in California. According to shipping records, he arrived in Sydney in July 1840 from Liverpool at the age of 23 and began trading in various goods, first with European settlements in New Zealand and then gradually extending his range to Tahiti. It is true that later his schooners made regular visits to the port of San Francisco with shipments of Brander’s oranges, pearl shell, and copra but not until after the Gold Rush is generally thought to have burned itself out.  

It may not be as good as the rescue from drowning story but it’s the truth - or at least the extent of the truth as can be unearthed from the surviving records. And that’s what I’m committed to telling in Children of Eden. But I also fully acknowledge the importance of those family anecdotes that morph and meld their way into myths to be carried forward through the generations. Stories are essential to the human spirit however they manifest themselves.


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