Waters of the Past
Tracey M. Benson
In this essay, I would like to explore the idea of journeying in both a physical and psychological context through a current project titled Waters of the Past.
Waters of the Past is the title of a new chapter of the Words for Water project, which was initiated in 2013. The Waters of the Past project is focused on creative research and exploration through an initial journey to the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Norway. The journey was partly composed of two artist residencies – one with the Clipperton Project and the other with the Association of Icelandic Artists (SIM) in Iceland.
The research explores recurring themes in my work related to memory, history, cultural identity and connection to place. Waters of the Past is also an opportunity to explore my migrant heritage directly by spending time learning more about the culture of my Norwegian ancestor, merchant seaman Anton Benson (Berntsen), 1855-1929. Anton came to Australia in 1887, settling in the Darling Downs district after jumping ship in Melbourne. Anton was part of a wave of Scandinavian and German immigrants who came to South-East Queensland.
Greg Ulmer’s concept of the “mystory” was very influential to my creative research in the 1990s, offering a pathway to explore topics related to personal experience and identity. I take an ethical approach to storytelling, meaning that I do not attempt to speak for people or cultures that do not belong to me. To speak for another runs the risk of misrepresenting community and cultural groups, it is also disrespectful in my view. That said, a lot of my work acknowledges Indigenous people, the ‘people of the land’, and I seek to do so from a position of learning and immense respect.
Some of the most powerful messages I carry with me are from Elders, Jagera Elder Uncle Bob Anderson talks about the need to walk on your own country to understand and connect with one’s own culture to better respect the land and people of the places we inhabit. Special Advisor to the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Kalkadoon Marapai woman, Kerrie Tims talks about how our ancestors mix in the dust. Kerrie evokes a powerful image of connectedness and hope for the future. I was very privileged to have her as a mentor in 2015. As a fifth generation Australian with migrant heritage, my claim to the country I live in is one of love and respect of both place and people. It may seem strange to seek connection to the country I was born to through a journey to my ancestral lands but that is the nature of learning. By looking back, I hope to also look forward.
This essay threads together a series of blog posts written while in the Nordic lands with some reflections added since returning to Australia. It should also be noted that there are plans to expand this project in 2017, by further research in Norway and the Darling Downs, Australia, and in collaboration with a couple of creative researchers with similar family heritage.
Anton and his wife Johanna Carolina (nee Wurst) were buried in the Drayton Cemetery in the Darling Downs. It is also worth noting that they had thirteen children and since I have been exploring this branch of my family tree, I have made contact with several distant relatives that still live in the Darling Downs region.
(edited from Waters of the Past)
Anton’s seafaring past fascinated me as a child, as did hearing stories of the long journey by boat made by my grandmother and great-grandmother. I have memories of my great-grandmother travelling to England by ship around 1972.
When I was a child, the landscape of my ancestors was richly imagined as a place of fairy tales, of freezing cold winters, of magic, immense forests and of sea faring adventures. I was also an avid reader, loving to escape into stories by authors like Jules Vernes and Brothers Grimm. It was quite an experience to go to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in Iceland, the inspiration for Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
Like many of migrant heritage, my stories have been lost on the waves – our family have not been able to learn much more about Anton before he came to Australia. I wonder if these fragmented stories could be pieced together to create new narratives that traverse time and space?
My initial knowledge about Anton was that he was Norwegian, a merchant seaman from Drammen. He arrived in Australia in the late 1880s, listed as a deserter from the US Merchant Navy. After going to Drammen in July 2016, I learnt that he was not from Drammen but from the nearby village of Hurum. This was documented in the 1865 parish records.
Belonging and Unbelonging
The past couple of months have been very valuable in regards to providing time and space to think deeply about my creative practice, my cultural identity and ‘place’ in the world.
Julia Bennett’s article Gifted places: the inalienable nature of belonging in place (published in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2014, volume 32) is useful for thinking about the multilayered notion of belonging, a recurring topic for me in the context of my creative work and research. For example my postgraduate research has explored both idea of belonging and unbelonging. My Master's thesis explored the role of the souvenir in articulating a sense of identity and belonging, whereas one of the sub-themes of my PhD studio work explored notions of unbelonging, displacement, and disconnection. In my blog, I reflect on connecting to place:
In Iceland, I dream of Norway
It is strange to say, but after a relatively short time in Iceland I feel a very strong connection to place, in particular the coastline where I have spent many hours walking and watching. It has reminded me of the strong connection I feel to Nightcliff beach, a place I spent a lot of time as a young teenager. Yesterday I came to the realisation that perhaps this has been the first time in my life since my teen years where I have had the opportunity to be alone with the coast and its beauty. As I drew in the fragrance of the salty air I felt a deep sense of connection. The ocean has always been special to me.
During my time in the Nordic lands I have been close to the sea: walking along its shores, watching the changing tides, riding on top of the waves by boat and sleeping to the gentle rocking of the water.
At times, the sea has challenged me – bringing fear and a sense of vertigo. It has been a powerful teacher and one that demands respect, reminding me of the cyclic nature of time and our vulnerability as humans.
It is strange to think that I have not yet even arrived to my ancestor's place of birth. I am not sure what emotions that will bring to the surface for me. It will be the first time in my life I have gone to an ancestral place. I wonder if I feel any sense of belonging, or will I still be longing?
Over the past couple of days, I have read some very interesting quotes and articles which explore belonging/unbelonging. The first quote belongs to the much-loved Icelandic writer Málfríður Einarsdóttir (1899-1983). Einarsdóttir is also inspiring because she was in her 70s before her first book, an autobiography, was published. She writes:
Ætíð hef ég átt samastað, að minnsta kosti hefur aldrei farið svo, að ég hafi þurft að vera hvergi.
(I have always belonged to a place, at least I have never had to dwell nowhere.)
I reflected on the many places where I have felt a sense of belonging:
There are many places where I have felt I belonged – as I mentioned the beach close to Korpúlfsstaðir is one of those places. Another very important place to me is Nightcliff beach in Darwin. The Taranaki area of Aotearoa New Zealand has also become very special to me as well as the beautiful river country, Dhungala, of the Yorta Yorta people. Now some of these places do have history for me and most of them are special because of a connection with people. But these are places not of my birth, my genealogy or familial ties.
They are the places where I feel at home.
The more I know…
I am a traveller. I travel to learn, to know, to understand and to make connections - with places and people. And what I have come to understand is that the more I learn, the less I know.
From blog post dated 22 July in Drammen:
This will probably be one of my last posts about my journey to the Nordic lands. 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 know, the less I know.
When we delve into the past, our knowledge will always be fragmented, pieced together though tangible and intangible ‘clues’. That is the nature of history. In Drammen I was actively looking for clues everywhere, hoping to find connections; a thread to connect me to Anton.
Even the drains offer clues to the past.
Drammen: making connections to place
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.
My journey to Drammen made me realise how tenuous my knowledge about Anton is. In our family, we had discussed that maybe 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 there. Wrong again. After going to the 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, at the moment, I do not have the time to go to Hurum, so I think a return visit is in order. In the meantime, I will keep building on the research.
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.
On the positive side, I may now be able to trace some of my relatives from the church record as now I know Anton’s siblings names and ages.
About the ocean
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 10th century. A 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’. The National Archives of Australia 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.
Although my family came to Australia well before WW1, if they kept their name, they could have been interned, which 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 the Australian 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.
In my final blog about my journey to the Nordic lands, I look to the future, to new sites of discovery and learning. Now months after that extraordinary journey of ancestral realms, I am still unpacking, still trying to make sense of the experience and what the next steps will be. The ancestors call to me, asking me to look deeper. Perhaps it is time to go back to the Darling Downs and do some more research. Perhaps I need to start planning to return to Norway and go to Hurum. Perhaps, more importantly, I need to think about how this investigation can benefit future generations, once I have turned to dust.
So here I am contemplating the dust, hoping that my legacy may have some kind of a positive impact on the future. Perhaps it is as simple as telling a story, one of family, of belonging and place, or maybe it is something more...
Bennett, Julia. "Gifted Places: The Inalienable Nature of Belonging in Place." Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32 (2014): 658-671. Print.
Benson, Tracey. "Waters of the Past." Benson Art Projects Weblog. 2016. 31 August 2016. <https://traceybenson.com/2016/05/10/waters-of-the-past/>.
- - -. "Words for Water." Benson Art Projects Weblog. 2016. 31 August 2016. <https://traceybenson.com/2014/08/12/words-for-water/>.
Emmerson, Mark. "Behind the 'Big Man': Uncovering Hidden Migrant Networks within Scandinavian-Australian Sources." Migrant Security 2010: Citizenship and Social Inclusion in a Transnational Era. The Public Memory Research Centre, the University of Southern Queensland. Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia. 15-16 Jul 2010.
- - -. "Too Remote, Too Primitive and Too Expensive: Scandinavian Settlers in Colonial Queensland." Queensland Historical Atlas. 2015. 3 March 2015. <http://www.qhatlas.com.au/too-remote-too-primitive-and-too-expensive-scandinavian-settlers-colonial-queensland>.
Horne, Donald. The Lucky Country. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964. Print.
"The Consequences of Having a Foreign Name." BBC News Magazine. 9 November 2012. 20 July 2016. <http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20228060>.
Ulmer, Gregory L. Teletheory: Grammatology in the Age of Video. New York: Routledge, 1989. Print.
"Wartime Internment Camps in Australia." The National Archives of Australia. 2016. 20 July 2016. <http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/snapshots/internment-camps/introduction.aspx>.
Tracey M. Benson is an interdisciplinary artist, media strategist, researcher, and creative producer based in Australia. She holds a PhD in New Media Arts and Technology from the Australian National University and runs bytetime, a small company specialising in arts education, cross-media production, strategic communications, online solutions and community engagement. In addition, Benson lectures in Cross Media Production and serves as Professional Associate at the Institute of Applied Ecology at the University of Canberra. More recent creative explorations have utilised mobile and hand-held online technologies for the creation of virtual and augmented reality (AR) works. Recent publications include chapters in Mobile Media Practices, Presence and Politics and Locating Emerging Media. One of her current projects is Words for Water, which focuses on the humanitarian and environmental issues related to water.