Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Shame and scandal in the family

Doing some family-history research online, my niece in Australia discovered that one of our ancestors was murdered with an axe while lying drunk one night on his front lawn. He was a wife-beater, and one of his sons probably did him in. There was no trial, but the inquest made for some fun reading. The authorities may not have tried too hard to find the culprit.

Linda was shocked – shocked! – to hear the news. Her family-tree has nothing that can compete with such a scandal. She had a distant aunt of five generations ago who was a freelance prostitute down by the London docks, but pfft! Who hasn’t? Not in the same bracket as a murdered wife-beater, is it?

All families have skeletons in the closet. We today have no reason to be ashamed of them, or proud of ancestral heroes. We had nothing to do with what they did, any more than vice-versa. Bad stories are sometimes disappointing, sometimes amusing; but unless they’re personal to us, what do they matter? (I’ve never understood why people boast about important ancestors. Why brag about your family’s having come down in the world?)

Some of my family’s skeletons involved religion. When my Catholic great-uncle was discovered to have sired a child by his secretary, his wife and siblings were upset less by the illegitimacy than by the fact that the secretary was a Protestant. In Toowoomba, in those days, a “mixed marriage” meant one between Roman Catholics and Protestants.

My father’s hometown was a hotbed of mutual suspicion and contempt. The Protestant spouse in a mixed marriage came under heavy pressure to surrender the children to the mercies of The Church. My mother refused to knuckle under, which brought her a lot of ill-will from the other side. A visiting bishop referred to her “that woman”, and prayed for the souls of her lost children.

Much of the ill-will was tribal; the local Catholics were all of Irish descent, and the Irish-English chasm was as wide as eight hundred years of British invasions and occupation had made it. In 1981 the RC priest in my ancestral village in Tipperary was indignant. “Ours have always been tolerant parishes”, he said. “Protestants would have helped your ancestors build the parish church we’re sitting in.” I told my mother later, but she looked doubtful.

Here in Cayman, Caymanians have never had much of a problem with mixed-religion unions, whether blessed by a church service or not. There must have been plenty of problems with mixed-race unions, in the aftermath of plantation-slavery, but the public record is silent on the matter. Nothing seems to have been recorded of domestic unions during and after slavery. Surely, it’s high time to break the taboo. What’s the point of hiding old truths in the broom-cupboards with the skeletons? 

During slavery, almost all black-white unions would have involved rape by slave-owners. That’s an uncomfortable fact that we just have to live with. Sex between superiors and inferiors is usually categorised as rape because genuinely free consent can’t be presumed. Today in Cayman it sometimes happens between male employers and their female migrant domestics whose indentures they own. That’s a taboo subject, too.

Homosexual rape has always happened between male guards and inmates in prisons and asylums, and among inmates. It would certainly have occurred between European sailors and African men on the prison-ships crossing the Atlantic. And among the African captives themselves? Very likely. The latter is yet another taboo subject, throughout the Caribbean. But a prison is a prison, after all.