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Exiled and Buried in a Distant Land: Convict Ancestry in Australia and its Affects Today

Jeremiah & Margaret’s Headstone

Looking Systemically at Family Ancestry


The world of genealogy can be fascinating and engrossing as we unlock the past and discover our heritage.  My work involves looking at history through a systemic lens. This means I soften and broaden my vision and look for the patterns that form in family systems and get passed through time and through generations. These patterns influence how we relate to each other and to the society we live in today.


While classical genealogy records the various lines of marriage, birth and death as they extend out to create our family tree, I look for the more invisible lines that get passed via the unconscious mechanisms in our family systems.  My systemic training was undertaken at the Bert Hellinger Institute in the Netherlands. This institute was founded upon the original work of German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger. The Bert Hellinger Institute now trains people all over the world to work with families and organisations applying these principles and practices.


In this article I explain some key systemic theory and how this can be applied to family genealogy and to the society in which a family history exists, in this case Australia.  I will take you through the story of my convict ancestry and share my insights into how this history has influenced me, my family and the country I belong to. To begin framing this story, here are some fundamental systemic principles I use.


Defining Systems?


Systems are a number of elements in constant relationship with one another. For example families, an organization, a management team in an organisation or a country or region are all examples of human systems.  Human systems are living so unlike more technical systems, a change in one element affects the whole. 


Patterns in Systems


Patterns form within systems to ensure stability and predictability. They represent the experiences in groups where people repeatedly take certain positions or seem to follow an unstated, invisible rule.  Patterns in themselves are neutral. Some create energy and growth, some create blockages and stagnation and all patterns have the purpose of keeping the system alive and functioning.

 

The Entity the Whole


The whole of a system operates differently to the sum of the parts. Something else goes on when we come together and create a human system.  Patterns form and also an entity we refer to as the “whole” forms.  Bert Hellinger referred to this force, that is larger than the parts, as “beyond”.  The whole is beyond the stickiness and blockages of the parts and it can facilitate change.


Nested Systems with Living Memory


Human systems have memory and the past can travel into the present via the unresolved traumas and excluded experiences of our past times.  We see this all the time as systemic practitioners and it makes up a big part of our work. Today in 2024 in Australia, we have up to approximately 10 generations of descendants from the first convict arrivals.  In this article, I explore the possibility that what landed with these convicted people may well have travelled through generations and still be remaining with us today, even 10 generations on.


Systems reside within systems and what remains unresolved in the outer systems reflects within the inner. Therefore, my family system resides within the larger system of Australia. The large societal patterns in this country have deeply affected my family.  What then of the healing that occurs within an individual and a family? Can this reflect back out into the larger system? A society is made up of its people and the structures they form, so surely these nested systems are in a dynamic relationship. That is, as we evolve our society evolves.


In my previous article, ‘The Australian Cover up Pattern Alive and Well Through the COVID19 Pandemic 2020’ I explored more broadly the colonisation patterning in Australia and the hidden past treatment of our first Nations people.  This time I focus my insights on our convicts and their families. The convict system was formed in the UK and arrived on the shores of an ancient land with its own established cultures and systems, so these insights are not exclusive.


Gum Tree Standing Strong


The Three Survival Mechanisms and Convict Ancestry


We owe our modern knowledge and accompanying practices of the three survival mechanisms to Bert Hellinger and the other practitioners who followed him.  Jan Jacob Stam and Barbara Hoogenboom, my systemic teachers from the Netherlands, describe these mechanisms in their book Systemic Leadership (1) demonstrating the application in the organisational realm.  In this instance I am applying these mechanisms to our Australian convict history.


I suspect that Hellinger owed his developed knowledge originally to the memory of our ancient tribal days. These were times when we lived much more closely connected to nature, the animal and plant worlds and the land our ancestors walked upon. Here I particularly acknowledge our first Nations people and our ancient lands.


At our core as human beings we are wired to survive. Deep impulses are still alive in us today and operate (that we know of) at three levels:

1.      Survival as an individual

2.      Survival of a system as a whole

3.      Survival though society’s evolution


These impulses are at the heart of systemic work and appear to be ultimately in service of a life force that both encompasses the human experience and is greater than just our human experience.  We are all individuals who belong to multiple nested systems that evolutionary forces move through, to ensure our societies continue to develop.


Through the thread of this article I am reflecting upon the convicts in Australia as individuals who, like us all, learnt from very early on that it is essential to belong.  When we are dependant babies and small children we need to belong to our families and immediate care- givers otherwise we will die. This impulse is conscious and powerfully driven.


At the second layer is the system where patterns form and operate in the unconscious realm. I will present some possible patterns that formed as a result of the convicts’ experiences.  I will illuminate the impact this has on my family’s ancestry and via my systemic knowledge and training, then link this to the broader context of Australian society.


The convicts were a part of the strong evolutionary forces moving though the United Kingdom, Australia and societies at large at the time, as colonisation began. In this the third layer of evolution, exile is intrinsically tied to this movement into Australia and it is a fascinating phenomenon. I will offer some insights into what this forced migration may mean for Australia today as we continue to evolve.  The term ‘forced migration’ stirs me.


Quintessential Ancestry; “Australian Royalty”


What could be more quintessentially colonised Australian ancestry than a convict in our past lineage?  It is sometimes known as “Australian Royalty” although royal was not the status at the time and a long way from the experiences of the majority of convicts. “Badge of Honour” is the other colloquial term but who will wear that badge and why do we use this language today when royalty and honour were so diametrically opposed to convict experiences at the time?


This terminology seems to be entangled in the shame and indignity of the past, which the convicts and their families no doubt experienced.  Perhaps it is somehow an attempt to regain lost pride.  Delivered with the irony that often accompanies Australian humour, it may well be an “Aussie” acknowledgment for what was historically denied.


The convicts were the perpetrators of crimes and, at the same time, the victims of a class system with harsh judgments of the poor. They were the forced labour of colonisation and essential for the building of a new settlement. Their labour and life energy formed the very beginning upon which modern Australia was built.  Quite literally their blood, sweat and tears are in our foundations and quite possibly flowing through our Nation’s collective patterning today.


Many people in Australia, whether they know it or not, are descended from a convict. 20% of Australians are estimated to have come from this lineage. (2)  This percentage is significant and may be surprisingly lower to many than expected.  The majority of early arrivals were free settlers.  The convicts, though fewer in number, inhabit a compelling place. They are attached to a legendary status that outweighs the percentages. They live on in myth and memory and in the Australian people today.


In some ways colonised Australia was built upon what the United Kingdom (UK) excluded.  In systems theory, what is excluded holds a lot of power operating via the unconscious of a system.  Therefore our convicts, although fewer in number than free settlers and officials, are a powerful force. And not just because of their physical labour and immense survival capacity.


Four of Jeremiah’s Sons

Jeremiah and Margaret; my great ancestors and their grand journeys


I am a sixth generation descendant of a convict on my mother’s line.  Five generations back from me are my Great, Great, Great Grandparents Jeremiah and Margaret Downing.  Through a combination of research on ancestry sites, my local history knowledge, family stories and photographs I have traced Jeremiah and his family, right through to my generation. 


In 1827 when Jeremiah was 19 years of age he sailed into Sydney Cove from Sheffield England, after being sentenced to 7 years transportation (the term of the day) for stealing.  It sounds unlikely that he could return to Europe when his sentence was up.  Some convicts did but most, like Jeremiah, did not. I found his grave in Australian soil.


Jeremiah was assigned to a free settler in Sydney Cove to work on his farm; a common experience for convicts at that time. Also common was the accompanying heart break of being taken away from family, friends, known life and environment.  Consequently, many fractured families were left behind. 


I sometimes wonder in the silence of those lonely Australian nights, if Jeremiah integrated the momentous events he was living through and was able to grieve. Where did this grief come to rest and what of the grief of his family left behind?  Given the severity of the trauma, I suspect rest and resolution were not found in Jeremiah’s generation or his parents’.


At the very beginning, in the energy that established Australia as a colonised Nation lie heart break, shame and dislocation.  Being thrown into survival was not an unfamiliar state for convicts but being in foreign geography was. The landscape of survival changed.


The long ocean journey to Australia was harsh.  Conditions varied but overcrowding was common and convicts were typically kept below deck in dark, damp conditions. Diets were poor and hygiene lacking, scurvy and dysentery were common; the mental toll would have been severe. (3)  While the majority of convicts survived, deaths did occur. With little idea of what they would be arriving to, the journey must have been a feat of survival.


The Bussorah Merchant was the ship Jeremiah sailed on.  He received his “Certificate of Freedom” at 25 years of age, something the Government awarded to convicts who had served their time. By 16th August 1834, Jeremiah was a “free” man and he was alone, in a foreign, harsh, resource rich and ancient land. I am in absolute awe as I imagine his first free footsteps and I am filled with so much life energy. I wonder if he considered how possible it was to return home and what impacted his decisions and his fate.

 

Somehow, thrown into the wilderness of early colonial Australia, Jeremiah forged a new life for himself. I often marvel at his resilience and indeed feel proud!  At a time when transport was horse, ship or on foot, Jeremiah somehow moved to South Australia (approximately 2000km from Sydney), got work as a timber cutter, married a free settler Margaret, built a cottage in the forest and started a family. It is testimony to his strength of presence that Jeremiah had a region named after him and an article still exists about this today. (4)

 

In the 1850s when the gold rush hit Australia and massive expansion began, Jeremiah was approximately 40 years of age. He again moved, this time with a wife and family, approximately 600km away to the goldfields of Victoria.  Like many at the time, Jeremiah re-invented himself as a gold miner and began seeking new fortune.


Sketch of Early Victorian mining landscape

I have traced the area where Jeremiah built his first family cottage on the early Victorian goldfields.  I speculate about how he and Margaret first arrived and accommodated themselves and three children.  It is very likely they were first under the stars, in a tent and as soon as possible under the roof of a family-built cottage utilising local resources.


Jeremiah’s family grew and he seems to have established a stable life with Margaret.  After 20 years of prospecting and mining in around the Victorian towns of Amherst and Talbot, Jeremiah died at 60 years of age from cancer. Kangaroo Flats is where he is registered as dying. Historians relate that many of the gold miners died where they dropped so Kangaroo Flats is quite likely where blessed Jeremiah dropped.  He left behind Margaret, eleven children, an extraordinary life and he opened the pathway to today. Thank you Jeremiah.


George, Jeremiah and Margaret’s eldest son and my two times Great Grandfather, moved home base from the cottage in the goldfields to a cottage in the near-by town of Talbot.  He continued the mining legacy in this region until 1886. Then George and his wife Kate continued seeking new fortune with lengthy journeys across Australia.  Moved this time by the forces of initiative and not the forces of the law, they made the monumental shift from the then diminishing Goldfields of Victoria to the newly emerging Goldfields of Western Australia, some 2750km away.  Western Australia is where I reside today.



Dulcie my Grandmother & the Broad Arrow Mining Community

The Pioneer Women; emerging professions


Thirteen years after Jeremiah died, Margaret his wife is registered as dying at Nuggetty Gully in the same region, aged 57 years. It’s quite likely she continued prospecting after Jeremiah died and dropped herself at Nuggetty Gully.  It is not well known that early pioneer women, like Margaret, were also prospectors and miners on the Australian Goldfields. In the photograph above, my Grandmother Dulcie is a very young woman and dressed as a miner to prove it. She is in the front row, dressed in dark clothing, has a candle in her hat and is holding a thumping stick.


Dulcie and her siblings later trained as school teachers. Their father Francis (my Great Grandfather) was the first in this lineage to change his profession from the land to the store, as he became a storekeeper across the Goldfields.  Dulcie was the first to move her work into the classroom.  It should come as no surprise that my professional back ground is in education and training and I still passionately love teaching and learning today.


Reconciliation; coming together again

Jeremiah and Margaret have inspired this article and my broader thinking on the impact of this history on Australia at large. When I think of them, I am filled with love and energy.  I sense the grief finally coming to rest and the imperative for connection and pride to return.

 

I wonder about Australia being able to lie to rest its collective grief and move with the same imperative as a Nation.  Our nested systems are in dynamic relationship and the wisdom of this ancient land and its people are at our very origin as a species. This all gives me hope. In Australia’s movements towards reconciliation with our First Nations people, our convict history and its subsequent patterning may be the unacknowledged element now calling for our attention.


My relationship with my mother has always been less developed than that with my father. Therefore, connecting now with my mother’s line is enlightening.  My mother’s ancestral line holds within it such enormous energy and potential. It is a portrait of Australian colonial history and my inheritance of this line, while imbued with loss and hardship, is also rich and powerful. It is this ancestry that has provided a key to my healing and it may also hold important clues to what we now need as a Nation.  Here I honour my mother and my grandmothers: thank you Anne, Margaret, Kate, Elizabeth Maud, Dulcie and Gwen. Your work is now visible.


Survival Crime and Survival Punishment


Jerimiah was transported to Australia for stealing.  He had several offences, commencing when he was 12 years of age. In the context of 19th century UK, many convicts were punished for petty crimes of survival. In a hierarchical class system, the industrial revolution bought growth into cities, population increases and large-scale poverty. The UK was in a state of upheaval.


Workers laboured long hours but their wages may have barely kept their families alive.  Orphans lived on the streets and child labour, homelessness, plus overcrowding and overflowing prisons were all a part of society’s state at that time. (5)  Poverty coupled with exile must have been a devastating trauma for the convicts, yet it also seems to have created enormous new potential, as Jeremiah set sail.



"Going Home at Last" needlework by Donna Sharett

Belonging in New Terrain


Aileen Moreton-Robinson, a distinguished professor, discusses Indigenous Australia and belonging in her article, ‘Our story is in the land”: Why the Indigenous sense of belonging unsettles white Australia’. (6)


She proposes that the non-indigenous sense of belonging in Australia is based upon dispossession of the original owners, while indigenous people’s sense of belonging is derived from an ontological relationship to country.  Moreton-Robinson completes the article by saying indigenous belonging is a state of embodiment that continues to unsettle white Australia.


I think she is perceptive. If she is correct why would this be?  The obvious thought is that as non-indigenous people we have to face the truth that we are all able to live here today because of the historical dispossession and violence of colonisation.  Yes, this is unsettling. 

We also have to face that as non-indigenous people we have a common human need for embodied belonging.  How do we relate to this need in a colonised land?  How do we find this when our ancestors’ homelands were far away?  What of our spiritual connection to land as non-indigenous people?


In terms of the three survival mechanisms, belonging is instinctually tied to our life and death as an individual.  Our need to belong is deeply rooted in survival.  In our tribal days, banishment from the tribe was surely death.  Imagine how activated the convicts’ survival mechanisms would have been as they were boarded onto ships for transportation.


Belong at all costs and if one is banished the survival imperative would have created a powerful impulse to find something new to belong to. I suspect that for Australian convicts belonging to the transportation system although brutal, undignified and often deadly, at a time of capital punishment, provided a chance to live and live on Jeremiah and many others did. Once Jeremiah was a free man, how did he and the many other convicts experience belonging in this new land? What does this mean for non-indigenous Australians today?


Systemic Constellations; insights and integration


Through the process of connecting more deeply with my convict ancestry I have had a number of systemic constellations, giving me deeper insights into how this history has affected my life and my whole family in such profound ways.  Constellation work is one of the systemic practices I am trained in and I am passionate about helping others to develop their own insights.


Constellations create an external view of an experience one has in a particular system by setting up the different elements that belong in that experience.  In this case it is my family system. Constellations help us to look with a soft, wide, systemic vision at that system. Unseen dynamics and deep insights can thus be revealed.  With the guidance of a facilitator, the system will reveal what is waiting to be seen.


Old Store. Talbot, Victoria

Stolen Children; generations of longing and pain


In one of my constellations, it was obvious that Jeremiah’s parents, Anne and George, were severely impacted by the forced separation from and traumatic removal of their son.  As I write these words, I know that I have heard them before. I think of the stolen generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children of Australia and the devastating, heart breaking consequences we all still live with because of that experience today.


How many patterns travelled through time, repeated in new generations and remain with us still?  My family system carried deep sorrow and shame and our Nation is shrouded in colonised ignominy and grief.  It was not laid to rest in the many marked and unmarked graves in this land and we are not yet at peace. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families will attest to this.


Dislocation and estrangement have repeated through the generations of my mother’s line, including right down to mine. My family of origin has experienced complex patterns of estrangement, as have several family tributaries linking into this line.  Seven generations on, it seems we are still grieving and finding resolution.


Jeremiah’s parents, Anne and George, were no doubt devastated to lose their son. I imagine that Anne felt unsupported as she had to continue raising other children. George may have felt such intense failure as the bread winner and protector that he cut off his deeper feelings. Feeling unsupported, trying to survive through immense trauma and denying deeper emotions has been repeated though my family line and many other Australian families, until someone can face it.


Children as young as 9 years of age were transported from the UK to Australia as convicts and 20% of all convicts were children. (7)  In the turmoil of the changes then sweeping the UK, children were treated little differently to adults when it came to penalty.  Some received the death sentence for petty crimes and transportation may have been the more lenient sentence.  It is unimaginable today that we could sentence children, including orphans, to death for trying to survive. Or that other children were taken away from their families and shipped across the oceans, knowing they are highly unlikely to ever return.


Incarcerating Children; forced removal today


Also unimaginable is the removal and incarceration of 10 year old children, yet this is the current law and practice in Australia in 2024.  All children are subject to this law yet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 10 to 17 are about 24 times more likely to be in detention than other young people. (8)  While dealing with childhood criminal offences is not a simple task and the cross cultural issues are complex, my focus here is on the repeated patterns through time.


The convict children transported to Australia were quite possibly the first stolen and incarcerated generation to land on these shores. The very wound the children and society in the UK were suffering from, our Australian children and their families still experience today via our prison and legal systems.


Forced Removal, Slavery and Colonisation


As colonisers, we sanctioned and inflicted horrendous wounds upon our First Nations People. Removing their children and forcing them off their lands stand as some of the most detrimental wounds. Our ancestors’ removal from their homelands and families and its unacknowledged grief seems to have fed what we inflicted as the patterns of trauma repeat themselves on Australian soil.


Back home in the UK, as the industrial revolution was underway, many people were moving off the land and entering cities to work in factories.  Again, separation from land is a part of the forces that move through society.  Slavery was not abolished in the UK until 1833 so at the time when Jeremiah was transported, the slave trade was well established in the UK and was also a part of these large forces.


An article in the Guardian newspaper 2015 (9) states; ‘The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 formally freed 800,000 Africans who were then the legal property of Britain’s slave owners.’  This gives an indication of the extent of the practice and the same article explores how the history of British slavery has been buried.  It is useful to reflect upon how this trade may have influenced the British coloniser’s attitudes towards the Australian First Nations people.


Here in Australia after the first fleet’s arrival, as the capacity for developing and expanding new settlements took hold, we began forcing First Nations people onto missions (often long distances from their homeland) and started utilising their resources and inhabiting their lands.  Without much consideration, we assumed we had the right to do this and to take a dominant position over these peoples and their way of life.



The "Bussorah Merchant". The ship Jeremiah sailed on.

“An Ocean of Tears” a Societal Constellation


“An Ocean of Tears”, a Societal Constellation which I brought to a peer systemic group, was so well named and facilitated by my very skilful systemic friend and colleague Annelieke Verkerk. It now comes strongly to mind.  While constellation work began in family systems, it has expanded into organisational and societal realms.


The theme of an “Ocean of Tears” was land ownership in Australia and its insights ran deep. Not only were the convicts separated from family and friends they were also torn away from their homelands, most never to return.  This separation from land is an often-missed element in the convict experience and indeed a key part of colonisation.


What arrived in me with a bolt of crystal-clear energy during this constellation was the realisation that the fierce drive to grab and own land in Australia during colonisation was fuelled by the grief of separation from our original homelands. It is the very wound we again transferred and inflicted upon our First Nations people by separating them from their land, which we the colonisers had experienced ourselves.  In the ruthless drive to survive, it seems collectively we could never fully acknowledge this original wound.   


What is excluded holds immense power in system theory so imagine how powerful this unresolved dislocation has been in Australia’s development. Then consider the irony and implications of our arrival onto an ancient land with the oldest living culture we know of, with the most sacred and profound connection to land.


The Victim / Perpetrator Cycle


The victim perpetrator cycle in system theory is the pattern known as a double bind; when two opposing forces attract each other and fight each other at the same time. The opposing forces can and often do exchange places, as a victim becomes the perpetrator and the perpetrator becomes a victim. It is about the energy moving with these experiences and actions not a static, definitive state.


Our convicts clearly were in the reverting places of these opposing forces.  This deeply embedded cycle is very activated in Australia and lives in our unconscious national membrane. This has created generations of repeated trauma where we seem to continue to transfer what we could not face and integrate ourselves at the time.


Movement beyond the Cycle


How do we move beyond this cycle of revolving trauma? This may well be one of the largest questions of our time. I do not have the definitive answer but I do have some insights.  By acknowledging both sides of the double bind, acknowledging we have all experienced past trauma, as individuals and as cultures, and by being aware when we have identification with one side as the victims or the perpetrators.


For many years I have been strongly identified with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders disadvantaged position in this country.  I am in no way denying the horrific, historical events and how colonisation has taken a firm, superior hold on the position of power across our land today.  However, while researching my mother’s line, I have become more acutely aware of how my past convict ancestry may have been feeding an unconscious identification with the victim energy today.


Our attempts as a Nation to move beyond this trauma cycle may well be linked to fully acknowledging and coming to peace with our convict origins.  While we have done a much better job of recording and teaching convict history in comparison to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, my question is this: have we fully seen the origins of the cycle of trauma that we have created and still perpetuate today? 


The Voice of the Whole; beyond the blockages


Listening to the whole of a system can facilitate change.  Every system including a family and a country has this voice, if we listen with ears that are attuned to it.  In terms of the victim/perpetrator cycle, listening to what the whole is telling us is essential.  


It may be the key to moving beyond the polarity and it may hold profound insights into resolving the repeated trauma through generations.  As systemic practitioners, we work with this entity ‘the whole’ all the time and we have mechanisms to access its wisdom.

 


Four Generations of Downing’s; Jeremiahs descendants

Healing our Ancestral Wounds; finding resolution


Looking systemically at one’s ancestry can facilitate deep insights into one’s life and relationships today.  It can be the catalyst for personal growth and development.  Although it is presumptuous to think that one person’s growth can influence a whole society, it is quite possible that increased awareness happens through us and ripples out as we come to face the traumas and held memories of our past generations and move towards resolution in our lifetimes.


This article is my process through some of this work, framed in my knowledge of systemic theory. It is also an invitation to access my professional services and begin working with the patterns in your family’s ancestry and its affects in your life.  As a systemic consultant, I offer a range of services to individuals and organisations. You can read more about these on my webpage and I welcome all enquiries.



 

References

 

(1)   Stam, Jan Jacob and Hoogenboom, Barbara 2018

Systemic Leadership

 

(2)   Wikipedia 2024

Convicts in Australia

 

(3)   History Skills, Voyages of Despair: The harsh reality of life aboard of 18th Century convict ships to Australia

 

(4)   Word Press 1984

Jerrys Flat: What is in a Name?

 

(5)   Wikipedia 2024

Industrial Revolution

 

(6)   ABC Religion and Ethics 2020

 

(7)    Museum of History NSW 2022

Child Convicts in Australia


(8)   Special Broadcasting Services 2023

Youth Detention Rates are dropping but Indigenous children remain over represented 

 

(9)   The Guardian, Australian Edition 2015

The history of British slave ownership has been buried: now its scale can be revealed

 

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