Too Much Cabbage & Too Many Emmas
or...the pitfalls of historical research
I was very excited to get the first copies of my new book, Too Much Cabbage and Jesus Christ: Australia’s ‘Mission Girl’ Annie Lock. My joy was slightly dimmed by the fact that on the same day I discovered the first mistake. As a historian I know that there will always be those (hopefully small) errors that slip through all the painstaking research and meticulous checking and editing … but I did hope that the book would have been out at least a couple of months before they came to light.
The error I found was not a typo, or one of those deliciously funny grammatical ‘oops’ moments. (In a previous book, I had a sentence, fortunately changed before it went to press, that said ‘He left his wife pregnant with four children and a wooden cottage’.) No, this was an error of research.
The First Wedding at Carrolup
I took great pride in managing to identify the two people getting married at Carrolup in one of the pictures in my book. I was particularly pleased because, as has often been the way, while all the white people in the photograph were identified in the record of the photo in the library, none of the Indigenous people were – not even the bride and groom! It was ‘the first wedding at Carrolup’ in 1916, and I trawled through the WA BDMs and the handwritten reports from the superintendent of the settlement and had one of those eureka moments. The groom was Arthur Calyun, the bride, Emma Harris.
Finding details about past lives has become easier in recent times because of the digitisation of records, some people are harder to find than others – some women get married and change their names, or are identified only by their husband’s initial; other women never marry, leave no descendents and just vanish because no one wants to remember them. Indigenous Australians are even more invisible sometimes, especially in the colonial archive.
Sometimes, as in the case of the wedding photo, the white people preserving the picture or reporting on the occasion do not consider them important enough to name. Other times, names are misspelled, people are referred to differently at different times, or have only one name.
In the case of Emma Harris, however, I struck gold. Or so I thought. Thanks to Lois Tilbrook, the names, photographs, stories and family trees of several families in the south west of WA have been preserved (albeit with some errors, as I would discover). I pored over the Harris family trees in Tilbrook’s Nyungar Tradition, and there she was: ‘Emma Harris’, married to ‘Calyung’. It all made sense. Her sister Clara and niece Isobel Leyland (later Bropho) of Busselton, on the same page of the family tree already featured in my book. From Annie Lock’s letters and reports I learned that ‘the bride’ (Annie never actually names Emma) was a good seamstress, a skill she had learned while in the ‘Swan Orphanage’. Lock also wrote to the government ‘re Emma Harris… and a child’ in 1914. I was amazed when I searched the State Records index to come across two more files mentioning Emma. One was an admittance to the Swan Half Caste Mission, a file dated 1899; the other a file about Emma as a domestic servant in Busselton in 1904. Although I did not look at these last two files, they tied in with what I knew already.
I had posted the photograph on Facebook in a group for WA Indigenous history, hoping to identify other people but also to find out more. Someone posted photos of Arthur and Emma when they were older. All was going well.
Then I got the email from a descendent of Emma Harris. She was confused. ‘Who's Arthur?’. Emma had married Joe Colbung, she said, attaching a handwritten family tree. My heart sunk. Colbung, like Calyun, could have become ‘Calyung’ in Tilbrook’s tree, and Tilbrook had not included a Christian name. Could there really be TWO Emma Harrises? Both married to men with similar surnames? Surely not. Although, it WOULD account for Emma Harris being so visible in the archive.
Generally speaking I am sceptical of ancestry.com family trees. They are a good starting point, but every detail needs checking. And because Aboriginal people were not necessarily included in the sort of Eurocentric records that Ancestry.com specialise in, I had not thought to look. If Aboriginal people’s births and marriages are not registered it is much harder to navigate through the contradicting family trees. When you think you might be looking for two Emma Harrises and not one, however, suddenly the discrepancies in the trees become clues and not hindrances. Combining newspaper evidence from Trove, ancestry.com, Tilbrook, and the all important contributions from descendants, suddenly things become a little clearer.
There were indeed two women called Emma Harris, but only one one is in Tilbrook’s book. They seem to have been aunt and niece, although only a few years apart in age. (I was also relieved to find that I was not the only person to have conflated the two Emmas - one family tree has made exactly the same mistake as I did, with the result that it looks like the one woman had all 21 offspring, some at the same time!)
Emma Harris in the wedding photo, she who married Arthur Calyun, was the daughter of Emma Harris (Colbung)’s sister Ann, born in about 1895. Her father was possibly Charlie Hutchins, with whom Ann possibly had a son (also Charles Hutchins) in about 1892, or Arthur Harris (brother of activist William Harris and no relation to Ann), with whom Ann had several further children. Emma Calyun died in 1965. Her death was registered in WABDMS, her mother recorded as Annie. The ‘Emma Harris’ in the State Records files about the Swan Orphanage are probably this Emma, given that the missionary Annie Lock mentioned she had been there, although
Ann’s sister was also called Emma. She was the daughter of Caroline Maloney/Mullane, and she and Joe Colbung had a number of children together in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Emma was at Moore River before dying in late 1932, her newspaper death notice calling her ‘Emma Harris also known as Emma Colbung’. Some of the State Records files are about her, suggesting she was in domestic service with the Pries family in Busselton for a time.
The ‘tale of two Emmas’ underscores the difficulties and pitfalls of researching in this space, as well as the importance of collaborative research. There are layers upon layers of uncertainty, with ancestry.com family trees adding to the myth making, not helped by the paucity of official records. Do I wish that I had found the wedding photo earlier and been able to connect with family members sooner? Certainly. I can only hope that the photo in my book will prompt identification of the other Noongar people in the picture: three young bridesmaids and a best man.
So when you are reading Too Much Cabbage, and come to page 114 and the tale of the ‘first wedding at Carrolup’, remember that the Emma Harris in the text, who married Arthur Calyun, was the niece (or step-niece but not sister-in-law) of William Harris, whose brother Arthur Harris was the common-law husband of Emma’s mother Ann. And Isobel Bropho, nee Leyland, was this Emma Harris’s cousin not her niece. These are tiny discrepencies perhaps, in the big picture, but leaving them unacknowledged goes counter to what my book is endeavouring to do, which is to counter the invisibility of Aboriginal Australians in the ways history is recorded and told.