How often do disasters obliterate not just lives, but the evidence that individuals ever existed?
The earthquake in Haiti shocked the world. Thousands of us, as individuals, groups or governments, have been moved to give money and material help. In the case of our armed services personnel and volunteer organizations, Canadians have provided on-the-ground assistance, and will be doing so for some time to come. (Of course, Atlantic Canada has a strong tradition of helping neighbours in times of trouble.)
Sometimes the individual names of those we help are anonymous. In the magnitude of the disaster and amid the ensuing chaos, the names of all the dead and missing will probably never be known.
This caused me to reflect on how often disasters of various kinds have obliterated not just lives, but the very evidence that individuals ever existed.
How many of us have ancestors whose names we scarcely know? How many of our forebears will remain anonymous? I can trace a line of ascent back over a millennium in one direction, and yet cannot learn the given name, let alone the surname, of my great-grandfather’s grandmother, a woman who lived in Nova Scotia from the 1820s to the 1850s.
Consider this from the Liverpool Telegraph in May 1847: “Another emigrant ship has foundered and 248 of our fellow creatures have been launched… into eternity… Of the 251 passengers (the supposed number on board) only three escaped. The rest were drowned between decks or washed from the wreck.”
The ship was the Exmouth, carrying Irish emigrants from Londonderry on their way to Québec. The number aboard was uncertain, and the identity of the 248 dead was lost with them. In fact, 140 of the bodies were never found.
Sometimes, as in the case of the loss of the Titanic or the SS Atlantic, there had been rosters of the crew and passengers. In other instances, as with the Halifax Explosion, much work has been done by diligent researchers to identify the dead.
But at other times we are not so fortunate in having or being able to find such information. How many “unknown soldiers” did the 20th century leave in obscure resting places?
Men went to sea in the days of sail and never returned. Did they simply marry and settle in a faraway port and, being illiterate, not write home? Had they been murdered by pirates or sold into bondage? Were some of those lost children of the Old World, our progenitors who settled here and said nothing of their past, the sort of people we speak of as having “jumped ship?” There are enough stories of these deserting seamen—you have to marvel that any ship had enough crew to depart this coast.
Who died at Pompeii? What was the casualty roster at the Battle of Marathon? Where is the list of famine victims in Ireland in the 1840s? Who died at Krakatoa? Can anyone list the names of the common soldiers killed at Agincourt? At Blenheim? At Flodden Field? No, because in the past in both manmade and natural disasters, there was no concern of having a permanent record of the victims’ names. If a king perished, the loss was recorded, but where are the common folk, the ones to whom most of us owe our bloodlines?
The truth is that some part of everyone’s ancestral trail will fade out in a disaster. Millions died in the Black Death, and millions more in the Thirty Years’ War in central Europe. Each of us is the progeny of people who perished in those and a hundred other tragedies of the past.
The earthquake in Haiti reminds us that there have been times in history when our families experienced similar heartbreak and sorrow; they have had to pick up the pieces of broken homes and lives and rebuild for the future. One reason most of us are here today is that hope triumphs over despair, construction over destruction.
Dr. Terrence M. Punch is the author of the recently released third volume of Erin’s Sons: Irish Arrivals in Atlantic Canada 1761-1858 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company).