Cousin Jack

Artist  Kurt Jackson

Artist Kurt Jackson

This land is barren and broken,
Scarred like the face of the Moon,
Our tongue is no longer spoken
And the towns all around face ruin…
If I tunnel way down to Australia,
Oh, will I ever escape…
I’ll leave the country behind, I’m not coming back,
Oh, follow me down, Cousin Jack.

(Cornish folk song lyrics by Steve Knightley)

Hirethek: (n.) Cornish for a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was, the grief for the lost places of your past.

While recently being honored with an invitation to serve on the faculty of the Third Australian Constellation Intensive, in February 2016 in Sydney, Australia, (, I also unexpectedly uncovered a long-standing generational family-fractal involving home and homesickness. While I am looking forward to my first trip Down Under, an admittedly long swim, and connecting with familiar and new international colleagues, this invitation also prompted me to look deeper into a rather obscure episode in our Cornish family history. Family stories, while sometimes colorful, are admittedly unreliable and can unfold along something like a game of Chinese Whispers which re-iterate upon each re-telling.

In short, it seems that my Grandfather, William John Thomas (b. 1873) and his brother Marshman (b. 1878), either left or were deported to Australia, for reasons unknown. Some cousins say that they went in search of employment after the mines closed and other cousins maintain that there was some scandal concerning poaching. Most agree that he worked for a time as a sheep herder until word came that his hometown sweetheart, Ellie, now in America, was pregnant and the brothers booked passage for the USA. My grandparents married and my great uncle continued on to California. Given the morality of the times, all of this was kept quite secret and secrecy is a Cornish value for reasons set forth in my previous “Treasure Map” blog.

My Grandparents bought a small farm in rural New Jersey surrounded by a landscape similar to southern England, and I spent my early childhood years there.

By all accounts my Grandmother was always homesick and when my mother, the youngest of five, was a small child, she took her with her back to St. Just, and she grew up there. My Grandmother eventually returned to the farm in New Jersey, and had passed away by the time I arrived. Grandfather took her ashes back to St. Just. However, I do remember being taken to meet her four surviving, Cornish sisters who had never married and always lived together.

As a child, I experienced them as shy and ancient old ladies, smelling of lavender, (who were in reality probably somewhere in their fifties), known to smoke unfiltered cigarettes, despite family disapproval. All of these great-aunts had served together as nurses in a British field hospital in France during World War I. (The horror and the stench must have been awful). Our brief little visit took place during the 1940’s and no one was thinking much about war trauma then, except maybe for a few soldiers. Like my Grandmother, my great-aunts were often homesick, crossed the Atlantic many times, and finally resolved to return home to Cornwall. Mother was also beset by a longing for Cornwall, and barely managed one more adult and prolonged visit. Her consolation she said, was arrangements to be buried there in the town’s Wesleyan cemetery, yet, in the end, her husband who was not Cornish, could not agree to such a distant resting place.

While these stories do not seem all that remarkable, given my systemic perspective on family systems and trans-generational trauma, I decided to review this and other aspects of our clan’s history within the larger context of what is now known as the Cornish Diaspora. It was within this tribal history, that I felt that there might finally be answers to why so many of our clan have always been uneasy living too far from any scent of the sea; and also a possible source for a mysterious, all pervasive, ill -defined and familiar longing, that was integral to nearly all of my childhood memories. Somehow it was collectively understood that our family “home” was in in Cornwall, in and around the small mining town of St. Just, located along the southwest coast of England.

And so, in looking into the history of this Cornish Diaspora, I hoped to find some understanding of this collective pull to return “home”, that was so strong in my maternal Grandmother, her sisters, my Mother and to a lesser extent, myself. In general, those who work with trauma, understand that a compelling need to return and repeat an experience, often has something to do with an interrupted movement or incomplete response; often involving a shock and/or tragedy and possibly a cover-up. More recently, a study of epigenetics has revealed that biological, (epigenetic) markers, can and do retain ancestral memories. With this in mind, I arrived at the salient question: “Who longed to return home to Cornwall and was prevented from doing so?”

Emigration was one of the main factors that shaped Cornwall as it is known today. In each decade from 1861– 1901, the County of Cornwall lost at least 20% of its male population following a decline of the mining industry. In total, the county lost over a quarter of a million people between 1841 and 1901. My Great-Great Grandfather Benjamin Thomas, was among those who left St. Just in search of work in the South African diamond mines; reluctantly leaving behind a wife and eight children. We have his letters from that time when he wrote home weekly, from the time of his departure from Lisbon in February 1888, until his death in July of that same year. He loved the sea and wrote about his long voyage, the beauty of Madeira and spotting of whales. However, he didn’t go ashore for lack of funds; sailing past the Canaries, across the Equator and on into port in Johannesburg.

While the family letters to him are lost, his letters are filled with responses to their news and his clear affection for his family;[ adjusting to sleeping alone while missing his wife’s “warm back”, along with special notes of encouragement and fatherly advice for each of his eight children. Throughout his correspondence it is painfully evident how difficult the economically necessary separation was from both his wife and children, for him and for them, and how deeply he longed to return, along with much needed funds.

One of our family ghost stories maintains that my Great-Great Grandmother, Emma, knew that her husband was dead long before an official letter arrived with the tragic news from the mining company. Down in South Africa, the local news carried reports of a fatal accident on July 10, 1888 in the De Beer’s diamond mine in Kimberley; due to management flaunting safety regulations, which resulted in the death of over 200 workers. (University of Cape Town Judge Papers, B 47, Commission of Inquiry into De Beer’s Mining Disaster, August 4, 1888). As a newly shocked and grieving widow, Emma never believed that fire story. Sometime afterward, she related. and only to close family, that late one evening, days before that awful letter, she had clearly “seen” her husband trying to warm and dry himself beside their coal stove. Dripping wet, he briefly appeared, to tell her that he was so sorry and that he had drowned in a flooded mine shaft …and so she already knew.

Cornish people who migrated to various parts of the world were often known as “Cousin Jacks”, especially in the mining communities. During the 18th and 19th centuries the Cornish led the world in mining technology and Cornish expertise in hard rock mining was highly valued. This term apparently evolved from a story that these immigrants were often asking for a job for their “Cousin Jack” back home; “Jack”, being the most popular name for Cornish boys, christened John. Their diaspora can found throughout the USA, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Latin America and Australia; where they brought along their wrestling competitions, saffron buns, meat pasties, brass bands, carols, love of nature, and Wesleyan Methodist chapels.

Since I am soon headed to Australia, I did a bit of research which turned up the fact that Moonta, in South Australia, hosts the largest Kernewek Lowender (Cornish Happiness) Cornish festival in the world; which attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year. Recent ethnographic studies reveal that something like 4.3 percent of Australians identify as Cornish, which makes them the fourth largest Anglo-Celtic group in Australia; after the English, Irish and Scots…never mind that the Anglo Saxon English are not necessarily Celts and we find no mention of the Welsh. In any event, I am looking forward to this entirely new adventure.

And while we are on the subject of Cousin Jack, of the several versions of this Celtic ballad available now on You Tube, one can find Steve Knightley’s heartfelt rendition offered at the Cambridge Folk Festival, as well as a performance filmed in Port Isaac Cornwall; setting for the delightful BBC series, Doc Martin, about contemporary village life in fictional Portwenn. Listening once again to “Cousin Jack” with something like my intuitive “third ear”, I now wonder if my puzzling homesick meme is something more than personal, to me and my own family clan, or more likely something intrinsic within the wider Cornish collective. This elusive, often unspoken feeling of homesickness, may even dwell within world-wide emigrant systems in general. A wider question then becomes: to what extent has voluntary or forced emigration shaped our family systems; and influenced our understanding of choice within the tribal loyalties down through the generations and on into our individual lives?

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