Tuesday, 2 April 2013

This fallen apple.

One of my goals for setting up this blog was to research and write about a fascinating man, one I discovered nestled in the leaves and branches of my family tree. His name was Thomas Melvill and he is my fourth great grandfather. He was born in 1758 in Scotland, travelled the world many times and died in South Africa in 1814 at the ripe old age of 55. These fact seems unremarkable until you learn that they frame a truly unusual life.

But first, going back a little...

I have always been fascinated by genealogy, even before it became fashionable or TV shows like 'Who Do You Think You Are' became mainstream. I can remember sitting at my grandmothers kitchen table in Port Elizabeth, South Africa when I was around six years old and asking her to tell me the names of her parents, her brothers and sisters, her grandparents, and wanting to know their stories. My beloved grandmother, who I called Nanna, brushed me off saying I didn't need to know all of that stuff but the thing is, I think I do. For me anyway, its a journey of discovery and identity. Its about knowing where I came from and why my life has unfolded the way it has. 

About eight or nine years ago I started to turn my whimsical (and distinctly unfashionable) interests  into proper research and my mum-in-law introduced me to an online family tree research forum called Geni. By plugging in the bare basics and collaborating with several family members, more and more fascinating people began to emerge from my genetic canopy. For example, Piet Retief (that bastion of white south african history and much lauded/loathed Voortrekker leader) turns out to be a cousin. If only I had known that sitting through endless primary school lectures on the Groot Trek. I might have woken up a little!

It turns out I am related to a lot of people. (Well, everyone in fact.) But for some inexplicable reason I find myself repeatedly drawn to one fascinating man, my fourth great grandfather Thomas Melvill. I have 64 fourth great grandparents, so its hard to articulate exactly why this one keeps drawing my attention but there you have it. I am besotted. The more I learn, the more I seem to want to know. And this blog is intended, at least in part, to track my discoveries and my opinions and to form the basis of a book I hope to write for my family.

Thomas Melvill was a master mariner, a ship's captain, a transporter of convicts, a world traveller and international prize-winner. One article refers to him as the 'man who saved Sydney' when he brought food and supplies to the then struggling Australian convict colony in 1794. He was a surveyor, a captain in the Australian Third Fleet, an explorer and in time, a prisoner-of war. He was once the world expert on whaling and he was part of a team that killed the first ever whale in Australian waters. The then governor of New South Wales awarded him a trophy for this achievement. He was the second ever legal whaler to round Cape Horn in the Friendship in 1789, at a time when this was thought almost impossible to do. The British Government awarded him a prize of L600 (British Pounds) for this  ground-breaking (water-breaking?) accomplishment. 

I find it both humbling and impressive that Melvill could sail around the world without the use of a satellite or a GPS when I struggle to make it to the local supermarket without one. I wonder what it must have been like to be in a tiny rowing boat, trying to spear something larger than a bus with something about the size of a safety pin. Well, you know what I mean. How strange it must have been to see sailors and colleagues struck down with scurvy and to not fully understand why this was happening. And how remarkable, really, that he survived.

Melvill retired in South Africa where, amongst other things he set up a ships chandler store in Cape Town and stood security in court for a black man who was applying for British citizenship. I don't know for sure, but I feel that this must have been really unusual at the time. He was also a prisoner of war for a time, when he and other British subjects refused to swear oath to the Batavian Republic. He and his son John used this time to build a boat.

Melvill has left his mark in numerous ways. There is a street in Parramatta, Sydney, named after him, in the place where he once owned property, and another in Hobart named in his honour by his son-in-law and Tasmanian surveyor George William Evans. His children continued his surveying feats, and the suburb of Melville in Johannesburg is named after his great-grandson Edward Harker Vincent Melville.  If exploring unknown lands and sailing unexplored seas wasn't enough, Melvill's great-great-great grandson Mike Melvill became the first ever commercial astronaut to pilot a ship into space and bring it back safely back to to earth in 2004.

They say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. While I know there will be no space-exploring adventures in store for me, lets hope that this particular fallen apple can accomplish something special in her lifetime, even if its just reporting on a truly remarkable man. 

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