David Bouchier: Who Was I?

Jan 29, 2018

Genealogy, the study of family history, has been around forever. Royal and aristocratic families existed only because they had, or pretended to have, a line of distinguished ancestors stretching back into the distant past. The right ancestors were essential, and the role of the genealogist in every age, was to find the right ancestors, whether they existed or not.

This particular kind of knowledge has never appealed to me. Even as a child, I suspected that my family was a bit peculiar, and that the less I knew about them the better. Genealogy is like archaeology – most of the really interesting stuff is buried beneath the surface. The portions of my family visible above ground, so to speak, didn't offer any great hopes that digging down into the past would produce anything very impressive, or even respectable. Years ago, some incautious research into my father’s side of the family came up not with French aristocrats as we had hoped but with a family of French circus people – probably clowns.

Yet there seems to be a national craze to find our roots, driven by websites like Ancestry.com and television programs like The Generations Project; Who Do You Think You Are? and Genealogy Roadshow. Fortunately the discoveries made by genealogical research are usually so vague and uncertain that they can be ignored. If you like the conclusions you can embrace them as true, especially if something heroic or romantic comes up. If the search reveals nothing but peasants and petty criminals, you can safely ignore it.

What surprises me a little is the new popularity of DNA testing, a kind of biological selfie, which seems to offer a scientific shortcut to the past. The problem with science is that it might give you the real answer, instead of the answer you prefer. DNA only reveals traces of ethnicity, as far as I understand, but even that can come as an unwelcome shock to some people. The companies that provide this service claim that it can point you in the right direction for further genealogical research, discovering your tribe, as it were. But if you turn out, like most of us, to have mixed origins a lot of expensive ancestry tourism may be involved in the follow-up. A friend of mine describes himself proudly as, “half-Chinese, half-African, half-Scottish, half-South American Indian, half-Welsh, part-Barbadian, Trinidadian, and born and bred Guyanese.” He travels a lot.

You can’t help admiring the bravery and optimism of people who really want to know who their ancestors were. I suppose I could take one of these DNA tests out of sheer curiosity, but my ancestors, I strongly suspect, were distinguished only by their complete lack of distinction. The only person with my family name who ever made it into the history books, Sir John Bouchier, signed his name on the warrant for the execution of King Charles I in 1649, which may be seen as a good or bad thing, depending on your opinion of tyranny. But Sir John must have been from a different, and more serious branch of the family. If I can choose my ancestors, and I can, I think I prefer the French clowns.

Copyright: David Bouchier