July 24, 2019

The importance of genealogy: Understanding our multicultural society

by admin in Uncategorised

Anyone who witnesses the debates about migration, may think it is an issue of modern society. Nothing is less true: migration has always been part of our history. Ask genetic genealogists about it and they will explain that migration patterns are the reason why we are, who we are and how we are. Historians can spend hours and hours on stories, for example about the many invasions of tribes into Europe after the decline of the Roman Empire.


Image: Antwerp, a popular harbour for migrants from Europe


People have always moved around because they were looking for prosperity. Others were forced to move to ‘better’ places because of their economic, political or religious situation. According to the Netherlands Centre for the History of Migrants, 98% of the Dutch have ancestors from outside the country! Can you imagine?

When we start to to investigate our family history, we quickly find men and women who migrated from one country to another, or even between continents. Here are a few examples:

  • Spain forced Jews to leave the country in 1492, Portugal did the same in 1497. Between 100,000 and 300,000 people fled to the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, the Netherlands, France, Italy and England.
  • Huguenots were expelled from France by the end of the 17th century because of their religion. Between 1685 and 1710 more than 300,000 people relocated to Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, England, Scandinavia, Russia or South Africa. Those who left for England often moved on to Ireland or the United States.


Image: The former immigration inspection station, Ellis Island (New York)

  • More than 150,000 convicts were shipped from England to penal colonies in Australia. Many Australian families descend from one or more of these ‘criminals.’
  • The Potato Famine in Ireland not only caused more than a million deaths, it also forced millions of others to move to the United States, Australia or New Zealand.
  • Between 1860 and World War I about 9 million Italians emigrated, mainly due to a lack of arable land. The majority settled in South America. More than 30 million Brazilians have Italian ancestors.
  • After World War II, in the 1950s and 1960s about 500,000 individuals left the Netherlands behind, hoping for a better life in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.


Add the effects of colonialism to all this and it becomes clear that almost all genealogists at some point in their research will bump into ‘aliens.’


Image: Italian immigrants arriving in Buenos Aires.

With genealogical research we place our ancestors in a wider context. The extensive study of oral history, literature, documents or artefacts not only allows us to find out who was related to whom but also to understand when, where and how these people from our past lived. We get to know overseas countries and their cultures, different religions and traditions. We learn about the persecution of religious ‘dissidents,’ the backgrounds of wars, unknown political systems and historical events that influenced the life of our forebears.


Image: Hythe cards, old photos and gouache of a young Dutch boy and girl with trees Source: Paul Jonathan Ryan, Flickr

Once we understand why our ancestors made the decision to give up their familiar environment for an adventure in a distant land, we may also realise that large groups of people in today’s society must make the same decision. What happened then to our relatives, still also happens today to others! This way genealogy can help us develop feelings of sympathy, understanding and respect for people from other countries or members of other cultures.


In the end, knowledge of our colourful past helps us understand our contemporary multicultural society.

Written by John Boeren

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