Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Several years ago, in the context of my document on maternal genealogy entitled A Little Bit of Irish [access], I tackled briefly (in the final four pages of chapter 2) the idea that my great-great-grandfather Charles Walker [1807-1860] might have been Scottish rather than Irish. In my analysis of the evidence, I made use of a principle employed in historical research concerning the stories of Jesus. At the time of writing about my Braidwood ancestor, I had forgotten where I had heard of this principle, which I evoked in a rather fuzzy manner. Well today, quite by chance, I discovered both the name of the principle and a good description of its origins and use.

Invented by the prolific American historian Will Durant [1885–1981], the principle has an amusing name: the criterion of embarrassment. Faced with a questionable item of alleged historical data, we should ask the question:
"Can we consider this item of data as somewhat embarrassing for the people who were writing the history in question?"
If so, then the item has a good chance of being valid, because historians wouldn't have retained data that was, not only embarrassing, but false. Put differently: Historians are only tempted to falsify the alleged facts that they are describing when the outcome of this falsification is likely to be positive; and embarrassing facts cannot normally produce a positive outcome.

In the case of my Braidwood ancestor, the idea that he might have been a Protestant Scotsman was indeed embarrassing for Walker descendants, since most of them had become members of Irish Catholic communities in Australia. And the situation was particularly embarrassing when we realize that 32-year-old Charles Walker might have lied blatantly about his background with the sole aim of being authorized to marry a girl who infatuated him: the 17-year-old daughter of an Irish convict. Consequently, the speculation that Charles might have been brought up as a Scottish Protestant was so outlandish that this rumor should normally have been squashed forever as soon as it first appeared.

Eliminating the rumor should have been a simple matter. It would have been sufficient to produce documentary evidence of Charles's birth, supposedly in Cork, along with other basic evidence linking him to Ireland. But no such documents have ever been brought to light. Although Charles Walker was employed on an English vessel, the Caroline (the ship that had taken the Henty brothers and their merino sheep to Western Australia), and in spite of his reputation as a respectable and prosperous citizen and a friend of certain distinguished English landowners in the Braidwood region (such as Captain John Coghill and Dr David Reid), we know less about Charles Walker's background in the Old World than for any other of my many Australian ancestors.

Funnily enough, the rest of the speculation, today, is not at all embarrassing for a descendant such as myself. Back in 1980, I was informed that one of Charles Walker's grandsons used to tell an amazing story about his Braidwood grandfather.

The storyteller, John Albert Walker, claimed that his grandfather Charles who had come out to New South Wales on a ship in 1833 was in fact a young brother of Johnnie Walker [1805-1857] of Kilmarnock, the inventor of whisky.

I've tried to research this speculation, but have been incapable of either confirming or disproving the question.

In recent years, the criterion of embarrassment has been used above all in investigations concerning the so-called historical Jesus: that's to say, the real man behind all the evangelical fantasy upon which the future religion of Christianity would be based. Prominent adepts of the criterion of embarrassment are to be found among the 150 or so scholars who belong to an amazing organization known as the Jesus Seminar, founded in 1985 in Oregon. They operate in a most democratic manner, voting by means of colored beads in order to express a consensus view on whether Jesus might or might not have made such and such a statement. Beads are of 4 colors: red, pink, gray and black.

Click here to examine some of their conclusions, many of which would horrify the pope.

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