(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 4, 2012.)
We grow up in a vacuum, many of us.
After my father died in 1984, I realised I knew virtually nothing of his early life. He hardly ever spoke of his childhood or upbringing, still less of our family history.
Born in 1907, he was of a generation that focused on the present and the future. Life was something you got on with; dwelling on the romantic past didn’t put food on the table or a roof over our heads.
Both Dad’s parents had emigrated from Denmark (though his father was of French descent), but we grew up largely ignorant of any cultural heritage. His knowledge of Danish, as far as we were aware, was limited to a few words.
It was almost as if the du Fresne family had magically sprung into being fully formed in the Manawatu, where Dad was born. Our deeper origins went unacknowledged.
In this respect, the du Fresnes were typical of many New Zealand families with non-English roots who were subtly discouraged from keeping alive their cultural traditions. There was pressure to conform and assimilate: to learn English, knuckle down and not make waves.
The several thousand Scandinavian migrants who settled in the lower North Island in the late 19th century – my grandparents among them – quietly complied. They rolled their sleeves up, went to work and learned to become New Zealanders (much as Dutch immigrants did several decades later).
For them, the past literally was another country – one they left behind psychologically as well as physically.
It’s often the following generation that seeks to recapture what has been lost, and so it turned out with my family. In our case it was my cousin Yvonne du Fresne who immersed herself in the family history.
The oldest of my generation by some margin, Yvonne grew up amid the Danish community in Palmerston North , the older members of which still spoke their mother tongue, at least in private. An observant and precocious child, she soaked up their language, their songs, their food, their traditions and their stories.
The experience of being among these people shaped Yvonne’s life and her later career as a writer of novels and short stories, which drew heavily on her Scandinavian heritage and on the experiences of migrants struggling to preserve their identity in an Anglo-Saxon society.
The rest of us cousins, it must be said, showed little interest. We had our lives to get on with and would sometimes roll our eyes, figuratively speaking, when Yvonne talked, as she frequently and earnestly did, about our Danish and French connections. But it has become clear to us in recent months that we owe her a great debt.
You see, the first-ever du Fresne family reunion will be held next month in Nelson. To coincide with this occasion, a family history has been written (also a first). Had Yvonne not accumulated such a body of knowledge about our past, the publication would have been … well, perhaps not impossible, but certainly not as complete.
Largely as a result of her efforts, we have been able to piece together a narrative that traces our family’s origins back to the birth of Lambert Dufresne (as the name was then spelt) in the town of Warquignies, in what is now southern Belgium, in 1688.
The Dufresnes were French Huguenots – Protestants forced to flee religious persecution by Catholic France. They initially resettled in Prussia but in 1720 found permanent sanctuary, at the invitation of Denmark's Protestant king, in the Danish town of Fredericia. There they remained part of a tight French Huguenot community, on good terms with their Danish neighbours but determined to preserve their distinct identity.
My grandfather, Abraham Heinrich Dufresne, a master builder, emigrated to New Zealand in 1890 and made for the Manawatu, where his cousin, Reformed Church pastor Abraham Honoré, had settled years earlier. There my grandfather met and married Anna Clausen, youngest daughter of a family that had arrived from Denmark in 1875.
Like the Dufresnes two centuries earlier, the Clausens had been displaced by the turbulent currents of history. When the Prussian army invaded Denmark in 1864, bent on reclaiming the region of Schleswig, the decisive battle was fought on the Clausen farm near the town of Dybbol. The graves of Danish soldiers, buried where they fell, still surround the farmhouse today.
After the Danish forces were routed, thousands of families emigrated rather than live under Prussian rule. The Clausens chose to come to New Zealand because the Lutheran bishop Ditlev Monrad, a former Danish prime minister, had spent time in the Manawatu and returned to Denmark promoting New Zealand as a destination.
The Clausens remain a well-known family in the Manawatu (and stalwarts of the Lutheran Church) to this day. And evidence of my grandfather’s skill as a builder survives in the form of Kaingahou, the magnificent homestead that he built for Bishop Monrad’s grandson on the main highway just south of Palmerston North.
Abraham and Anna produced an interesting family. In the 1930s they moved to Eastbourne, near Wellington, where the du Fresne home was the venue for lively left-wing political discussions and celebrated musical soirees attended by Jewish refugees from Europe.
My apolitical father bemused his radical family, and caused consternation in the Danish Lutheran community of Palmerston North, by marrying a girl from a staunch Irish Catholic family and converting to Catholicism.
Dad’s youngest sister Elsie and her husband, the journalist and historian Dick Scott, were members of the Communist Party at a time when involvement in left-wing politics carried considerable risks. (Both quit the party in protest at the Soviet Union’s brutal putdown of the 1956 Hungarian uprising.)
Nelson figures prominently in the family story too. My father’s two younger brothers settled there in the post-war years – Viggo at Ruby Bay and Chris at Mapua. Viggo became the first licensed commercial winemaker in the South Island, pioneering viticultural techniques (such as planting classical European vines in unforgiving stony ground) that have since become the norm.
Chris was one of the earliest Nelson potters and later campaigned tirelessly for official action over the highly contaminated Fruitgrowers’ Chemical Company site at Mapua. Often dismissed as a stirrer, he was ultimately vindicated long after his death when the government took over the site in 2004 and instituted a massive cleanup. (Ironically, the decontamination project was supervised by Chris's daughter, my cousin Jenny Easton.)
Pulling these stories together in a coherent family history has been richly satisfying for my cousins and me. The sad irony is that Yvonne, who did so much to make us aware of our heritage, won’t be around to enjoy the forthcoming celebrations. She died last March, aged 81.