Christmas Tree – Genealogy of an Island

Hélène Bartleson

The following paper was presented by Hélène Bartleson at the National Archives of Australia in Perth on 23 February 2010.

Well it's barely afternoon, but good afternoon everybody. It's lovely to see you all here. Thank you for coming along to the National Archives in Perth and to my session in particular. What I'm going to be talking to you about this afternoon is my version of a genealogical project.

Sometimes I look at it now and think 'Who's idea was this?' but what I'm basically doing is a genealogy of Christmas Island, Australia's Territory in the Indian Ocean with a West Australian postcode which started settlement as we know it from 1898.

Now from my point of view, it's a labour of love. Any genealogist, anyone who's interested in it, knows that this isn't a short-term, five-minute project. You have to be patient, you've got to be persevering, you have to deal with the frustrations, you have to treat things positively, as challenges, as treasure hunts rather than hurdles to be leapt over. Mind you, when I've actually leapt over one I feel a bit like Superwoman.

So let's share some of this with you. I've made this reasonably short so that you have time for comments and questions at the end so if you feel the urge to ask something there will be time at the end, okay?

This is genealogy on a large scale and the outcome of it is actually a searchable database and a set of small books that go with it. The books will stand alone and the first one of them is out already. They provide a context to what's on the database. When this database is finished it will have between 15 and 20,000 entries on it with as much information as I've been able to find in the time that I've been working.

The database format is very practical. It's cheaper to update annually and I'm sure the search will go on. There is no end to a story like this. It is the classic never-ending story and anyone who's into genealogy knows about that, as well.

Now in this process of development the National Archives has an absolutely critical role from my point of view. It is in fact a treasure trove. We didn't always know that. They didn't know that until I started asking questions and we've been working together fairly much since 2005 on this, and as I ask questions they explore the kilometres of records that they have and they've discovered strange filing categories whose meanings have been lost in time and the contents of which have been lost in time and are now being rediscovered. So it's a voyage of discovery both for them and for me. And I have to say, in the last several years we have become something of a very effective team.

I, by the way, am Hélène Bartleson. I'm not from Western Australia; I'm from New South Wales. I live in the Blue Mountains. I come and go regularly. I am retired. I've been doing this for years but now this is Retirement 101. So it's interesting from that perspective as well.

Once I've located and assessed information, and therein lies a challenge in itself – actually locating information both from within this collection and from other collections and sources. When you're looking at 20,000 entries, every piece has to be assessed on its worth. I do have a good memory, being an ex-schoolie, but it's not that good, especially now that I'm at Retirement 101 stage. I have 'senior' moments on the odd occasion, the very odd occasion! But eventually, with the help of my trusty laptop, I've set up a simple system which I'll explain to you as we go through, in case it’s going to be of valuable assistance to you at some point.

I select and I put pieces together in a format that's not only appropriate for the end result, the database and the books, but most importantly does justice to the item that we've chosen to use. And also to what I call giving these things an added value, so that when other people see them little bells of interest start to ring. That says 'Wow!' and if you get a 'Wow' or an 'Ah' moment every so often, feel free to say 'Look at THAT!'

And yes, so...

What inspired this moment of madness? [HB quotes from accompanying slide which has the following quotes:

  • 'To better know ourselves and where we're going, we must understand where we've been.' ... 'Our hidden history...', '... it was an experience they shared with the miners of Christmas Island.'
  • 'Shù gāo qiān zhàng, yè luò guī gēn.' ... which translates to: 'Though a tree grows a thousand zhang tall, its leaves still fall back to its roots.']

My father, in part, and it takes us back a ways, in terms of genealogy, although I didn't know what it was when I was four or five years old, but he would say something along those lines 'To better know ourselves and where we're going, we must first understand where we've been'. And, he was always in old cemeteries. He was fascinated by old cemeteries and if he could find an old cemetery that had Chinese headstones in it, he thought he'd died and gone to heaven! So when I was with him, saying 'Dad, I can't read this, what does it say?' 'I don't really know' or 'Why is it interesting?' 'Because it's our hidden history...' 'What do you mean Dad? Can I read about it somewhere else?' 'No, that's what hidden history is; at the moment, there are no books about these people.' 'Well how do you know, Dad?' 'Well, when I was a boy, the local tinker used to come around with a cart on the outback stations where my father was a shearer. Your grandfather was a shearer, and this fellow was Chinese and I used to help him unload the cart and he would tell me about his life, and from there I was hooked.'

And from there, I in turn, was hooked. He was fascinated by their lives, I was fascinated by their language which I did eventually get to study, and it has been a huge help to me, as you'll see shortly.

The second quote came from a very old unsourced document in the mining museum in Ballarat. When in my adult life I became initially a teacher and later an education consultant in languages and curriculum, I have studied Chinese and I thought: 'Yay, Dad, you've put the groundwork in for me' and I have over the years traced most Chinese cemeteries or individual gravestones around Australia ... and I happened to be in Victoria and I came across this quote talking about the experience of the Chinese in the goldfields in Victoria. But attached to this paragraph was this parallel comment. '... It was an experience that these miners shared with the miners of Christmas Island.' And there was one of those bell-ringing moments for me – What! Christmas Island? There's no gold on Christmas Island, but there is phosphate. And I thought, I must find out more. Uh-uh – easier said than done. I tried everywhere. Not a lot online in those days ... very little digitised. A couple of books that were well out of date and a couple of things that were thinly disguised promotional material for the original company that ran the mine, but just looked like a book. And in the end I thought 'Right, what does one do in this situation?' One goes to the source with what one has, and what I had was a very small but invaluable clue.

And the third quote came from my experience in China, combined with that second quote 'Shù gāo qiān zhàng, yè lùo gūi gēn.' It means 'Though a tree may grow a thousand zhàng tall, its leaves will still fall back to its roots.' It's known as a Chinese idiom; we would call it a proverb of sorts.

A zhàng is a very old traditional Chinese measure. This is about the equivalent of 10,000 feet. And this quote always referred in China to those intrepid souls who out of poverty and need, chose to travel far and wide in search of a better life. Those who went to the Californian goldfields, those who came into Victoria, those who went to New Zealand, those who went to the tin mines of Borneo looking for a better life to make a living; this is how they referred to them. The end of that story of course, the falling back to the roots, referred to their wish to be sent home to be buried with their ancestors if they died overseas. So no matter how far they travelled they wanted always to be buried at home with their ancestors. That's where I went. [Christmas Island Map, NAA R175,] In the course of the next stage of this, the majority of these images are from the National Archives collection. Some of them I've already used in the first of the series of books and you can have a look at this one outside if you're interested. This is Golden Leaves but more of that later.

You will notice that its terrier shaped. Anyone who went to Christmas Island to live, to work, had to be a terrier. This island was not terrier shaped for nothing. They had to be feisty, intrepid, determined souls and these people were certainly that.

When I got there I asked 'Point me to the cemeteries.' 'Oh yes! Here, here, here, here and up on top of the hill.' 'Lovely, thank you.' I headed for the Chinese ones first, because there are actually two of them. And because the Chinese were the majority and still are on the island (of its permanent residents, that is), their cemeteries were the largest. And because I had the background language, that's where I started. And under the trees of Christmas Island, not just hundreds of Chinese graves. [Image Chinese grave: presenter's collection] This is one of many examples. They don't all look like this, but I chose this one because this is in fact representative of the earliest miners. The first two characters at the top of the column on your right hand side refer to the Qing Dynasty. This is from approximately 1902, within three years of the Chinese settlement and the very end of the Qing Dynasty. It's the only surviving example on the island of the use of the Qing Dynasty calendar. There are at least four different calendars in use on these headstones and therein lies a challenge, a huge challenge.

[Image Muslim grave: presenter's collection] This, believe it or not, for those of you who particularly have no knowledge of Muslim burials, this is a traditional Muslim grave. They don't traditionally decorate their graves. They bury within 24 hours. The mesan which is what the markers are called, were traditionally made of wood and they were rotted back into the soil. They were not, and are still generally not, permitted under Muslim law to cover in their cemetery graves. They can put the edge around it but within it, it remains open to the sky. It has changed and some do vary it slightly, but this is essentially what you will get.

The other thing, which is challenge number two on a grand scale, traditionally they leave their graves unmarked, so if you lose your documentation, there is nothing to tell you who's there. This of course was a major issue on Christmas Island. Before it became an Australian Territory it was under the British Crown and they gave it to Singapore, Straits of Singapore Admin. It fell to the Japanese in 1942 and so did Christmas Island. They were both occupied by the Japanese, so records were destroyed, records were hastily flung in boxes and sent God know where, and it's part of my task to find them if they still exist. We've had some Eureka moments, but I still can't die before I'm 107!

This is the smaller of the two European cemeteries. This is the old European cemetery. [Image grave of Dr Sara Robertson: presenter's collection] It only has 10 graves in it. It closed in 1950–51 which tells you there weren't too many Europeans who stayed for the long term. They were management; they lived an entirely different colonial-style life in those days. I chose this one because this had to be the most intrepid terrier-like lady, apart from my good self, that I have ever read about. This was Sara Robertson. Sara Robertson was a doctor, a Scottish doctor; a lady before her time, who came to Christmas Island and stayed with her husband because they were both studying beri-beri, and their work on beri-beri is still used today. Unfortunately she got sick, not of beri-beri. She was there only six months, and now she's there forever, but she has left her mark, well and truly.

So how did these people get to Christmas Island and why did they come? We've covered some of that. This map is the detail of the previous one and if you look right at the top, just where the diagonal mark comes down, it's the south-western corner of China. When they employed workers, once they opened the phosphate mine, management didn't get their hands dirty. They contracted out to the work contractors of Singapore, and this was big business in Singapore; a lucrative market, unregulated, and they had a ready supply of peasants, illiterate farmers, suffering from politics, civil war, famine in China and ready to go where they could make a living. So although they were illiterate they'd hop on a junk, head for Singapore and then work their way down to Christmas Island which is sort of in here. [Ref. to Image NAA R175 Christmas Island map – detail]

Unfortunately, while they were looking to make a living, most of them never went home, so leaves to the bases of trees had to be on Christmas Island. This, [Image NAA N29, Album 1, page 23, Group on steps] from the collection here, is one of very few photos where you will see the Chinese workers treated as people, where you can see their faces. Nobody's smiling, they're uncertain, there's fear in some eyes. Some of them look dazed, which could be the opium, which was sold to them legally at the time by management. South-western China – essentially this meant they had lots of dialects that they could understand; they could at least talk to each other.

These two, [Image NAA N29, Album 1, page 70, Chinese children] also from the collection here, are in fact very special, and the other dimension that all these archive resources have provided, particularly for me and they've guided my choice, is they go beyond basic information. They provide a wonderful context. If you're looking at photos like these, you find social history, you find religious history, you find economic history, you find cultural history, and it makes a wonderful context for a database and for the books.

These children are an exception to every rule. Ordinarily at this time Chinese children like these would never have their photos taken. They've obviously borrowed clothing. I don't know whether you can see it but the little boy has shoes on, evidently borrowed; they're quite large. He could get both feet into one shoe; they're not his, but for this occasion, very important! They're going to be in this.

Photos are a very important source of information. This photo actually has writing on the back of it and it names those two children, which is even more extraordinary. Unfortunately it doesn't give their family names but it does provide their given names. It also names the dog.

What about families? The Chinese weren't allowed to bring their families with them. These men in their hundreds came to Christmas Island knowing they were forbidden by their employers to have their families with them, so their social infrastructure became their colleagues, their friends from south-western China, and in particular, those of the brotherhoods who would have been the literate ones who helped them write, who helped them read, if necessary.

This [Image NAA N29, Album 1, page 61, Shooting party] is a very interesting one because there's a Chinese man holding the pigeon on the left hand side. There's a little Malay boy who keeps cropping up. I've found now three pictures of him. His name's been spelt three different ways but unless he's triplets, it's the same boy. He's basically Usuf or Usep. In the middle, we have our management team out for a day's pigeon shooting. They didn't ban it in those days because it was one of the only sources of meat, and of course for the Chinese it was one of the ways to prevent beriberi. Because of the vitamin B1 deficiency, diet was at its heart.

What about their daily lives? [Image NAA N29, Album 1, page 109, Miners loading phosphate skip] This is a daily life that you don't want to have; the daily life of hell. This is the way they mined, phosphate. No occupational health and safety here. This one unfortunately doesn't have any script on the back but it's fairly self-explanatory. They have to expose the phosphate; bare feet, cotton trousers, big wide coolie hat, baskets and a changkil which is like a curved hoe. And in the small version, and I have smaller versions of some of these here, on this side over here, there's a basket here, and the changkil is out here.

These things literally weighed tons, laden, and they loaded them to the top; huge stones of this stuff, and on the way down, it travelled down what they called an incline, a very steep hill, down to the bottom level where it would be loaded into lighters and out to the ships. Those things had no brakes and these men, their jobs, among other things, were to run alongside these skips. Sometimes they tipped off the rails, and these men were very seriously hurt or they died. The numbers of accidents recorded were unbelievable: no statistics in those days but the anecdotal evidence that I have found in administrative reports and so on suggests that life was cheap and they worked hard for their meagre salaries.

When, where and how did they die in other ways? If not beri-beri or the dangers of the job, sometimes it was depression and there are records usually of either drownings, where they just disappeared, or hanging. It's a traditional method of suicide in China and there are quite a few records here, in the National Archives through the coroner's reports of people who just couldn't deal with it any more and took that particular way out.

[Image NAA N29, Album 1, page 40] This is actually noted on the back as well. It's the Murray family and of course the Murrays were one of two owners, long-term owners, of the lease, the peppercorn rented lease. The other one was Clunies-Ross whose name will be familiar to you.

Okay, into the clues, hunting for clues from the very easiest to the most challenging. [Image Red brick Chinese grave with crotons: presenter's collection] This one that you can see is among the easiest. Up close, Chinese headstones have the best information on them for reasons that are very different from our own. It comes back to the falling leaves. If they were far from home, they would say to their friends, their colleagues, their members of the brotherhood, 'This is where I need to go back to.' On one side, you would have 'This is where I come from', going from province down to village on the hillside. On the other side, date of birth if they knew it, and many didn't because they didn't keep records in China, date of death, and the person's name in the middle with certain use of language that tells someone like me what sort of status they had within the local community. There are particular words and expressions that you would only see on a headstone, that are used to give these people the respect that their colleagues thought they deserved and that's how they did it, but this was basically a post-me-home notice. This is where I need to go. If I can't go home beforehand to die, leave me here for the auspicious number of years, which was usually three, dig me up, clean off what's left of me [from my bones], put them in a funeral urn and send me back to this address. That's where I want to be buried.

Now because, in the best of all possible worlds it wasn't going to happen, not even to those who survived, the best they could do was see that they had a proper, respectful grave, and Christmas Island, as a result of its isolation, is a repository, a unique repository, for unique archives. Balanced against the archive collection here [the National Archives] is this collection. [Image Chinese grave: presenter's collection] It is the most singular collection of Chinese gravestones that I've ever seen. You will not see these in South-East Asia any more, they've stopped doing it, they've run out of land; they won't allow you to do it any more.

Here, in isolation, nobody could afford the original ones, so they used the materials they had. There you see the ubiquitous red house brick, put to many uses, but I tell you what, if I wanted someone to build my house, I would want the person who constructed that grave. It has not moved in 85 years; it is absolutely rock solid, beautiful.

Its trees aren't the traditional willows and pines, of longevity and respect. On Christmas Island, the croton rules which is why the opening sequence has the croton. Red, gold and green, the traditional colours of long life, prosperity, respect. Crotons everywhere in the cemeteries; along with frangipani, because they represent money, and when the flowers fall it's prosperity for the ancestors.

Where did I start, in the middle of all of this? Start with what I know, no matter how little, and develop a systematic approach knowing what you want to achieve at the end. Do you want a family tree for yourself? Do you want, like me, a system that records 20,000 workers who came here? In my case, keeping records of where I'd been in terms of research was just as important as the outcome, in achieving that outcome in fact.

Everything I find I note down. I have a simple table. What sort of a record it is; is it a file, is it correspondence, is it administrative, is it a photo, is it a diagram, is it a map? If I've looked at it I've got a record of it. If it's got a number, like the system does here, I know where to go back to it, if I need to.

Where did it come from? Where is it now? If it's not here [at the National Archives], where is it? What information did I get out of it? What clues came from it, and where did I go next, because as many things as possible should steer you to the next step. If it doesn't immediately, don't worry, because there will always be pieces in a jigsaw that don't fit into the jigsaw until you're on the downhill run, in the final stages, and that's certainly the case with genealogy. There will always be odd bits; follow the tingling in your teeth and your gut feeling. 'This has a place somewhere here, and I know it does, or should do, so I am not going to ditch it.' I have a file for 'lost' pieces.

The flow chart is where I start building, in the same way, outside, you saw the trees with the flow charts moving across, and building; I'm doing exactly the same thing, only I'm doing it on a database which means I have to decide which fields I'm going to put in the database: family name, given names, aliases, style names because I'm covering multiple cultures, date of birth, date of death, date of burial, anything that is going to flesh out a picture.

Challenges, we've talked about. Records – sometimes you can't get access to them. Here, no digitising when I first started; a few bits and pieces around the NAA's premises in other states, but not a lot. That has changed, even in the time that I've been working; it has changed significantly. They can be fragmented; they can be non-existent.

Names – spellings are a nightmare because if they're Chinese, they're Malay, they're Cocos Malay, they're Indian, you get an anglicised approximation depending on who's writing, because not everybody could write. And if the clerk changes and he hears the pronunciation differently from his predecessor then you get a variation in the spelling and you think 'Is it the same person?' It happens in English, it happens in every language. I've done it in French, I've done it in German; same story. It's a pain in the foot but you have to find ways around it.

Cultural traditions, also. In Chinese and Malay, in Muslim communities, they change their names. When a boy reaches maturity, a man in Chinese can adopt a style name. It's not an alias. They're called aliases in some Anglo records because they thought 'If they've got an alias, if they've got two names, they're up to something, they're up to mischief.' No they're not, it's a long cultural tradition; even Confucius had a style name and if Confucius had it, then hey, it was good for our workers.

Dates – multiple calendars as I mentioned. The Muslim calendar is different from ours; you get all sorts of interpretations. And, if you're Chinese and the date you happened to pop your clogs or your thongs or your bare feet was an inauspicious date, then they would change it so that your ancestor goes to the afterlife on a positive note. So the day they actually died may not necessarily be what's on their headstone. So when you're looking at written records, if you're lucky enough to find them, you have to go back to the old calendar to look at the conversion to see what the nearest lucky day was ... [Hypothetical] This one, and count a couple of days either way to see where the worst one was, and you think 'Ah-hah he probably died there. No self-respecting Chinese would have wanted to die on that date because the numbers are so inauspicious; can't do that to my ancestor. If I want to thrive in this life, he has to be happy in that life. Okay, we'll just make a minor adjustment here.' They did it all the time.

[Image NAA K733, Vol 14, page 27 Chinese Literary Association, with names] This one is wonderful. It is the only copy I have seen of this. It names all but two of these people, absolutely wonderful. If I could find who did it I'd want to kiss them, I really would, because this is really hard yards, to find out who these people are.

We've got some other wonderful photos out of the archives here and we've got absolutely no idea who they are or even what sort of an occasion they're celebrating. We're working on it, and I am absolutely certain I will find somewhere, something which will explain.

There's a great deal in a name. [Image Letter] This, up close, is from a Cocos Malay who wrote a very respectful letter to the Administrator asking Please Sir, if he couldn't officially change his name, and told him what it was; I didn't blow it right up because you can see his name and I wasn't absolutely certain some of his rellies might have been here today. When I came to Christmas, he said, the Imam said my name was too hard to pronounce. I will call you this rather than that, and his name, and therefore his identity, his cultural background, were lost in the change of the name. But once he realised he was able to change his name back legally, he asked if that was possible and whether his children couldn't have their names changed as well because they carry the lines of name into the children's generation. So I have here, not only who he was originally, who he became on Christmas Island, who his children became and who his children became when they changed their names back, and also the name of a very sensible Administrator at the bottom who said 'Yes, why not. Done!' So these sorts of letters can be full of valuable information; lots of names in here. The thumb print says he was illiterate, he couldn't write. There's lots of those in the records here as well.

[Image Muslim grave with name in Jawi script: presenter's collection] This is one of the few gravestones that actually has a person's name just quietly scratched into the cement at the end of the grave. Someone needed to identify their relative's grave. It's not normal practice but again I am absolutely thrilled and it means that I look very closely at headstones and grave surrounds. You would not, having heard this for 20 minutes or so, be surprised to know just how much I have found in funny little corners of headstones on Christmas Island.

[Image Chinese headstone: presenter's collection] This one on the other hand, is challenge extraordinaire, but we have solved it. This one is actually the grave, the only grave of a child in the Chinese cemetery. One, because they didn't have family; the men had no children, no wives, no partners. The Malays did, so did the Europeans. Later on in the European cemetery there are fairly significant numbers of stillbirths and dead children, young children, babies, but in the Chinese cemetery, the biggest population, one grave.

This actually is a Chinese tradition. It's called a waiting stone, a waiting grave. She, and I do know her name, but her name hasn't been published because they don't do it, lián hūa is what's there. It means Lotus Flower but it's not her name. She was buried when she was nearly four years old. By then, it's up to the parents if they choose to bury a child. Normally, if they die as stillborn or infants the Chinese bury them in unmarked graves because they see them as being untouched by the grubbiness of life so they are sent back to Heaven in their purest form so they do not need to mark their time on Earth. They are sent straight back to Heaven whence they came. This little girl, when her younger brother is old enough and in a position to do so, he will actually replace this stone with a full stone that has her name, where she came from, when she died, what her date of birth was, and so on.

[Image from NAA A5343/17, 78/3647] This one, this was one of my first goosebump – 'Aah' moments when I saw this. This is a Kathi seal. A Kathi is a bit further, two rungs down the ladder from an Imam in the Muslim community. Christmas Island at this time wasn't big enough to have a full-time Imam, so they had a Kathi. This is fascinating because it's a blend of Arabic and has the British Crown Seal in the middle – and if you can read Arabic, part of its old form refers to Great Britain. It is a peculiar blend of British and Islam and he used this in his official role, and when I saw it I thought 'His official role was to keep records; read, read, read. Where's the seal now? Where did he send the Seal to, because wherever he sent the Seal to, that's where the records are.' They're in Singapore, so that's my next step on from here; he kept the marriage records, the divorce records. He also had other records because he was into the teaching of the community in terms of the Koran and Islam. So when he completed a set of records he would send them back to Singapore. Some were lost during the Japanese occupation but there are still some there. So this sort of thing, is in fact, a clue. It took me a while but we do know where they are.

[Image from NAA N1/1 DOXI 42A, 1953, two documents] This one is a delight as well. It is actually correspondence about deceased estates and the bottom half of this letter refers to a man who died on island, who had family back in China, living in a tiny village. Ages later, someone translated the English letter sent to his illiterate wife, but she managed to find someone to read it to her, and she managed to find someone to write back. She sent photos of herself and her children asking if 'we could please, Your Honour, have his estate sent to us at this address' which they duly did, but I found both of those not in the same file, in the same place, but my database helped me to track their names back and they are the same thing; they're part and parcel of the same thing and this is an example of what I meant about eventually the pieces coming together.

As is this. [two images NAA K733, Vol 2, page 25; close-up of headstone: presenter's collection] It's not a story of Christmas Island without looking at poor Fred Christian. Freddy Christian was a senior executive for BPC, the British Phosphate Company. He came and went from Christmas Island. There's a collection of his photos here at the National Archives. He had a very good eye and I liked his work because he was quite happy to take pictures of mixed-race groups together; the Malays and Chinese and the Europeans were all together and they were all enjoying themselves and actually talking to each other. It was really interesting to see at the time. Now he came, he had been invited because the old European cemetery was being closed. The last burial there was Mr Lewis, so Fred came along and they officially closed the old cemetery and they had an official opening of the new one which is the one still in use today on the Island. Three days later during his visit Fred collapsed and died and he became the first grave in the new Christian cemetery, for Mr Christian. So, it's just one of those awful ironies and one of the many, many stories that come out of a place like Christmas Island.

This one, on the right is the archive photo, here in the collection. It was taken at the time of his burial. On the other side is one of mine, from my collection because when you look up closer, this man was a returned soldier and he had a DSM and Bar [correction: was actually a Military Cross and Bar]. So I can also go into military records and find out more about Fred Christian, so on the database I am able to add to his story; his military life as well as his BPC career. So the little things that come off the headstones are not exclusive to the Chinese.

[NAA K733, Box 14, Christmas card] This is over there, in an enlargement on the wall. This came in a bundle of correspondence. You wouldn't normally think to look in correspondence but this delightful thing is a hand-drawn Christmas card from Christmas Island. It went to a family who had been on Christmas Island and left, and was sent from a family who stayed there for quite some time. The lady who drew this was quite fond of drawing. This one has multiple connections. It's actually listed down the bottom in very pale writing; it says 'deserted joss house'. We have been able to identify that joss house as the first one on the island, the oldest one on the island. If you've been to Christmas Island you will know Tai Pak Kong, which is a small temple in Settlement. It is the oldest temple and the map up the top from 1902 [Christmas Island Map, NAA R175] over there [wall display] which is also in the National Archives collection in Melbourne, is the first record we have found of a temple being built. We knew there was one there but we couldn't find any record of it. That one there was dated the end of 1902, early 1903, so that is marked on that. So the connections come together again and of course the family names added to mine ... and this [NAA K751, employment card for Kong Moon] Oh, this is just wonderful. This is the most beautiful example of an extraordinary collection that we found here. This collection, which has almost 20,000 files in it, was marked generically with some very odd name, so Marjorie and other members of the staff and I are trawling through these names of files and going past this, and Marjorie asked 'Have you had a look at what's in that file?' and I said 'No, I haven't. I think I should, I've looked at everything else, we'll look at this.' What we found was boxes and boxes and boxes and boxes of employment records but these employment records, messy though they seem to be and messy though it is to go through each one of them and pick out the stuff that goes on to the database, are just sublime because the majority have a photo, at least one photo of the person. If they worked there long enough they have a photo when they first arrived, fresh faced and innocent, another one 20 years later when they're so careworn and worn out you hardly recognise the same person, especially if they're opium addicted; it would just make you cry to see them.

This one is Kong Moon; I've looked in the burial records we have on the cemetery maps on Christmas Island; there are three possibilities because of variations in spelling and these funny things. [ref. to illegible annotations on card] But he did die – on the reverse of his card, it says he died in hospital, the second-last entry there, and there is no indication he was taken off island. His wife stayed until 1971 and that says she stayed with him on the island, he was there on the island, so she stayed as long as she could. Now on the first side it also said when he was born, where he came from, what language he spoke, his wage rates, 17 different wage rates over the time he was there from 1924 until he died in 1960. He was born in the late 1800s, had two sons, un-named but I've found one, I think, in another record; it's another one of those pending things.

[Composite image employment card Ee Wah; Death Register entry; Christmas Island cemetery map record written as Yee Wah] This one is where we've been able to track the pieces together. The employment record has the same sort of data on one side. Over in this corner, entry number 20, with a different spelling to his name surprise, surprise, and the faded piece at the top which you can see better on the record itself is the actual death and burial record in 1958 on Christmas Island. His name is there, the dates match up and it tells you how he died. I'm still looking for the coroner's report which would give me times and so on. It is here somewhere, but I think what I'm missing is the variation in the spelling.

Life is easier now because I have the database and I'm at the point of cross-referencing all of these little pieces. If I put it in my database up pops a version if I've already got it in there, so I know if I've got a starting point on my database. That's why I started the database. I knew I would never remember all of this, no matter how hard you try. So the database, both as an end point and as part of the process is this, value added; it has multiple uses and I can keep putting things on it. But it's incomplete. The research, the search goes on, the writing goes on.

The second book, the Muslim community, is due out next year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their mosque.

The Chinese one, the community asked if we could launch it in 2008 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Christmas Island as a territory of Australia, so we did that. Now much of what's in this is examples of what I've talked about but it explains for people who may be interested in following the Chinese line of their ancestry to be able to read a headstone, to understand what's happening, what sort of traditions are involved, why things are the way they are, as well as giving an historical context to the database.

The third book is the European community and its cemeteries.

The fourth book is 18 temples and six official shrines on a 134 square kilometre island, all of them still in use, all of them active; and there is now to be a fifth book. The Chinese community have asked me to add a fifth book which will be a history of the Chinese Literary Association, and that was that big group with all the names, so they were cheering when they saw that picture with the names on it because they don't have any records either. I have the records, so we work together.

If you're interested in copies of this or more information I will be outside later and if you want closer looks at some of the pictures I've got some of those here as well.

If you want to ask questions we've got a few minutes. If you want to follow up outside I am here for the rest of the day so if you want to think about it and pop back I will be out the front, more or less where the evaluation feedback forms are that you'll find me out there.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017