EJANZH: Brooking review of MacGibbon

Review of John MacGibbon, Going Abroad. The MacGibbon family and other early Scottish emigrants to Otago and Southland, Wellington: John MacGibbon, 1997. 231pp. ISBN:

Reviewed by Tom Brooking.

John MacGibbon shows other family historians how it should be done in this excellent publication. What makes the work stand out is his concerted ettempt to place the story of one family in its broader context.

MacGibbon goes to considerable pains to sketch in the Scottish/Glaswegian background to emigration and then pays the same attention to the history of early Otago/Southland. As a result the history of his family is carefully related to events going on around them. Given the quite extensive and readily available literature on emigration, paying greater attention to historical context is not all that difficult, but few family historians bother to try.

Single family narratives in themselves hold out little interest to the general reader or historians but something like this is quite different. So we learn why grocer John MacGibbon left Glasgow and how his reasons for leaving differed from those of other Scots. Reproduction of his diary then helps us learn how his and wife Jane’s ship board experiences and differed from those of other emigrants on the voyage out. The book then traces the MacGibbon family’s move from shopkeeping in Caversham to the Otapiri (Glenure) run in Southland. Once again the author distinguishes himself by comparing his relative’s fortunes with those of other more well known runholders.

Like many farmers, the MacGibbons had their ups and downs and John reverted to mercantile activities to help support his growing family. The auctioneering and stock agency founded at Matuara flourished as the long depression of the 1880s lifted in the mid 1890s and the family became comfortable pillars of the local community. Three of John and Jane’s sons engaged in extensive community service on school committees, education boards and county councils. Eldest son Thomas even rose to become a member of the Legislative Council.

This intriguing tale of social mobility is supplemented by many well chosen illustrations, including photographs, maps, lithographs, cartoons and drawings which amplify the text and deepen the sense of context. Obituaries, advertisements and posters add to the feel and texture of the period under discussion. Overall, the thoroughly professional design of the book greatly enhances its appeal.

If I put on my somewhat cranky professional historian’s hat the book is a touch too celebratory at times, and I would have liked a little more discussion on how typical the MacGibbons’ experiences were compared with other Glaswegian business families who emigrated to Otago/Southland. Historians such as Claire Toynbee, for example, argue that only the successful celebrate their genealogy. Similarly, Peter Gibbons, influenced by Australian historian Henry Tudor, warns that ‘founder myths’ exaggerate the character and tenacity of our pioneers. It may be harsh to criticise MacGibbon on these grounds, but it would have been good for him to have addressed such questions in some greater depth. Otherwise, I regard this book as exemplifying how family history should be written. I can thoroughly recommend it to genealogists anywhere in New Zealand who are pondering how to write up their own family history.

Dr Tom Brooking is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Otago. [email protected]