In 1976, Stephen Hawking had calculated that once a black hole formed, it started losing mass by radiating energy and that when the black hole evaporated, all information inside it was lost. Almost 30 years later, in 2004, he famously recanted: he now suggested that black holes might, after all, allow information within them to escape.
Where Professor Hawking’s black hole theory might have leaked information like a compartment in the Titanic, my forays into various information vaults have often met with watertight conditions!
Finding a record of Harris’ passage to South Africa was always going to be a challenge. For one, I had a large window within which to find a possible emigration date, that is, 1881 to 1895. Further, as outbound passenger lists from British ports prior to 1890 have not survived, if he had left before this date then it would be almost impossible to pin down the date of his journey to South Africa. On the other hand, it was quite possible that he had departed after 1890. I’ve searched the available departure records from 1890 – as well as the Hamburg and Bremen lists, in the vague and probably unrealistic hope that Harris might have diverted via these ports – and have found nothing of interest.
I decided to follow up on documents held in the National Archives in Pretoria. The Archives’ website has an automated information retrieval system (NAAIRS) which allows one to search for records by name. I found no fewer than 49 records against the name “Saltman”, more than half of them on my grandfather.
I’d learned from a genealogy chat board that the archivists at NAAIRS might be unwilling to retrieve records for me, but I made an approach anyway. The folks on the chat board were right. I received a fairly perfunctory response from NAAIRS advising that staff were too busy to carry out research on behalf of people and I was best to contact a private researcher to do this for me. No names were offered.
Wanting some respite from cold emailing, I turned my attention to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD). Bubbles had given me the name of their archivist, Naomi Musiker. I learned from her that the SAJBD had no records for the nineteenth century, the consolation prize being a few snippets about my two siblings’ swimming prowess and my brother and sister-in-law’s triplet daughters. Nothing new there…
SACS school has a well-established “Old Boys” network with the name of a contact – Sandy Edwards – prominently displayed on its website. In my email to Sandy I would mention that my brother was an Old Boy, just to reinforce the connection. Her reply was swift and cheery; yes, she knew my brother who was in regular contact with the Old Boys Union. That was the good news. The bad news was that records on old boys only went back as far as 1905-06. She suggested I contact the University of Cape Town Alumni office for further information. Well, UCT was on my list anyway, so now was as good a time as any to initiate an inquiry.
UCT employs about 4,500 staff members of whom more than half are administrative or support staff. Somewhere in and among them had to be a person who could help me substantiate Harris’ attendance record.
Without any leads, I emailed my request to the alumni@uct address. Anyone who has directed email to a generic address – info@ is another example – will know that this carries with it the risk of a nil or, at best, tepid response. Suffice to say that I have long since given up on expecting alumni@uct to reply to my email.
If I wanted information from that institution, then I would have to try another approach.