Tracing back the family tree gave me something to chew on.
I have always had a soft spot for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founded in 1848. They were writers and painters and as their nickname suggests, they looked not to the future, but to the past. What lay before them appeared particularly grim, as the clanking, belching, greedy Industrial Age roared in. They looked back to a passing era that was like a luminous illusion, spiritually rich and soulful. They chose to focus on the past, rather than follow the path of progress.
It was the Victorian era and the British Empire was conquering and claiming half the world. But these artists – like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holeman Hunt and John Everett Millais – stayed stubbornly rooted in what they saw are a richly spiritual and unsullied beauty. They were the precursors of the hippie generation, but instead of singing struggle songs and chanting “make love not war”, they made paintings that have become classic works.
As I write this, I can almost hear an impatient voice saying “OK, I’m listening but get on with it,” so I will. While I was trawling through a book about the art and poetry of the Pre-Raphaelites, I found a version of my surname in print in a poem that Rosetti wrote about a priest named Johannes Ronge. That’s the kind of “blast from the past” that makes you wonder what comes next and I jumped onto the internet to find more info. I found Rosetti’s poem but that was something of a let-down. It was mawkish and sentimental. It reads in part: Oh! Gentle shepherd, dost thou wear/ Meek flowers on thy hair/ and dost thou pipe a simple song/ And love thy flock the whole day long?
Which made me reach for the Eno fruit salts.
So I dug around and found various accounts of the life of Johannes Ronge I was greatly relieved when I discovered a Ronge with education, a cultured man and a man of courage. Born in 1813, he was one of the free-thinkers of the day and he made the bold move to step away from the traditions of the Vatican. He created a congregation called New Catholics, but that entity eventually split and Ronge went on to create another congregation which he called German Catholics.
In 1848, Ronge and his family moved to England, first into Manchester and then to Leeds, where he and his wife cared for his parishioners, especially the starving children during the woes of the Industrial Revolution. Ronge was also remarkable in that he constantly preached against anti-Semitism.
He was a man of high principals and deep compassion, and when he died in Vienna, his followers started moving through the world, not just in Germany and Europe. Some of the followers went to the US and another group came to South Africa as missionaries. How’s that for a useful clue!
So let me start with my actual name. I was christened Barry Johann Ronge. I am told that my mother had a cadenza when her mother-in-law insisted that I was going to be named Albertus Johannes, after some old granddad. Happily my mom won the battle by cutting my name down to Barry Johann. As for the Ronge surname, my search for the family origins had not produced much to celebrate. I did find a few people called Ronge on LinkedIn, but they are mostly business people promoting their professional skills.
I scoured the internet and found that there are fairly few Ronges in South Africa, but it’s even harder when you look elsewhere. The website Dynastree.com lists approximately 150 000 people called Ronge, who all live in North America. Given the size of North America, that number is miniscule, most of them live in California – all probably trying to get into the movie business.
I traced Ronge familie in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, where they have founded a community called La Ronge on a property which includes a lake and wilderness park. It was, however, a surprise for me to learn in Canada, la ronge translates as “the chewed”. It seems that an army of beavers live close to the lake side and they have chewed down the trees to create dams in the streams and along the lake’s edge. The term le ronge also relates to fur trappers who apparently sat for hours chewing the hides of the creatures they had captured. This made the hides more subtle, which made them more valuable.
That’s not exactly the best image to conjure up when I think of the members of my diminishing Ronge clan.
But I guess we all have family secrets.
I did have a momentary lapse and thought it would be a good idea to stage a country wide indaba, just to see what the other Ronges look like. But then I thought of Trappers munching on their pelts and changed my mind. I reached for a book of Shelley’s poems instead.
Permission given to C.W. Beneke 25.02.2013 to publish to our home page.
This article was originally published in the Sunday Times on 17 February 2013.