Yvonne Webb and Alana Boodoo-Suraj
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Tracing your roots
Genealogy is defined as the study of families and the tracing of their lineages and history. Genealogists use oral traditions, historical records, genetic analysis and other records to obtain information about a family. The results are often displayed in charts or written as narratives.
Describing himself as forever a student—a geography teacher by profession for 36 years up to his retirement in 2006, and an avid astronomer—67-year-old Shamshu Deen established himself as a genealogist in 1994 when he published his first book Solving East Indian Roots in Trinidad, a detailed account of his and his wife’s family trees.
While he has dedicated his efforts to the tracking down of records of East Indian immigrants in the national archives of Trinidad and Tobago, Deen says that at the National Archives in Port-of-Spain there is a list called T71 which contains 65,000 African slaves registered between 1814 and 1834 in Trinidad.
The tribes to which these Africans belonged are also listed. Therefore, people of African origin in T&T can trace their ancestries back to these lists using family stories and births, deaths and marriages’ registers at the Register General’s office. This civil registration was started in Trinidad in 1848 and information before that could be researched at the RC & AC church records to take us to the T71 lists.
Much of Deen’s preliminary information came from his mother, who he says had a very good memory about people’s births and dates. He also enjoys talking to the elders who are chock-filled with valuable information if only they would be asked and recorded before passing on. Building on the initial information gathered, Deen started looking for evidence to confirm the stories about various relatives from India. He found his first document in 1972 with the name of the indentured immigrant, Mohammed Mookti, who arrived in Trinidad in 1852 and from whom the Deen clan in Trinidad descended. Now, some 160 years later, Deen has tracked 12,000 people to whom he is genetically related. “Genealogy is akin to detective work,” he declares, “but sometimes you discover some previously hidden or unknown family secrets such as the great-great-grandfather who left his wife for her niece!”
He has been to India to do research, sponsored by the government of India through its embassy in Trinidad, the result of which was his 1998 publication of his second book, Lineages and Linkages: Solving Trinidad roots in India. Among those whom he has assisted in finding their roots in India are former prime minister Basdeo Panday and Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
He has been appointed by Unesco to be part of the Memory of the World programme to save indentured Indian Documents in the West Indies and the Diaspora. He now serves as member of the National Heritage Trust Council, chairman of the Nelson Island Restoration Committee, member on the Advisory Committee on Heritage Tourism, and is researching at UTT in the creation of a National Genealogical Database. Deen is the holder of the Humming Bird Gold Medal which he was awarded in 1997.
Q: When and where were you born and where did you grow up?
A: Born in Preysal Village and grew up in Gasparillo.
At what schools/institutions did you receive your education?
I attended Gasparillo Government, San Fernando TML and Naparima College. I received my education up to the BA level in Trinidad at UWI and a Masters in Education in Canada.
How did you get into your line of work?
I got into family roots due to my deep interest in listening to elders recall their history and ancestries. Also, because of my love for old documents, newspapers and archives in general…these two components are essential to being a genealogist.
Do you have any favourite stories from your current work life?
Some of my favourite stories: seeing a whole India village weep when they realised someone had relatives abroad; uniting an adopted girl, now a young woman, with her biological mother; witnessing two prime ministers meet their India relatives after three generations, and actually losing their spectacles in the emotional embraces.
How do you best describe the type of work you do?
My work is really to try to link families across the world after they have been separated for a hundred and more years.
What are a couple of your most memorable roots tracings?
One of my favourites was finding my own relatives (after weeks of research among documents) in India and wanting to run up and kiss the red-dyed fingers of my 18-year-old Jolaha (weavers) relative (from our Preysal lineage) as he sat at his mill in Zahurabad village, Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh. Also I remember my old Charlieville relative who had not spoken for a month but opened up to me offering a story which became the solution of the arrival of my Azamgarh relatives aboard the SS British Empire in 1875.
The one place you would like to visit and why?
I will like to use information from the T71 lists of African Slaves to Trinidad 1814-1834 to try and find present day relatives for peoples of African descent in T&T.
If you had to interview someone from T&T who you did not know and had to ask just one question, who would it be and what would be the one question?
Hope you will let me, like John Keats, allow my fancy to roam and interview my great, great grandfather Munradeen, who died in 1889, and ask him about the Indian village from which he came in 1858, as that info was only put on the Emigration Passes from 1859. In that way I can seek out relatives from that line of my family.
Who was your hero or “idol” growing up (fictional or real or both) and why?
My hero was the boxer Muhammad Ali who, as the song said of him, learned to depend on himself and to do things others felt were not in tune with the rest of prevailing thought. In some ways my opening forays into genealogy were frowned upon by some intellectuals, friends and relatives but I think that has changed now.
Which of your work(s) do you rate as the most satisfying and memorable?
My first book, Solving East Indian Roots in Trinidad (1994), saw the outpouring of my family histories and the methodologies I developed till then. My others were satisfying to me too as were some of the documentaries and articles I worked on, but I guess the beginning is always treasured most.
What upcoming plans or events do you have in store?
Over the past 20 years I have had the opportunity of being part of family reunions among my blood relatives. Five such reunions were held and repeated over the years. Only two years ago I was able to find the arrival documents of my wife’s paternal and maternal ancestors. On next Easter Sunday, March 31, there will be a re-enactment of this arrival when relatives will gather to welcome these ancestors to our shores. On Wednesday April 3, a Choka Fest will celebrate their traditional method of cooking when several chokas will form the basis of a meal accompanied by chulha-cooked saada roti especially by the hundreds of relatives from abroad. Then on Sunday April 7, the Arrival Anniversary will be commemorated in fine style with a grand banquet to be held at JR &D Complex, Princes Town, not far from the Craignish Estate to which these ancestors were indentured from 1869 to 1871.
Several activities are planned for that event including a fashion show of long ago, family collages, artifact displays and greetings from prominent people. There is also an Indian arrival programme in mid May to be staged at Nelson Island where I am the chairman of the restoration committee. Of course I am also advocating for 2014 to be declared as the Year of Family Reunions so that as many families as possible will celebrate their ancestors and all relatives at home and abroad. For further information on tracing your roots contact Shamshu Deen at 655-2911; 336-8777 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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