It’s 1 am in Trinidad and Shamshu Deen, a Trinidadian of Indian descent, is busy joining the missing links of a family tree. “I usually work late hours,” the 85-year-old said, on a telephone call from Tableland town. “When the world is quiet, it’s easier to build connections and find lost family members in the pile of government records that are centuries old. In many ways my work makes me feel like a detective .”

A former school teacher, Shamshu Deen is a genealogist and researcher who has helped hundreds of Indian-origin families in the Caribbean trace their family roots in India. What started as a quest to find his own ancestors has now evolved into a meticulous process that requires both skill and passion. And a lot of what he has discovered helps piece together information about India’s forgotten history of indentured labourers or girmityas, so called because of the agreements they signed about their working terms.

Shamsu Deen.
Shamsu Deen.

Built on false promises

Indians came to Trinidad and Tobago as indentured labourers to work on the sugar plantations after the abolition of slavery in 1833. Famines, destruction of indigenous industries and unemployment under the colonial rule had left large chunks of the population in India without food and basic amenities. These men and women wanted to escape and the British offered them indentureship as a chance to flee to greener pastures.

The Indian labourers were bonded under a contract for five or more years to work as short-term migrant labourers on plantations under the British and the French. (The word girmitiya is a corruption of agreement.) Their passage to the Caribbean was usually paid by the employers and on completion of the contract, they could return to India at the expense of their employer, or settle in their new homeland. In reality, the conditions of work were oppressive, the wages paltry and the agreements were never honoured.

The first boat that arrived on May 30, 1845, with Indian indentured labourers in Trinidad had 225 adult passengers on board who had travelled more than 36,000 km over 103 days. Almost 1.50 lakh Indians took the arduous journey between 1845 and 1917, before the indenture system was abolished in 1920. Many of them never returned. Primarily, they came from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar but a few were from Bengal and the region then called Madras. Their descendants are now the largest ethnic group in Trinidad.

Helping find families

Shamshu Deen is the fifth generation of an Indian family that migrated from Bihar, and at family gatherings he would often spend time with the elderly, listening to their stories about crossing continents. “While I was always gathering information about my family and ancestors, the documentation started with finding [in 1972] the contract of indentureship that my great-great-grandfather signed with the British,” he said. There are 20 volumes of the general registers in the National Archives of Trinidad, which document everything about Indians who travelled during the 72-year period of the indenture system. These are the only source of this information.

The document Shamshu Deen found revealed that his ancestor was an indentured immigrant called Mohammed Mookti who arrived in Trinidad in 1852. His maternal great-great-grandparents left India because of the outbreak of plague.

“Tracing family histories gave me a new profession,” he said. “In 1982, while teaching in a local school, I started videographing weddings. I used to do a little documentary beforehand, talk to the parents, do a map of the route their great-grandparents took, get photos, trace who had which son and so on, till I got to the bride and the groom. This gave me access to hundreds of family histories in Trinidad.”

Apart from scrutinising information from different sources like the General Registers of Immigrants, the National Archives of Trinidad and academic studies, he also met a few survivors of the indenture system. Sometimes over a century old, they shared faint memories, which Shamshu Deen then backed up with research and verification.

Shamshu Deen with Basdeo Panday, who served as prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago from 1995 to 2001. Photo courtesy: Shamsu Deen.
Shamshu Deen with Basdeo Panday, who served as prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago from 1995 to 2001. Photo courtesy: Shamsu Deen.

“The documents have basic details like name, father’s name and [the] district from where they came,” he said. “But this is not enough. When people came to Trinidad, they mostly had their first name documented. So, in a register that documents more than 1 lakh people, sometimes there would be 500 with the same name. Then additional details like caste, district, etc. become crucial.”

After years of hard work, Shamshu Deen finally travelled to India and traced his family to Ghazipur and Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, where he found three sets of relatives and a few in Bihar. Gradually he pieced together his five ancestral streams from India and one of his wife’s. He chronicled the whole process in his first book, Solving East Indian Roots in Trinidad (1994). Since then, Shamshu Deen has helped more than 300 families in Trinidad and Tobago and nearly 10 families in India find their loved ones in the three countries.

“Genealogical research is based on oral history and I realised that when people talk about their ancestors and loved ones, they tend to exaggerate or hide personal details,” he said. “Quite often, when I revealed my findings and information to the case studies, it gradually became a part of their narrative distorting the real account. [So] I learnt never give away the information you have.”

Solving a puzzle

Seventy-five-year-old Balliram Maharaj, a Trinidadian of Indian descent, is one of the many helped by Shamshu Deen. Balliram’s conversations with elderly family members as well as his grandparents’ old pictures, letters, antiques and documents revealed a glorious past, but he wanted to be sure that these were not just figments of imagination.

“My great-grandfather came to Trinidad in 1911,” said Balliram, who owns a supermarket chain. “My father once told me how his grandmother who was pregnant when she left India was injected with something and her aborted baby was thrown into the sea. My wife’s great-grandfather, too, came from India. He went back after the abolition of the indenture system and built a school in his village. He then came back to Trinidad.”

Balliram Maharaj with his extended Indian family. Photo courtesy: Shamsu Deen.
Balliram Maharaj with his extended Indian family. Photo courtesy: Shamsu Deen.

“Shamshu Deen is very meticulous in his approach…” he said. “He traced my paternal family and also my wife’s to India. In 2010 we visited India and found the school in Chetia, in Uttar Pradesh, where my wife’s extended family now lives. When I found a placard inscribed with the year the school was built and the name of the island where my wife’s great-grandfather lived in Trinidad, it felt like I went back in time.”

To trace land records, census data and conduct field visits in India, Shamshu Deen is helped by MN Tiwary, a lawyer from Bihar. The process starts with visits to the record centre or the collectorate. The land records of villages and areas identified from the indenture system are located and Tiwary gets on the tedious job of finding if the father or the ancestor identified owned any land. If he did, Tiwary traces the evolution of land titles up to about 50 years ago when present village elders can direct him to the current owners. They have found that the death records in UP and Bihar from about 1897 also have the deceased and his father’s name, which can help them – as do electoral rolls which can be dated back to the first general election of 1951-’52.

“It is like solving a crossword puzzle,” said Tiwary. “It feels fantastic that I am able to use my legal background and skills for something so worthy. It brings joy to so many people.”

A theory to go by

The success of fieldwork and locating the families in India depends on how accurate and detailed information has been gathered from the case studies in Trinidad. For this, Shamshu Deen relies on his own tactics – “I have coined an interesting dulahin theory to dig out more information. In Trinidad, I get far more information on family history from women than men, starting from my mother. Indian women in Trinidad came with a fair understanding of their own parental family history. As dulahins [brides], they were at home with their husband’s parents, grandparents [and] other elders. So they had the advantage of being close to both family histories.”

In 1997, a letter from India compelled Shamshu Deen to add a new dimension to his work. Gauri Shankar, a resident of Gorakhpur in India, wrote to him through the Trinidad and Tobago High Commissioner in Delhi, requesting him to find his extended relatives in Trinidad. “Shankar’s family was longing to find out what happened to their dear ones who had left generations ago for Trinidad,” he said.

A letter from 1932 revealed details about Shankar’s paternal great-great-grandmother Nidhoie, who ran away from her husband Khelawan and his family, leaving the two children, while taking the rest three with her to Trinidad. “I found Gauri Shankar’s relatives in Trinidad by matching Nidhoie’s details in the immigration passes and the details of her children registered along with her in the indentureship contract.”

The biggest project

By 2010, Shamshu Deen had published a couple of books on genealogy and his work garnered much media coverage. After a couple of visits to India, he was given a fellowship by the Indian Council of Cultural Research, which allowed him to trace the ancestry of 10 Hindu and Muslim Trinidadian families each in India. He had won awards in both countries. And then he received a call from the Prime Minister’s office.

“Unofficially I had already helped our previous Prime Minister Basdeo Panday in tracing his family in India, but this time there was a formal request [from the] Prime Minister’s office,” said Shamshu Deen. The first female Prime Minister of Trinidad, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, was known as a devout Hindu. In 2012, thanks to Shamshu Deen’s work, Bissessar visited Bhelupur village in Buxor, Bihar, to meet the decedents of her forefathers, who had migrated to Trinidad almost 122 years ago.

Shamsu Deen with Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Photo courtesy: Shamsu Deen.
Shamsu Deen with Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Photo courtesy: Shamsu Deen.

“Linking families is not only an emotional pursuit but it can also offer revenues in the form of genealogical tourism,” said Shamshu Deen. “Large family reunions with members coming from all over the world could be a part of global heritage tourism.”

He is now trying to help Indian communities from other parts of the world establish a connection with India. “I have been to Martinique, Jamaica, St Kitts-Nevis, St Vincent and Grenada, researching Indian and other groups for Trinidadians. Indian communities from places like Guadeloupe have gotten in touch with me. I try to help them by guiding through the processes and documents they need to access. Information revealed in past searches is a wealth of data available for them, but poor record-keeping and lack of support from the government departments is the biggest hurdle we face,” he says.

Shamshu Deen is now a part of the UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme as the chairman for Trinidad and Tobago. He hopes that governments will assist in genealogical research by offering easier access to documents that are crucial in linking communities across the world. He believes that a lot more is yet to be achieved and his work has just begun. “The yearning to meet blood relatives is like poet John Masefield’s Sea Fever – ‘a call that cannot be denied’.”