Shamshu Deen: reaping the fruit of the family tree

Shamshu Deen has pioneered research into the ancestry of Trinidadians of Indian descent. Kevin Baldeosingh on the man and his genealogical methods

Checking Trinidad’s skies. Photograph courtesy Shamshu DeenDeen harvesting cucumbers in Tableland. Photograph courtesy Shamshu DeenShamsu Deen doing genealogy research at the National Archives, Trinidad. Photograph courtesy Shamshu Deen

In 1994, Shamshu Deen published his first book, Solving East Indian Roots in Trinidad, which is an account of his and his wife’s family trees. “You can’t do this kind of stuff without doing your wife’s family,” he explains, with a wry smile. That book made him well known as a genealogist, but his reputation had begun spreading before that because of his second job as a wedding videographer.

Deen, 64, is now retired from his actual profession as a geography teacher. After living for 24 years in Princes Town, in south Trinidad, he moved with his wife into an even more rural area where he could set up a garden and where, away from the glare of town lights, he could also pursue his other hobby of astronomy.

“I am forever a student,” Deen says. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history and economics, another in geography, and a masters in special education.The last two degrees were done in Canada, where a 24-year-old Deen emigrated with his wife in 1970 and where he worked for ten years as a teacher. Some of those years were spent on a Native American reservation in northern Manitoba, teaching seven- to 15-year-olds. “It was a remarkable time in my life,” he recalls. He lived in a log cabin which had neither electricity nor running water and the area could only be reached by light aeroplane.

So now he finds his life “in de bush”, as they say in Trinidad, luxurious compared to his experience on the Indian reservation. He also had other reasons for moving out of the urban setting. “If I don’t cut the grass, a snake comes into my house,” he says, explaining why he’s highly motivated to exercise. The 27 acres of land, seven inherited from his paternal grandfather and the rest purchased with a nephew, are planted with plantains, bananas, citrus, papaya and vegetables, which are sold in the market. “My wife is the manager, I am a labourer there,” Deen says. He has a small observatory at the top of his house where he can study the stars through his eight-inch Celestron telescope.

For the past 30 years, Deen has spent nearly all his spare time tracking down records of East Indian immigrants in the national archives of Trinidad & Tobago. It was even genealogy which, in a sense, brought him back to Trinidad. While he lived in Canada, he would make regular trips to Trinidad, and he would spend much of that time doing his research. His two small daughters also enjoyed meeting their Caribbean cousins, and when Deen suggested that the family move to Trinidad, his wife and daughters were willing (though both daughters have now returned to Canada).

In 1982, after he had come back to Trinidad and started teaching geography at the Cowen Hamilton High School, Deen got into the videotaping business. “One of the things people in the business told me: video of a wedding is one of the most boring things you can ever see,” he says. “So I said, let me see how I can do a different job from other people.” He decided to combine the videotaping with genealogy. “What I used to do was a little documentary beforehand, talk to the parents, do a map of the route their great-grandparents or whoever came from, get photos, trace who had which son and so on, till you get to the bride, say on so-and-so day she was married to this person.”

But at first he didn’t realise genealogy was important to anyone else – he was just doing his own family. He is the seventh of nine children. His father used to work in the oilfields, in transport, and his mother was a housewife, although she also made money sewing for a well known clothing store in south Trinidad. Much of Deen’s first information came from his mother, who he says has a very good memory. “She was always 100 per cent correct about people’s births and dates,” he notes, so that people always came to her when they needed to get their birth certificates or other documents, since she could tell them what year to look for when they went to the government offices where records were kept.

Deen adds, “I always had a knack for talking to old people.” He recalls in particular an aunt in her 80s, who together with her 60-something-old daughter, ran a parlour. Deen as a teenager used to make some money climbing trees in their yard to pick chennets or mangoes or pomeracs for them to sell, and the aunt would tell him the family history on various occasions.

Building on this foundation, Deen started looking for evidence to confirm or refute 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 is descended. Now, 158 years later, Deen has tracked 12,000 people to whom he is directly – that is, genetically – related.

His research started going beyond his own family when, at a 50th wedding anniversary he was hired to videotape, he prepared a printed programme which contained some information about the family’s ancestors. The general manager of the Trinidad Guardian was one of the guests and, seeing the programme, he inquired about Deen and later asked him to write some articles for the newspaper. This was how Deen and his genealogical research became known to the public.

By this time, Deen was already quite experienced at tracing ancestral backgrounds, and he started to get requests. Every project begins with him finding and talking to the individual who has key information about the family. “I have something called the ‘dulahin theory’,” he says. Dulahin is a Hindi word which means “bride”, and Deen has found that, because the wives stayed home with the in-laws while the husband went out and worked, they often gathered much information about the family just by listening. He also starts his research by seeking out and talking to the oldest member of the family. After that, he looks for documents that would confirm the stories, such as birth certificates or passenger lists. “You can’t just accept what the family says,” he observed, at a lecture delivered at the University of Trinidad & Tobago, where he is a research fellow. Apart from developing and teaching genealogical techniques, he is expanding his research on 147,000 Indian indentured labourers who came to Trinidad between 1845 and 1921. Deen also told the small audience, “The first thing I do when I work out a genealogy is try and prove that I am wrong.”

This scientific approach – what the philosopher Karl Popper called “falsification” – underlies Deen’s idiosyncratic interest in tracing people’s ancestries. To be sure, many people of East Indian descent are interested in their family backgrounds, but most are content with anecdotes. Not Deen. “I wanted to get proof,” he says. This is in contrast to the roots of genealogy, as Deen explained in his lecture. Genealogy long ago was quite exclusive: it was just for the gods and for rulers who wished to claim that they were related to the gods. Then the nobility in Europe started tracing their family trees, which was important for issues such as marriage and property. When written records became more common in Europe, as when Henry VIII decreed that parishes keep records of births and deaths in 1537, a family tree became a matter of documentation.

Nowadays, even ordinary people like to know their family tree, although among East Indians, Deen notes, the motive was often to find high-caste ancestors. But this is not so much the case any more and, Deen says, “I don’t turn down anybody.” Rich or poor, he tries to get the information, and he estimates that he has been successful with three out of every four families he has traced. Genealogy is in some respects like detective work, and Deen has even uncovered stories that the families would prefer to keep secret, such as the great-great-grandfather who left his wife for her niece. In his own family, he found out that though his father and grandfather were both imams, two of his great-great-grandfathers owned rum shops. He has had inquiries from as far as Australia, from someone whose great-grandfather was a clerk in Trinidad during the colonial era. He’s also helped people who were adopted to find their biological parents, a project which gives him particular pleasure. He has gone to India to do research, sponsored by the government of India through its embassy in Trinidad, and in 1998 he published his second book, Lineages and Linkages: solving Trinidad roots in India.

Deen believes that a genealogy project has many advantages for a nation. It brings the society closer together; strengthens family and the notion of family; and confers more understanding of identity and self. Genealogy also facilitates academic research in areas as diverse as history, law, sociology, demography, and molecular biology.

He can’t say why he has such a passion for this kind of research, however, save that he always liked to solve puzzles. But he has several theories on why individuals want to trace their ancestors. He thinks that knowing their ancestry gives people a greater sense of belonging. “They feel they are planted better.” And it’s also a matter of pride. “People want to show how far they have come,” he says.