"The older you get, the more you feel connected with those who came before…You even start to hear your dad's voice when you speak," genealogy researcher James Sorenson.
Now, with the availability of large electronic databases that can be accessed online, the descendants of the dispersed people of the Indian diaspora too are scrambling to flesh out details of their ancestors, to fill out their family trees with names and history. Sometimes all it takes is to punch in a family name on an Internet search to open a promising trail. But, especially for South Asians, this search for ancestral information can be frustrating, and at the same time, fascinating. Consider the following instances:
Reared in the segregationist South, UCLA Professor G. Reginald Daniel, who teaches a course in multiracial identity, wrote in an email. " Both sides of my family have been mixed for at least three generations… I struggled as a child over the question of why I had to exclude my East Indian and Irish and Native American and French ancestry, and could include only African."
It’s been 140 years since a member of the Nambiar family transplanted from Malabar to a sugar plantation in Fiji. Today his great granddaughter Asha, a teacher in New Zealand is tracking family members who are dispersed as far as Britain, Canada and the United States. She has yet to locate the village from which the family originally came from in India, though she spent a month traveling there for this purpose.
As a result of romance in a new land and the laws of the time, a unique racial mixture formed in California in the early 20th century. The offspring of Yuba City farmers from India and Mexico were known as "Mexican-Hindus" -- something of a misnomer for the children of Mexican women and Sikh, Muslim and Hindu men, mostly from the Punjab area of India. Frank Singh, a Catholic, is the grandson of one such intermarriage. He’s been to Sonora, Mexico, where his grandmother came from. But he’s been putting off a visit to Punjab because he doesn’t know Hindi or Punjabi. As a young boy growing up in Fresno he remembers encountering prejudice from Anglos and Mexicans, who called him "dirty Hindu." It disturbed him. Now that he is in his mid 30s he would like to reclaim his Sikh ancestry, if only he could trace his ancestors in India. It is a daunting task for which he is preparing.
A contemporary of Swami Vivekananda, Baksh Singh first came to San Francisco in 1899. One hundred and six years later, his descendants report little success in their efforts to contact extant relatives in India, Pakistan, Britain and Australia. Nevertheless they press on with a task that is fraught with frustration.
Somewhere in America the 10th generation descendants of a runaway East Indian slave are examining records going back to more than 235 years to construct a family tree and reclaim their heritage. As evidence they have a copy of the following notice published in the Virginia Gazette, 4th August 1768. “RUN away about the 20th of May last, an East-India Indian, named Thomas Greenwich; he is a well made fellow, about 5 feet 4 inches high, wears his own hair, which is long and black, has a thin visage, a very sly look, and a remarkable set of fine white teeth. A reward of 40s. will be paid the person who delivers him to the subscriber, besides what the law allows.”
Rustumjee Bey, the scion of a princely family in British India came to New York in the 1860s, changed his name to Antonio Frank Gomez, joined the navy during the Civil War, raised a family in San Francisco, died in 1911 and was buried in the Presidio with full military honors. His descendants in California are anxious to trace the family’s roots in the Indian subcontinent. For documentation they have US Navy records, church marriage records and the obituary that appeared in a San Francisco newspaper. All else was lost in the 1906 earthquake.
103 years after the 14-year-old Somwaria arrived in Blairmont Estate, Guyana, as an indentured laborer from a village in Uttar Pradesh, her grandson Mohamed Asgarallie Ashin, a Toronto-based engineer, is tracking the family history. He has some remarkable records, including rare photographs which he has put up on his website. The site Jahajis Descendants is a striking one. Offered as a tribute to Indian indentured immigrants, it presents historic documents creating an awareness of the indentured system and stimulating interest for others immigrants to search for their roots. Ashin is using the power of the World Wide Web to tell the story of indentured laborers or coolies brought from India to the American continent. It is a sad and emotional story.
Essentially, these and other descendants who belong to the great Indian diaspora are desperately seeking to connect with their relatives elsewhere in the world as well as in India.
The questions they ask are simple and straightforward:
Who are we? Where did we come from? Why did we come? Can we find out on the internet? Or do we have to travel to the land of our ancestors?
Some recent successes:
Using an online database at familysearch.org, Kamal Patel of Georgia was able to flesh out details about a relative who died in New Caledonia (Pacific Islands) in 1950 and also locate relatives who lived in Odessa (Russia) in 1906.
Archbishop Soter of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, knew from oral tradition that his paternal grandparents were originally from Southern India and that surviving relatives were somewhere in Kerala. At age 75 he made a trip to Kerala and satisfied his inner urge to link up with his roots.
Glen D’Cruz, an Australia-based Anglo-Indian came to Kolkata with a similar mission – to locate ancestors he had never seen, only heard of. He was prompted for the adventure after discovering relatives through an Anglo Indian website.
Already, with a third generation of Indian American baby boomers and increasing numbers of multiracial families, the search to identify and to link with long lost ancestors is taking on an added thrust.
There are two additional factors: the presence in America of large numbers of people of Indian origin from Guyana, Trinidad, Fiji, and the recent discovery that Indians were brought to America in the late 1600s as indentured slaves and subsequently intermarried with African Americans, Euro Americans and native Americans.
Multiracial identities have been forged by Indian Americans for more than 320 years and South Asian American history is ripe for revision.
The South Asian presence in America is generally conceded to begin around 1790 when American sea captains brought people from India as seamen and as servants, who later settled in the eastern seaboard including the Chesapeake.
With this as background, for many South Asians the search for genealogical records is a daunting task fraught with frustration. To be sure there are professional genealogists out there who specialize in “ancestry” or “roots” research – for a fee. Genealogical research requires special tools. And more such tools are being made available online in America – more than anywhere else in the world.
South Asian Americans on the genealogy trail must be aware that NARA (National Archives) and Ellis Island databases have been updated recently and better search engines installed, making it easier for the amateur sleuth interested in tracing his/her origins.
It is important for South Asians to learn their own stories and pass them on from generation to generation. Their stories, particularly of the early years in America, are largely unknown and untold. They need to be preserved so that they do not forget their roots and early struggles, and so that their history as Americans becomes understood as a natural part of the history of America.
Be forewarned: Much of what is on the Web now is akin to signposts--lists of documents but rarely the documents themselves. The National Archives provides a description of its material online--but only 120,000 of its 4 billion records have been digitized. And much of the Net's information is posted by volunteers who transcribe cemetery headstones or newspaper obituaries--with predictable human error.
EXAMPLE OF PATELS
The earliest arrival of a Patel in the Ellis Island database is that of Yulie, age 17 in 1892. Place of residence is not listed. The database contains Patels who originated not only from India, but also from Scotland, England, Brazil, and France.
Forune Patel is listed as being just 2 years old when arriving in Ellis Island (N.Y.) in 1906 with parents from Odessa, Russia. Other immigrants with last name Patel arriving from Odessa include Abram (8), Aron (36), Boruch (6), Jankel (10), Maryan (36), and Mordche (5). We can rightly assume that Aron and Maryan (both 36 years) were the parents of Forune, Mordche, Boruch, Abram and Jankel.
If you perform a FamilySearch in the LDS database, the earliest Patel listed is one Jeanne Patel born in Canada in 1745 and married at age 20 in Detroit, Michigan.
The earliest arrivals from the subcontinent were ayahs (servants or nannies) and lascars (seamen). Later the lascars travelled around the country selling tapestries, ties and other goods at licensed premises. They were issued with pedlar's certificates, which they obtained in different parts of the country.
To trace ancestors who went from India to Britain the best place to begin is: http://www.movinghere.org.uk/galleries/roots/asian/asian.htm
The site gives the following tips: · Always work backwards in time from the present. · Start with your South Asian ancestors' names, their arrival dates and details in this country, and their professions. If any of their travel documents have survived, find out where they came from. · The ancestors' names can sometimes give clues to where they come from and their occupations. Family resources are also very important sources, such as wedding invitation cards, and photographs. · If you visit your ancestral place of origin, interview the local historians, relatives and friends. Take photographs and record the stories in the form of audio and videotaping. · Do not give up easily if you do not find information - the quest may take some perseverance. · Ask relatives for information on their ethnic background, name changes and names of friends and neighbors. Check on the Internet and post messages on genealogy forums such as www.genealogy.com. · When you search the records, be aware that names can be misspelled.
However, it also warns: · Looking for information in South Asian archives can sometimes be very time-consuming without any guarantee of success. · When you visit them in person, some archives are very helpful. · When you write to these archives, you may not get a prompt response. Some may not reply to you at all. It may be necessary to make several requests for help. · In some countries, a gift or donation is expected when you ask for help. · Although Asians often maintain oral traditions about their family histories, very little recorded information is held by most families.
It is worth noting that at the back of the Bombay Calendar and Almanac and Madras Almanac there is a list of shipping departures from India to various ports in England. Published lists of passages to and from India are also included in the:Bengal Directory 1815-59, Madras Almanac 1811-61, and Bombay Directory 1817-56 The National Archives library holds some of these printed works. The complete set can be consulted at the British Library, London.
LIBRARY AT SALT LAKE CITY
Every year, the search for their family roots leads thousands of visitors to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Located directly west of Temple Square, this library is owned and operated by the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) or Mormons. It maintains the world's largest repository of genealogical resources. What many people may not know is that this library is open to everyone, and use of its facilities is free of charge for all. Over the years that collection has evolved into the largest library of genealogical information in the world. Each year the library adds 100 million pages of historical documents as well as 75,000 microforms, and 12,000 books. The collection includes documents from all around the world. In fact, over 250 microfilm operators work daily to copy birth, death, immigration, military and many other kinds of records from 53 countries--all ready for visitors to search and learn more about their own family histories.
Much of that compiled information is found on the FamilySearch® computer files. Launched in 1999, this genealogy database has 2 billion names in searchable databases. With 50,000 visitors viewing over one million pages per day it has evolved into a treasure trove of genealogical information just a few keystrokes away.
Check out the Ancestral File within this computer system for compiled information on millions of names (mostly deceased persons). Or use the International Genealogical Index or IGI for information on births, christenings, and marriages from the early 1500s to the early 1900s. A military index is another good online source as is the Social Security Death Index, with information on millions of individuals who have died in the US since 1962.
The Mormons have turned their Salt Lake City archives into the mecca of family searches. Two billion names, mostly from European countries but with a steady influx of data from Asia and Africa.The LDS has an incredibly useful website where you can search for your ancestors and locate other records that have been microfilmed.
The following records are related specifically to emigration from India:
For Indo-Fijians, Indian immigration passes to Fiji, 1879-1916, are available in 42 microfilms and the index is microfilm no. 833098. Unfortunately, this microfilm can only be viewed at the LDS Family History Centre in Salt Lake City, although the original records are kept by the Central Archives of Fiji & Western Pacific High Commission . Register of deaths of Indian immigration (by plantation), 1899-1922. Microfilm nos. 833149-833150. These are also available only in Salt Lake City.
The following are related to genealogy of Indians from Madhubani district in Bihar: There are 71 microfilms of Maithili Brahmin records (Microfilm nos. start at 1785629); 51 microfilms Kayasth genealogical records (Microfilm nos. start at 1997293).There is also a microfiche containing genealogical records of medieval India by S. A. I. Tirmizi ( Microfiche no.6085867). There are also several published family histories of high-caste families which have been microfilmed by the LDS.
If your ancestor was employed as a civilian in any arm of the British government, such as the police, post office, railways or civil service, then his records are most likely to be kept at the Oriental and India Office Collections (formerly the India Office). This also applies if your ancestor served in the East India Company Army, but not the British Army. Generally, you will have to visit the OIOC in person to obtain the records, or hire a Professional Researcher.
In the 21st century another new technology is setting off a genealogy gold rush inconceivable in an earlier era when people had to rely on old courthouse records and half-remembered family lore. Scientists now have several ways of using DNA to determine ancestry. The simplest involves the Y chromosome, which is found only in men and accumulates small changes over the centuries. If men have nearly identical Y-chromosomes, it means they share a recent ancestor going up the male line. Another method uses mitochondrial DNA, which passes from a mother to her children. It can be used to determine ancestry through the female line.
Such tests used to cost thousands of dollars apiece. Now they're relatively cheap -- and some entrepreneurs see both scientific and commercial potential. Already, the National Geographic Society has announced that it was teaming up with IBM Corp. and Family Tree DNA of Houston to build a database of 100,000 samples from ethnic groups around the world. National Geographic is selling a service in which people can send in their own DNA and find out where they fit on humanity's family tree.
The new DNA technology combined with genealogy research is poised to transform our search for South Asian diaspora roots.