Liz Chater’s dream is to record every birth, marriage and death in the Armenian community of India
Liz Chater’s database of Armenians who have some connection with India over the last three centuries contains over 10,000 individuals and approximately 3,000 families. Liz Chater is a family history researcher specializing in Armenians in India and the Far East. In Liz’s words, her web-site www.chater-genealogy.com dedicated to Armenian family history in India (1600-1950) fills a gap in that part of the history.
Liz Chater was born in the UK where she still lives. Her interest is tracing her family stems from not knowing anything about its origins. In Liz’s words, she didn’t train to become a family researcher; she just fell into it by fortuitously in 2000. She knew quite a lot of family information about her mother’s side (who is Welsh) but knew very little about her father’s side of the family. Liz’s father, who died in 1983, never talked about his family back in Calcutta. Liz’s mother was able only able to partially answer the questions asked by Liz about her father’s family.
“I continued to try and find information and my search took me to the British Library in London which holds a great deal of information on Colonial India, as well as birth, marriage and death records. On my first visit there, I was lucky enough to be able to trace many members of my father’s side of the family; many of whom had what I considered to have “odd” names, such as, Arathoon, Arakiel and Martyrose. I posted some queries to a genealogy mailing list and an Armenian researcher called Nadia Wright, who specializes in Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia, told me the names were Armenian. This was such a fantastic discovery for me and the first I knew that I had Armenian ancestors in my family,” Liz Chater wrote to “Hetq”.
In her web-site she offers some possible definitions of the name Chater. According to one of these definitions, this surname could have derived from the Armenian word Adsvazaturian. In 2005 Liz was contacted by an unknown first cousin. He was interested to know about their family.
Chater Family Bible dates back to 1831
“More importantly, he was able to let me see for the very first time, the Chater Family Bible which dates back to 1831 and holds all the names of my ancestors. This was an incredible moment – firstly when we met the resemblance we saw in each other of our parents and secondly, to be able to see that old Bible that had, over the years, travelled so many miles in its life! Since then we have been in regular contact and get together at various times of the year for different family occasions,” Liz writes in her web-site.
“Having discovered my Armenian heritage, I then tried very hard to find more information, specifically about Armenians in India,” she writes to “Hetq”.
In Liz’s words, many families of the Armenian community of India are inter-related. In the 19th and early 20th centuries it was not unusual for cousins to marry. So when Liz is working on one family she quite often solves a problem or query relating to another family. Her research timeline is predominately prior to the Armenian Genocide, between the 17th and the early 20th century.
Since Liz Chater has gathered much information, many people ask her to help with their own Armenian-based family history queries. They in turn are happy to share their family details with Liz. And it is not unusual for Liz to actually turn their small amount of information into a much bigger picture; a larger family than they thought they had.
“Internationally renowned artist, David Arathoon of Toronto, originally from Calcutta and whose Armenian family in India has been associated with the Armenian Church there for almost as long as the church has been standing, is probably the person that I have helped the most and whose own family tree hasn’t just expanded but exploded with the new information that I have brought out into the open,” Liz says.
“Armenian graves in India” photographic project underway
She is doing an “Armenian graves in India” photographic project. There are photos of Armenian graves in India presented in Liz’s web-site. Many of these graves have duel inscriptions, in Armenian and English. But Liz still has several hundred photographs of Armenian graves whose inscriptions are written only in Armenian that she has not been able to put on her website yet because she doesn’t speak or read Armenian. Thus, she completely relies on other Armenian family history enthusiasts to help her with transcriptions. She has approximately 3,000 photographs of graves in various locations in India.
“To me, every cemetery and churchyard is a library and every grave is a book. I am able to gain so much valuable information from the various tombstones about the individuals and their families and that is why I am completely dedicated and passionate about photographing the Indian Armenian graves before they become so weather worn they are no longer visible. Once that happens you slowly lose the history and it doesn’t take many generations before the graves are no longer remembered in terms of who they were. The Armenian graves in India are exceptionally well cared for but you cannot stop mother nature,” Liz Chater says.
When asked about the difficulties she most often faces in her work, Liz Chater answers that the lack of money to be able to research properly is the biggest obstacle for her. In her web-site Liz asks visitors to make donations to keep the web-site going. But in her words, she is lucky if she gets two modest donations a year. “At the end of each December when I have to renew the contract it’s always a worry that I won’t be able to run it for another year,” she writes.
Speaking about her professional plans for the future, Liz said that it would be a dream come true if she could turn her enthusiastic amateur researching into a career. Ultimately, she wants to be able to record every birth, marriage and death in the Armenian community of India from available church records. But since the early registers are written in classical Armenian, if she manages to copy the registers she then will have to find someone willing to help with the translations.
Liz Chater said that researching family history is the fastest growing hobby in the UK. “How my family came to be in India is actually still a mystery for me,” she writes.
Who is the most under-valued Indian Armenian of the 20th century?
Liz Chater said that the population of Armenians in India indeed is very small now. The community in Calcutta is less than 200. In other locations that were once large and economically strong communities, such as Chennai (previously Madras) they have all but disappeared completely. The bustling Armenian traders of Surat, Mumbai (previously Bombay) are but distant memories. But during colonial times Armenians were employed by the East India Company in positions of authority and importance because of their trustworthiness and dedication.
“Armenians tended to anglicize their names so they blended in easily with the British colonial way of life. An example will be Catchick, Paul Chater’s father. Originally known as Astwachatoor Pogos Astwachatoor, he worked for the Government of Bengal and was known as Chater Paul Chater. As far as I am able to tell, the Armenians in India have always strived hard to integrate into their surroundings. I know that the current Armenian students at the Armenian College in Kolkata learn the local dialects of Bengali as well as English and Armenian,” Liz said.
In her words, the hub of the Armenians is in Calcutta and it is the boys and girls educated at the Armenian College and Davidian Girls’ Schools respectively that keep the flame burning. But for how long is anybody’s guess.
When asked if during her research she has found out information about a talented, remarkable Indian-Armenian, who isn’t at all known in Armenia, Liz Chater answered that Sir Catchick Paul Chater (known as Paul) is probably the most under-valued Indian Armenian of the 20th century. Liz stumbled across this person on one of her trips to the British Library where she was collecting and noting every Chater name held at the library.
“The name of Sir Catchick Paul Chater was the biggest discovery for me,” Liz said.
Catchick Paul Chater was born in Calcutta in 1846. His own parents came from the Armenian community of Baghdad, Iraq. Paul, although baptized in the Armenian Holy Nazareth Church of Calcutta, did not go to the local Armenian College, a long and established Armenian education centre first started in 1821, but was sent in 1855 to La Martiniere School for Boys in Calcutta. Paul Chater arrived in Hong Kong in 1864 with just a wooden chest containing his belongings. That wooden chest was always part of his household furniture; it was a reminder and a symbol of the life he had left behind in Calcutta. Paul got himself a job in a bank. He observed and learnt enough to branch out on his own as a broker within 2 years of his arrival. By 1869 he was a member of the Hong Kong Cricket Club.
When His Royal Highness, Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh visited, Sir Paul became a close friend and confidant of the royal family. He regularly visited Buckingham Palace and other royal residences and holidayed with the Duke and Duchess of Connaught in the South of France.
By the 1870’s, Paul was buying plots, building and renting out those properties. He had been joined by his younger brother Joseph from Calcutta and they had joint enterprises. Paul also saw the potential in pony racing and in the 1870’s he set up a stable with his business partner Hormusjee Mody, a Parsee from Bombay.
In Liz’s words, it really is true that Paul never missed a horse race meeting in Hong Kong in 60 consecutive years between 1866 and 1926. He was Chairman of the Hong Kong Jockey Club for 34 years and he still holds the record of being the longest standing Chairman the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
In 1890, Catchick Paul Chater created land from the sea in Hong Kong by constructing an extra 57 acres of ground space in a Praya reclamation scheme. “It is the land that Hong Kong stands on today,” Liz noted.
In 1902, Paul was honored with a Knighthood in London for his contribution to the prosperity of the island of Hong Kong, something which never left him until the day he died aged 79. He had brought structure, stability, employment and social prospects to the island.
“He generously left his beautiful and unique house Marble Hall along with his priceless china and art collection known as “The Chater Collection” to the government of Hong Kong, probably in the hope that they would make the house a museum. They did not. After a few very generous bequests to some nephews, Sir Paul Chater, a “closet” Armenian for the majority of his life, felt compelled to donate his remaining estate to the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth, Calcutta where his life had begun,” Liz writes.