The Hindus of Uppertown
By Denise Alborn
The author would like to thank Katherine M. Astala of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad , Pakistan for bringin to the ClatsopCounty Historical Society's attention an item about Astoria Hindus in the 1914 revolt.
I n November of 1906 the Astoria Daily Budget touted the “first Hindoo funeral that was ever solemnized in the United State ”: the cremation of Rauma Singh, an East Indian who died of consumption in St. Mary's Hospital. His death initially excited little attention; on page six, a three-line notice identified him rather contemptuously as a county charge “whose name is credited to be Sunday Sing.” But when three countrymen petitioned the coroner and British Consulate for leave to build a pyre, the paper followed the novel event with morbid fascination and even got the deceased's name right.
The Hindustani rite took place in a secluded spot near Williamsport . The cordwood pyre measured three feet wide, seven feet long and two feet high. One of the Indians poured a dipper full of butter on the flames, chanting in San skrit; but this show disappointed the attending curiosity-seekers. “the ceremony was not as spectacular as would be expected and lacked the gruesomeness that was anticipated,” read the front-page story, noting that the dipper full of butter was merely for purposes of sanitation. “It was in fact very businesslike affair with little ceremony and no tears were shed …The four Hindoos present went about the matter as if they were in the employ of someone at their daily task. It was evident that they were carrying out a duty that was obligatory upon them but they did not express gratification at the authorities permitting them to perform the last offices for their friend …” In the aftermath of the publicity, someone plundered the ashes for souvenir bones. 1
The East Indian laborers had a relatively short and turbulent stay in Astoria , as well as on the West Coast in general. The news first mentioned their presence in town at Rauma Singh's death. They came without wives and families, seeking work; they found it collectively at Hammond Mill, and settled a spot in Alderbrook called “Hindu Alley.” This was a cluster of bunkhouses and a central cookhouse between 51 st and 52 nd on Birch; 12 more Indians rented a house on 47 th & Cedar for $1/month. They kept to themselves for the most part, but Uppertown residents recall that the young Hindu workers gave wrestling lessons, and held matches in Rosenberg Hall at 11 th and Exchange. 2
Although they faced local hostility, labor exclusion, and misunderstanding of their customs and religion, the Astoria Indians fared better than those in other parts of the North-west. Riots broke out in Bellingham , Washington , in 1907 and in St. John in 1910, both incited by caucasian millhands. The press excused the Bellingham mob action by calling the Hindus “bold and insolent” and claiming that they had harassed white women, but added unconvincingly that the riot stemmed from labor issues and had nothing to do with race feeling. 3
One of the above-mentioned misunderstandings was (and still is) engendered by the term :Hindu,” short for Hindustani, an ethnic rather than religious indication; *1 for a majority of the immigrants were Sikhs from the Punjab region of North India . Initiates of the more militant branch of the Sikh religion took the name Singh, meaning “Lion,” a name that reappears again and again in the records of Pacific Northwest “Hindus.” These “Lions of the Punjab ” 4 were easily identified not only by the name Singh but by the dress code of their sect, requiring them to wear turbans, among other particulars; therefore, while some East Indians put off their turbans and passes as Europeans, Sikh remained conspicuous. For this transgression they were called “ragheads,” and an Astorian recollected trying to knock the turbans off with snowballs as a child. 5
“Ordinarily they would not dream of coming over here and mixing with the whites, but they make an attempt to keep it by wearing that ridiculous toggery,” a sea captain officiously (if inaccurately) told the Budget . 6
A series of droughts and epidemics in the Punjab during the late nineteenth century dislocated many Punjabi Sikhs, who then proved excellent recruits for the British Indian Army because of the Sikhist martial tradition. The Army, in turn, inadvertently became and excellent vehicle for the spread of Sikhism; segregated by creed, it gave focus to sectarian efforts at conversion; it also provided mobility and geographical latitude. An international network of Sikh temples soon dotted the commonwealth countries, reaching even to British Columbia. Thus came a colony of Sikh veterans of the British Army to the Vancouver area, encouraging others to follow and take advantage of the opportunities in the mills.
One estimate asserts that veterans comprised up to 75% of the eventual East Indian male population on the West Coast as a whole. 7 The Oregonian took note of this military experience when, after 1910 St. John mill riots, the Indians returned to work packing revolvers: “They are reputed to be good gunfighters…at one time in the English army,” warned the article. However, the armed men were arraigned and lost their jobs. 8
The East Indians filtered down to Washington, Oregon, and northern California when Canadian exclusionists succeeded in blocking their entry to British Columbia. Immigration Commission statistics tells us that the numbers admitted to the U.S. jumped from 9 in 1900 to 258 in 1904 and 1710 in 1908. 9
U.S. exclusionists responded with alarm. “Hindu Menace is Serious—Flocks of East Indians Invading the Country.” Ran a Budget headline in 1907. The article expressed fears that the Hindus would undercut wages, and that they would send all of their earnings home. “Yes, they are a harmless, gentle, peaceable people, but such a drain on the gold of the country will tell.” 10
These age-old fears applied to other immigrant groups before the coming of the “Hindu Menace”—overwhelmingly to those whose appearance set them apart *2 —and the East Indians directly inherited the ill-will engendered by previous flocks of foreigners. Soon the Japanese Exclusion League rose to the occasion and became the Asiatic Exclusion League. The AEL concocted rumors of religious deviancy and exotic disease, such as “dred hookworm” supposedly carried by the Hindus, and effectively blamed a San Francisco outbreak of the bubonic plague on Orientals living ther. 11
One Seattle immigration inspector sympathetic with AEL cause rejected East Indians on the grounds that Mohammedans practice polygamy, which is illegal in the U.S., and therefore the Indians seeking entry were manifestly lawbreakers—although they had left their wives and families home. The inspector did not specify how he ascertained the creed of men coming from a multi-religious country without visiting the boat, but did include in his report that “we have enough race problems of our own without permitting the Hindus to invade our shores.” 12
Though many of the immigrants thus excluded persevered until they founf a place to land, some returned to India unsuccessful. In August of 1910 a shipload of 150 Punjabi Sikhs straggled back to Calcutta and discouraged others planning to emigrate. “We have been ruined by greed, and we must suffer for our sin,” one man told a journalist. Calcutta officials informed the U.S. State Department that the movement to emigrate had ended; that India afforded “plenty of room” for all Indians: and that “as a matter of fact, their exclusion from the U.S. is really a kindness and benefit to them” as they fared so much better in India than they would elsewhere. 13
In Astoria, exclusionism focused on the labor issue and took the form of periodic campaigns not to hire Indians, or wage cuts for ones already hired. In 1909, Hammond mill reduced Hindu workers' wages from $1.75 per day to $1.60 per day because “the management found that they were not earning the money that they were receiving.” The Hindus went on strike; but the situation must have eventually blown over, for the following year agitation to shut them out resurfaced in the press. “It is a well known fact that fifteen Hindus live in a rough board shack near the Hammond Lumber Company's plant, a shack that would not make a decent pig-sty for any number of classes of men,” complained by one Astorian. He urged that the cheaper labor be replaced by “a class that build up a community instead of retarding it.” 14
Faced with these difficulties in a strange land, the East Indians in Canada and the Pacific Coast States formed organizations called Khalsa Diwan which helped them retain a cultural identity and provided contacts throughout the Northwest mill-towns and California fruit-orchards. But what began as a cultural program acquired political and nationalistic dimensions. The Khalsa Diwan units became “Hindustani Associations” which promoted a kind of unity based on shared suffering and a common homeland, cutting across religious and caste barriers –something nearly unheard of in India—and increasingly committed to independence from British rule.
The nationalism of the Pacific Coast Hindustani groups differed from any precedent on the Indian subcontinent, and retained very few ties there. An historian remarks that the movement “was not only based in North America, it almost wholly existed in North America;” it resulted in part from new political notions learned in the States and in part from the isolation and oppression experienced here. 15
The Indians called their American-born political movement the Gadar party, meaning “revolt,” and published an Urdu newspaper of the same name in California. The Gadarites borrowed heavily from Sikh reformist tradition and militancy but stressed that “the one Nation of Hindus, Sikhs and Mohammedans” were all “sons of one mother.” To prove this point, three men representing the three creeds toured the west coast together in 1914 preaching unity against Britain. 16
Perhaps the earliest Hindu nationalistic organization was the 1907 Hindustani Association based in San Francisco with branches in Astoria and Vancouver, B.C., which put out a Circular of Freedom (Circular-I-Azadi) , later the Free Hindustani . 17
Other Hindustani Associations, more immediate forerunners to the Gadar party, appeared in Oregon in 1912. With some prodding from Stanford intellectuals, these localized groups agreed to band together. 18
Though reports of the early details of the Gadar party vary, obviously the spring of 1913 was a formative time and Astoria hosted much of the activity. At a meeting which took place either on April 21 or June 2 of that year, *3 delegates from Portland, Bridal Veil, St. John and other mill towns convened in Astoria to elect leaders and adopt resolutions for a conglomerate Hindi Association pf the Pacific Coast, which later voted to call itself the Gadar party. According to one account, a pass of the hat raise $10,000 at that initial gathering.
Once the program was set, the Gadar party attracted attention from other radical organizations promoting world revolution, and from government officials on the look-out for deportable anarchists. Thus under the watchful eye of agents working for Immigration of the British Consulate, the Hindis conferred with IWW activists and borrowed the Finnish Socialist Hall in Uniontown for their assembly. 19 Such cooperation with apparently unrelated causes lay in the internationalism and anti-imperialism espoused by labor activist; and next to independence, labor issues ranked high in the early Gadar agenda. A biographer of one of the Ghadarite leaders writes,
Sohan Singh Bhakna, who was the key figure in the early pre-Gadar Party meetings in Astoria, Oregon, later returned to the Punjab to be a leader of the new communist party there… Bhakna recalls that his socialist concerns had their origins in those early labor problems among the immigrant Punjabi lumber workers in Oregon. It is clear that the Oregon meeting in 1912 and 1913 were concerned with labor issues as well as nationalism. 20
“…no more an anarchist than Washington…”
Another important figure in those “pre-Gadar Party meetings” went to jail in California as an anarchist in March of 1914. “If Har Dyal is an anarchist,” wrote one R. Vanderbyll to the Oregonian editor, “then I challenge the whole of the United States to prove that we Americans are not Anarchists! Did we not ourselves throw off the English yoke? …Har Dyal is no more an anarchist than Washington was. Dyal believes in law and government, but not in a government… dictated by usurpers who have nothing in common, morally, mentally, and spiritually with his countrymen.
“The charge of anarchy is clearly a ridiculous one, and the flimsy argument is left to us to state that the Hindus are undesirable aliens. They work for lower wages is the accusation! I ask of you; is this their fault? Let employers give them the wages which are given to the white man. Let Christians acknowledge the existence of One Creator of Hindu and white man alike…
“In the name of freedom and fairness I appeal to the readers of your papers to protest against the action of the American immigration officers. Unselfishly this man Dyal is devoting his time and his money to the education of American thinkers and philosophers. He is doing us more good than harm. And we may not consider the sublime wish of feeling one's country from slavery a criminal one. Does not every fair-minded individual tremble with indignation when he hears about the tyranny of the Russian government; in short of any violation of God's law of freedom?” 21
The Bid For Independence
The Gadar party mobilized their mutiny as soon as England began fighting Germany. In August of 1914, the exodus of the Hindus from Asotria, “owing to the predicted revolt to take place in India during the European disturbance. At the Hammond Lumber Company where nearly 100 Hindu laborers openly announce their intention of returning to their native land to enter the fight for the freedom of their country from the rule of England. Others are reticent and say nothing about the changes to be made. It is fully expected that within another week all the Hindus in the city will have taken their deoarture.” 22
The Gadar Weekly , distributed internationally, urged East Indians all over the world to participate in the yajna , or sacrifice. Thus, rebels arrived in India from the Pacific Coast and Canda, Japan, Hawaii, China, the Phillipines, and other places. 23 But despite far-ranging international support, the Ghadarites found a cold reception at home. The masses did not rise to arms against the British; the Indians there were busy preparing to fight for the British, in the European war. The bid for independence was rooted in American rather than Indian soil, and was thiry years ahead of its time.
When the Gadarites arrived, British officials intercepted many of the ships at port and arrested most of the leaders. A thorough search for weapons further doomed the revolt, and it ended almost before it began.
If indeed all of Asoria's Hindu residents left for the abortive coup, some of them came back or replacement arrived, for about 150 East Indians worked at the Hammond Mill in 1915. 24 Still politically active, these workers subscribed $5,000 to the vestiges of the Gadar party at an October 1916 convention. 25 They apparently deserted Astoria for the final time after the mill burnt down, in 1922.
The west coast Hindus continued plotting for their country's freedom, some through the medium of a new Indian Communist Party separate from the Gadar party, and some through the medium of Germany. A 1914 pamphlet called Deutscland—Indiens Hoffnung (“Germany—India's Hope”) proves that this connection existed very early on. In 1917 evidence of German correspondence came to light in San Francisco, and several East Indians stood trial for violating U.S. neutrality laws. 26 The British India Empire dissolved on August 15, 1947 as dictated by the Indian Independence Act of British Parliament.
Astoria Daily Budget, 10-31
1906:6; 11-1-1906:5; 11-2-1906:1;11-3-1906:6
The Daily Astorian, 4-26-1973:9B.
Asotria Daily Budget, 9-5-1907:6;
9-7-1907:1; The Oregonian, 3-24-1910:4 3-25-1910:14.
Richard G. Fox, Lions of the
Punjab (Berkeley:1985), p.109
The Daily Astorian , 4-26-1973
Astoria Daily Budget, 12-11-
Mark Juergesmeyer, “The Gadar
Syndrome: Ethnic Anger and National Pride,” in From India to America ed. S. Chandrasekhar. (La Jolla, CA: 1984) p. 51 and note 11.
Oregonian , 3-25-1910:14
The Report of the Immigration
Commission, Immigrants in Industries , vol. 1, 1909-10, p. 329.
Astoria Daily Budget , 12-11-1907:2
Joan Jensen, Passage From India , pp.
Ibid., p. 111.
Ibid., pp. 113-4
Astoria Daily Budget , 5-3-1909:6; 9-27-
Juergensmeyer, “Ethnic Anger,” p.173
Jensen, Passage from India , pp. 186,
190; Fox, Lions of Punjab , p.117
Tilak Raj Sareen, The Indian
Revolutionary Movement Abroad , 1905-1921 (New Delh: 1979), pp. 65-6.
Jensen, Passage from India , p. 180;
Sohan Singh Josh, Hindustan Gadar Party — A Short History , vol. 1 (New Dehli: 1977), p. 157; Juergesmeyer, “The Gadar Syndrome:Immigrant Sikhs and National Pride,” in Sikh Studies ed. Juergesmeyer and Geral Barrier (Berkeley: 1979), p. 180
Josh, Hindustan Gadar Party , p. 166
Juergesmeyer, “ Immigrant Sikhs,” pp.183-4.
Oregonian , 3-30-1914:6.
Astoria Daily Budget 8-6-1914:6; 8-7-1914:6.
Josh, Hindustan Gadar Party , p. 203.
Jogesh C. Misrow, East Indian
Immmigration on the Pacific Coast, (Stanford: 1915; rpt. 1971 by R & E Research Assoc.) p. 12.
Astoria Daily Budget, 10-23-1916:1.
Jensen , Passage from India, p. 194 ff .
Footnotes located at bottom of pages
*1-From The report of the Immigration
Commission, Immigrants in Industries , vol. 1, 1909-10, p. 325: “The East Indians in the Pacific coast States include Sikhs, Mohammedans, and Afghans (who are also the Mohammedan faith). They are all known as ‘Hindus,' though, strictly speaking, they are not all of the Hindu caste.”
*2-To the charge that Asians exported wealth,
Jogesh C. Misrow of Stanford retorted in 1915 that 32,294,596 pounds sterling had been sent out of the U.S. and Canada by European immigrants between 1848 and 1890. Misrow, East Indian Immigration on the Pacific Coast , rpt. 1971 by R&E Research Assoc.; p. 19.
*3-Sohan Sinh Josh gives the date as April 21:
Hindustan Gadar Party— A Short History , vol. 1 (New Dehli: 1977), pp. 159-60; Tilak Raj Sareen gives the date as June 2: The Indian Revolutionary Movement Abroad , 1905-1921 (New Dehli: 1979), p. 72; Dr. Iftikhar Malik agrees with June 2 date: The Muslim , 2-22-1989:3.
Denise Alborn, a native Astorian, has an MA in History from Fordham University, New York, and is currently researching the history of Astoria's Uppertown for the Clatsop County Historical Society.