Sikh Pioneers of Australia

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TRADERS OF GOODWILL: Sikh Pioneers of Australia

Juan Singh Hawker

Most of us think that Sikh or South Asian migration to Australia is a recent phenomenon, spanning just the past few decades. But not many of us know that our Sikh forefathers first came to Australia more than 150 years ago - at a time when the dust was yet to settle from the fall of Ranjit Singh's empire. Displaying their true enterprising spirit, they crossed the seven seas to come to the land Down Under, in search of a better lifestyle and wages, and quickly endeared themselves to the local population here. Country towns all over Australia are dotted with memories of these brave Punjabi migrants, who seem to have been welcomed by the locals despite the official "White Australia" policy. Sadly, they are also forgotten in the annals of history.

Initially, the migrants from India were indentured labourers, who worked on sheep stations and farms around Australia. Some adventurers followed during the gold rush of the 1850's.

A census from 1861 indicates that there were around 200 Indians in Victoria of whom 20 were in Ballarat, the town which was at the epicenter of the gold rush. Thereafter, many more came and worked as hawkers - going from house to house, town to town, traversing thousands of kilometers, making a living by selling a variety of products.

A record of shipping arrivals of the day shows that S.S Clitus and S.S. Jullundur arrived in Melbourne in 1898 carrying many Punjabis, some of whom like Nutta Singh, Hurman Singh, Indur Singh, Isur Singh, Sundi and Sunda Singh went on to become hawkers. (Please note that the names were written phonetically by a clerk on arrival, so the spellings are as recorded, not necessarily as they are meant to be spelt).

There is enough anecdotal evidence from local Australians that the Sikh hawkers were much loved members of the community. The womenfolk loved them because they provided a welcome break from their mundane existence - the hawkers brought beautiful clothes, goods, all things exotic, and a fleeting glimpse of the big wide world beyond their farmlands.

Gunga Singh's Memorial stone

The Australian men liked the hawkers because they were tough - they knew how to survive in difficult bush land and, more importantly, they played cricket! The Aussie kids adored the hawkers because of the stories they told of another world, because of their playful spirit and their wonderfully aromatic curries. Now meet Len Kenna, an Australian historian, playwright and poet who has been commissioned by the Victorian government to write the official history of Indian migration to Victoria (the south-eastern state of Australia with Melbourne as its capital city). His brief is to ‘research and preserve anything of Indian cultural significance' in Victoria. Although the subject matter of his research can't be released yet, he is convinced that Indian migration to Australia began a long time ago. He personally remembers a hawker by the name of Gunter Singh (probably Ganda Singh), who came to his house in Hamilton (in county Victoria) where he grew up in the 1940's.

Says Kenna: "The Indian hawkers were better educated than most others in those days, they were polite and well-cultured. They spoke English, so we had great conversations. I used to hop into Gunter Singh's horse wagon, marvel at his goods and listen to his stories all night. I shared some scones with him and he cooked absolutely wonderful curries for us. That smell is still fresh in my mind, so many decades later!"

Kenna says his mother and her friend used to take turns to wash Gunter Singh's turbans and Singh cooked for them in return. "I remember those bright turbans on our clothesline, flapping wildly in the wind," recalls Kenna. He adds, "The country women loved the Sikh hawkers. They were such a wonderful change from the Aussie farm men who were stuck knee-deep in cow manure for most of the day and still treated their women with an air of Victorian superiority. The women loved the way the hawkers respected them and treated them like ‘ladies'!" As a tribute to these hawkers, Kenna penned a play, ‘It happened in Heywood', which has been staged in Melbourne and many country towns of Victoria. At the end of many shows, people from the audience have come up and shared their own memories of the Sikh hawkers and Kenna is hoping to preserve all of these stories for posterity.

‘It Happened in Heywood' revolves around a true story of three Sikh brothers, who were all hawkers near the country town of Heywood around the year 1900. One of the brothers was burnt alive while sleeping in his wagon overnight - apparently these horse wagons were extremely flammable being made of wood and canvas, and would burn down completely in a matter of seconds, leaving someone sleeping inside with no possibility of escape.

The second brother Kahn Singh died in an accident when a tree-branch fell on his head. The third surviving brother Ganda Singh wanted to cremate Kahn's dead body. But cremation was illegal in those days (although it was legalized thereafter).

The play shows how the whole country town rallied together to make sure that Kahn Singh received a befitting funeral in accordance with his own traditions. The play essentially captures the spirit of the local Australians who almost felt a sense of camaraderie with Sikh hawkers, something that the Chinese and hawkers of other nationalities rarely enjoyed.

Sikh Hawker's horse wagon

The countryside of Victoria is now dotted with cremation sites and headstones marking the spot where a hawker's ashes were buried after cremation. (See photo of Gunga Singh's headstone, which has a lengthy inscription in Punjabi and, beneath it, the English portion reads: "In loving memory of Gunga Singh, beloved son of Dava Singh, native of Poloolla, Punjab, India. Died 6th Sept 1901, aged 45 years.")

Apparently, if a hawker died and had no other relatives here, his horse, cart, goods and wagon were auctioned off. With the money raised, the hawker would be cremated, the site marked with a memorial, and the remaining money would be sent back to India along with the ashes. Many death notices published in newspapers of more than a century ago indicate relocation of ashes to India, ‘to be dispersed in the Ganges', or according to the last wishes of the deceased.

Hawking in those days was a lucrative business, but required a lot of grit and hard work. The sheer distances between towns in Australia could prove prohibitive for some people, but Sikh hawkers seemed to thrive on it. According to the records, 213 country licenses were issued for hawkers in Hamilton alone, which is just one of the country towns of Victoria. It is mind-boggling to think of what the actual population of Sikh hawkers might have been Australia-wide, especially since there were many more Indians in New South Wales compared to Victoria.

According to the Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages, 377 people with the name ‘Singh' died in New South Wales during the period 1898 - 1939. Therefore, it is anybody's guess how many were alive and working in that same period. Typically a hawker would have to pay a bond of nearly $100 upon entering the country. Then, before they began hawking, they had to go to court to obtain a permit, had to prove that they were of good character and needed to be debt-free. Then, they would either begin hawking on foot or on horse-drawn carts and pay an annual hawking fee.

A wagon (see photo) would have a large canvas hood, and the shelves would be stacked with wares to sell. There would be an elevated bed right in the middle of the wagon and more goods were stored under it. Goods included dress material, laces, buttons, threads, perfumes, footwear, jewellery, jewellery boxes, spices, utensils and even indigenous medicine.

If a buyer couldn't get what they wanted, they could place an order and receive what they needed within a day or two. Some hawkers made so much money that they bought sheep stations, land and property, while others were content with sending the money back to Punjab.

But the hawkers led very lonely lives - tramping repetitively on country roads where the nearest town would be at least 100 kms away. Hardly any of them had their family here and they rarely inter-married locals. Letters were their only source of contact with family back home and they could go for a long time without speaking or hearing their native language, since each hawker had a specifically marked territory to work in. They tended to form friendships with local country people and twice a year, all the hawkers converged at a pre-arranged spot where they spent a few weeks of holidays together, typically during Christmas and Easter.

Hawker Jack Singh

Sadly, there are some records of hawkers being assaulted or murdered and also of some crimes committed by hawkers themselves out of sheer frustration and loneliness. Many were even admitted to institutions in later life since they had no immediate family to take care of them.

But happily, the personal anecdotes and memories of good times with these Punjabi pioneers outnumber the sad ones. Locals all over country towns recall innumerable stories about individual Sikh hawkers with great fondness. Eileen Tierney distinctly remembers Lucca Singh (probably Lakha), who had a very highly polished van, well fitted-out with shelves along each side and along the back. One section was for women's wear exclusively, with a built-in, lift-out box for jewels and scents.

Recalls Tierney, "I can remember Lucca coming to our home at Wando Vale when I was a child - it was a red letter day as everybody waited in great anticipation for Lucca to open his van on arrival. He was the bearer of good news and bad. He traveled extensively and heard of all the district's happenings. He would stay some weeks in each district and always had his special places where he would stay for up to a fortnight at a time. He was a great old fellow and as children, we loved him. He loved to play cards, liked to win and would play all night if necessary until he finally won."

Lucca Singh spent his last days in a tent close to the Peach family of Edenhope around the end of the Second World War Says Tierney, "Lucca lived a very long life. I think he must have had a lot of herbal remedies to back up his health. He had a brother in India. I can't remember Lucca ever having to go to hospital until near the end of his life when he just became ill."

He died in Casterton Hospital in 1943 and his ashes were spread in a nearby river on his request.

Then there was Sunda Singh (probably Sunder), who started his hawking career on foot, with his goods strapped in a bundle on his back. Soon, he saved enough to buy a wagon and two horses, which gave him greater reach. After many years, he bought a farm near Allestree. He paid for the local hospital at Portland to be painted, as a gesture of his gratitude to the people for the love they had given him.

He died in Ballarat Hospital leaving behind his wife and family in Raipur in India. By all accounts, he was dearly loved in the whole of the district. Another hawker, Indar Sondhu, was so wealthy that he donated land for the construction of Coleraine Shire offices - that was his way of saying thank you to the people of the area. He set up a business in Coleraine and later owned shops and a sheep station.

There are also stories about a famous Punjabi wrestler by the name of Bagshot Singh. He wrestled at the Hotspur Show every year and it is said that he had a great rivalry with a local wrestler called Mr. Edge. Bagshot Singh died at the age of 39 at Hamilton Base Hospital and his ashes were sent to India.

So, as the stories and anecdotes abound, it's truly amazing to sense the fondness with which these Sikh hawkers are remembered, despite the deep-rooted racism that was intitutionalised in Australian society during those days. The White Australia policy, although prevalent in spirit during the late 19th century, was officially adopted by the Australian government in 1901, which precluded migrants on the basis of their colour and race. Although the basis for exclusion was more subtle - prospective migrants were asked to take a language test and only those who passed were allowed to migrate - the idea was to stop the influx of Asian and even central European migrants to Australia.

Despite this, hundreds of Sikh hawkers continued to operate all over Australia, providing essential services to many country towns. Their wagons carried goods both mundane and exotic; their conversation carried the news of the day, both good and bad; their hearts bore goodwill that created long lasting friendships and their vibrant personalities brought colour into boring lives. Above all, they provided the country people a life-line as well as a dream of the mystique of lands far beyond the shores of Australia.

We owe much to the enterprise and free spirit of these Sikh forefathers, and hope that they are accorded their rightful place in history.

  • Courtesy: India Today