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Mewa Singh’s Funeral Procession 1915

Discussion in 'Sikh Personalities' started by aristotle, Dec 22, 2013.

  1. aristotle

    aristotle
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    Mewa Singh’s Funeral Procession 1915

    By Melanie Hardbattle

    Mewa Singh funeral procession, 1915. SFU Library Special Collections, Kohaly Collection.

    Image Caption

    “His body was brought to the undertakers, where it was bathed according to the Sikh religious rites and then in a hearse was carried to the B.C.E.R. Depot, where about four or five hundred sikhs were standing to pray for the soul of the dead. Before the funeral procession started, a photograph was taken and then the procession followed the hearse to the Fraser Mills, BC, singing hymns, notwithstanding the heavy rain.”
    – Mitt Singh quoted in The New Advertiser, January 14, 1915

    Recently, while looking through one of our collections at Simon Fraser University (SFU) Library’s Special Collections & Rare Books, I came across a photograph that I had never seen before.

    I was immediately struck by the stark beauty of the image: the shine of rainy, sepia-coloured streets, nearly deserted, and the charming background of long-demolished buildings and ornate lamp posts, contrasted with the sombre dark clothing of a solemn gathering of South Asian men, lined up in orderly rows, arms at their sides, behind a black, horse-drawn carriage. A small crowd of observers from outside of the South Asian community stands to the left, eyes on the group assembled in front of them. Some members of the crowd and their dark umbrellas are blurred and transparent, ghost-like figures; a few individuals are barely materialized, visible by just a glimpse of their feet or a shadowy outline, making the viewer aware of the temporal nature of the photograph and the movement of time. A few curious figures here and there peek out from behind buildings and under awnings. The whole of the scene is reflected back in shadows by the wet streets.

    Curious as to what event it depicted, I turned the photograph over and saw the words “Mewa Singh funeral procession 1915” printed on the back. Having worked on the SFU Library’s government funded website project, Komagata Maru: Continuing the Journey, documenting the Komagata Maru incident of 1914, I immediately recognized the significance of the image. This was the procession following the execution of Mewa Singh at the New Westminster, British Columbia jail on the morning of January 11, 1915. Singh was hanged for the shooting and murder of Canadian Immigration Inspector William Charles Hopkinson in a hallway of the Vancouver Court House on October 21, 1914, a crime to which he freely admitted his guilt. While I am familiar with the image taken a few hours later of Singh prepared for cremation at Fraser Mills, and with several photographs documenting Hopkinson’s funeral procession, in the course of my research and survey of academic literature on the subject I have never come across any images of Singh’s funeral procession.

    The murder of Hopkinson was the culmination of a mounting animosity between some members of the South Asian community in British Columbia and the Immigration tensions that had been brought to a boiling point a few months earlier during an incident involving the passengers of a Japanese vessel named Komagata Maru. Chartered by an Indian business man, Gurdit Singh, the ship had arrived in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet from Hong Kong on May 23, 1914 with 376 passengers, most originating from Punjab, British India. The passengers, all British subjects, were challenging immigration legislation brought into force in 1908. Aimed at curbing Indian immigration to Canada, the Continuous Passage regulation stated that immigrants must “come from the country of their birth, or citizenship, by a continuous journey and on through tickets purchased before leaving the country of their birth, or citizenship.” They were also required to have at least $200 in their possession at the time of arrival. The legislation had a drastic impact on the South Asian population in British Columbia, resulting in a decrease of almost 60%, from 6,000 to 2,200, in the two years following its enactment.

    With the exception of twenty returning residents, and the ship’s doctor and his family, the passengers were prevented from disembarking by the Canadian authorities. Despite the assistance of a Shore Committee representing the local South Asian community and Vancouver lawyer J.E. Bird, the ship and its passengers were kept languishing in the harbour for two months before they were escorted out of the harbour by the Canadian military on July 23, 1914 and forced to sail back to India. Upon the ship’s arrival in Budge-Budge, India, a skirmish broke out between the passengers and British soldiers, resulting in the death of nineteen passengers. Many of the remaining passengers were either jailed or confined to their villages for several years.

    Arriving in Vancouver in 1907, William Hopkinson was appointed to the position of Immigration Inspector and Hindu Language Interpreter for the Immigration Department in 1909. A prominent figure in the Komagata Maru incident, along with his superior Immigration Agent Malcolm Reid, Hopkinson was also in the employ of the Canadian and British governments as an intelligence agent, monitoring any perceived seditious, anti-British activities amongst the South Asian population in the Pacific Northwest, particularly after the 1913 formation of the Ghadar Party in North America to free India from British rule. In this regard, Hopkinson employed networks of informants amongst the local South Asian community, thus creating frictions within the community.

    Following the departure of the Komagata Maru, several murders and assassination attempts occurred in Vancouver and on September 5, 1914, one of Hopkinson’s informants, Bela Singh, entered the Second Avenue Sikh Temple and shot seven people, killing two. Mewa Singh, a sawmill worker who had immigrated to Canada in 1906, had encountered Hopkinson and Bela Singh the previous June with regard to some legal charges that had been filed against him for smuggling firearms across the Canada-US border. Mewa Singh witnessed the shootings and in his statement at trial he blamed Hopkinson and Reid for “all this trouble and all this shooting.” He claimed that he “shot Mr. Hopkinson out of honor and principle to my fellow men, and for my religion. I could not bear to see these troubles going on any longer.”

    Hopkinson was commemorated as a hero amongst the citizens of Vancouver and described by the media as “the man who had laid down his life for the maintenance of law and order.” Photographs of his funeral depict the spectacle and very public nature of the event, as thousands of men, women and children lined the streets to pay their respects. His procession, “one of the largest funeral processions ever held in the city,” as described in newspaper reports, consisted of more than 2,000 men, including mounted and other police, members of his military regiment, one hundred firemen, several hundred members of the Orange Lodge, Canadian and U.S. immigration officers and other civil servants. Undercover police infiltrated the crowd to prevent any further disturbances and to protect other suspected targets, such as Malcolm Reid.

    In sharp contrast, the procession depicted in the Mewa Singh photograph conveys a much different tone. While photographs of Hopkinson’s funeral show the streets so overflowing with spectators that some individuals had to stand atop fences, in this photograph, which I have situated at 8th Avenue and Columbia Street, usually busy streets are remarkably and eerily deserted, save for the small pockets of onlookers. Although newspaper reports estimate the number of men in the procession at between 400 and 500, the photograph suggests that the number was probably a bit lower, between 300 and 400. Consequently, the ceremony appears more humble and, at first glance, much more private and intimate than Hopkinson’s.

    However, it was not until the Library’s digitization staff made a high resolution scan of the photograph and I was able to magnify areas of the image on my computer screen that I realized that this was not necessarily the case. Zooming in on the crowd of onlookers to the left of the procession, I was astonished to see the tall, unmistakable moustached figure of Malcolm Reid standing at the front of the crowd, staring straight ahead into the hearse containing the body of Mewa Singh, the man who had murdered his colleague.

    Following the Komagata Maru incident and questions regarding his judgement during the affair, Reid was removed from his Immigration Agent position on December 31, 1914. In a letter of December 24, 1914 to the Minister of Justice, Mewa Singh’s attorney E.M.N. Woods’ blamed Reid, “a personal friend” for the troubles resulting in Hopkinson’s death. While stressing that he did not believe Singh to be justified in his actions, he wrote “I have personally strong convictions with regard to the mistakes which I conceive to have been made by Mr. Reid and his associates, and to those mistakes I attribute the unfortunate condition of affairs that exist with regard to the East Indian in Vancouver.” Following Hopkinson’s murder, officials feared that Reid would be the next target; they proposed to send him east to Ontario for his own safety, but he refused.

    Locating Reid in this photograph introduces a whole new dynamic to the image, and an overarching tension that I had not experienced when originally examining it with my eyes alone. The photograph is no longer simply a glimpse into the private ceremony of a grieving community. Reid’s presence, and that of other presumed officials in the crowd, was an intrusion – a trespass – into this privacy. This tension is further developed by the tramlines that dissect the image, much like the conceptual lines that divided Vancouver according to race in the early 20th century.

    What were Reid’s motivations for attending this event? I have been unable thus far to locate any official documentation amongst the records of the Immigration Department and M.P. H.H. Stevens digitized for the website that would shed any light on this. Perhaps he was attending in an official capacity, in his new position of Inspector of Agencies in B.C. Perhaps it was a personal mission to see that Hopkinson’s murderer had received what he felt to be due punishment. Or maybe Reid, who had originally been hired by Stevens because of his anti-Asian immigration sympathies, was present front and center as a means of exerting some power and intimidation over the mourners, and to demonstrate that he was not afraid of suspected threats against his life. His presence, and that of the other officials in the crowd, may have been a warning to the South Asian community that further violence would not be tolerated. Continued investigation into existing records from that period may produce some answers.

    However, rather than an experience of intimidation or shame amongst the South Asian men in the photograph, it is a sense of pride that is communicated to the viewer. Many of the men in the procession look directly into the lens of the camera, engaging the viewer. Although there is no indication on the print as to who the photographer was, it is apparent that these men are aware of the photographer’s presence. While members of the crowd are blurred from movement and the majority appear ignorant of the camera, the men in the procession remain very still and pose for the photographer. Additionally, the mention of the photograph by Mitt Singh in The New Advertiser article quoted at the beginning of this piece further suggests that the photographer was likely commissioned by the South Asian community to document this moment for posterity.

    While previously only images of Hopkinson’s funeral were available as evidence of these events, the photograph of Mewa Singh’s funeral procession allows the South Asian community’s story to emerge and sheds more light on the relationship between the two factions. Hidden in a private collection for many years, the photograph can now be digitized and made accessible to the South Asian and scholarly communities, and it is almost certain that with their assistance some of the men within this photograph will be identified.

    The Mewa Singh photograph is a perfect example of the objective of the Komagata Maru: Continuing the Journey website, which is to make accessible a new perspective of the incident and the South Asian experience in Canada not present in the ‘official record’ with records from the community itself. In addition to government documents and other records, the website includes textual records, photographs, books, videos, oral histories and even a diary documenting first hand the experiences of the South Asian community in Canada. Made possible with funding from the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, under the auspices of the Community Historical Recognition Program, the website also includes biographies of individuals involved in the incident and interactive features such as a timeline and a version of the ship’s passenger list supplemented with information from the community and accounts of events once the ship returned to India. As new information continues to surface and is incorporated into the historical record our understanding of this incident becomes more inclusive.

    Ultimately this photograph supports the reality that both men were seen as heroes in their respective communities at the time of these events. Since his death nearly 100 years ago, Mewa Singh has been venerated as a martyr within the South Asian community, and is recognized annually. The court house where the murder occurred is currently home to the Vancouver Art Gallery and it is said that Hopkinson’s ghost still roams the hallways to this day.

    Sources:
    Komagata Maru: Continuing the Journey. Simon Fraser University. Web. 10 December 2013

    Johnston, Hugh. The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: the Sikh Challenge to Canada’s Colour Bar. Komagata Maru Journey. N.p. 1 January 1995. Web. 10 December, 2013.
     

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  3. spnadmin

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    Please discuss issues and do not become personal or point fingers when discussing them. Take it private if it is that painful.
     
  4. dalsingh1zero1

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    I would've thought a debate about modern day neo-imperialism and the ripple effects of colonialism is one that is very pertinent to a lot of lives? I would imagine that it's probably more painful for disenfranchised native communities such as those in the US or Australia than for me personally. That doesn't mean I can't emphathise with their situation though. Or that I should play this down in fear of offending x or y community.

    Your interpretation of my comments appears to be mistaken anyway; it wasn't an attack on any one community but the whole imperialist mindset, which seems to manifest from certain quarters more than others i.e. English society produces more imperialist minded people than say Ghana in Africa. Facing up to this and exploring it shouldn't offend anyone - apart from neo-imperialists today.

    The way imperialism or neo-imperialism hinges on the complicit silence of many people is one of the most interesting aspects of the subject (in my opinion anyway). It might be my mind mulling over a fascinating book I'm reading right now, let me give a quote (and please don't start crying that I am anti-American or something next because this quotes refers to them; it could very easily pertain to British or Russian imperialists also):



    I'm just thinking out aloud dude. I read the above and then inadvertently came across demonising articles about Romanian and Bulgarian immigrant invasions here in the UK. At the same time I noticed that the pope himself seems to have had a pop at right wing racist, anti-immigrant politicians just the other day. In the face of that, stumbling across the above article just brought home how persistent this anti-immigrant rhetoric has been from certain quarters. And it DOES surprise me that certain people keep it up on land they themselves have usurped; read US, NZ and Australia here.

    What happened to you admin. You used to be all for free speech and debate and now you've appeared to turn censor on topics that effect and blight many lives as if you are some placating, apologist?

    Anyway I strongly recommend the quoted book to anyone interested in literature. It's quite stimulating.
     
    #3 dalsingh1zero1, Dec 26, 2013
    Last edited: Dec 26, 2013
  5. spnadmin

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    First of all I am not a "dude." Secondly, a debate about neo-imperalism would not be a bad idea; however accusing others of being "stuck" in it is a very bad idea.

    Do you think you can manage this discussion without resorting to low blows on a personal plane? If you can, then why not? If you cannot, then why bother?

    Enforcing TOS is a kind of censorship. No apologies on that score.

    Finally, changing our narratives of powerlessness to a different narrative does not happen by continually adhering to the narrative of powerlessness. Look to Nelson Mandela for inspiration. At some point the narrative has to be voiced in a sense of personal power not voiced in victimization.
     
  6. dalsingh1zero1

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    It's worth bothering with because the subject matter is enormous, encompassing political acts that take place today which leads to countless (in my opinion unnecessary) deaths for some perceived 'national interest' that often subtly hinges along racial lines (unless I'm reading it wrong?)

    I freely admit that my style may not be particularly endearing for those of highly sensitive dispositions, but that doesn't warrant snide comments or over zealous censoring. But let's move on from that.



    Before that; I'd argue that comprehension is still largely lacking. The very act of decoding what has transpired and continues too is one of the most empowering things we can do. And absolutely essential to any further empowerment. Without that we just stumble around trying to grasp whisps of smoke. What is the nature of this beast?

    One of my points is that there appears to have been a sustained, global campaign (in want of a better word) towards population control emanated from a western European elite both in the lands of their origin and those they have colonised. There is a persistent pattern that has loosely continued for many generations now. It's becoming a major issue and will continue too as 'minority' communities realise more and more that they aren't as small a minority as made out. It dictates a lot of the politics around us.

    It's interesting to trace and even try to forecast the implications of demographic changes in future. I wonder what those who try and 'baton down the hatches' in the face of immigrants are going to do next?

    The thing with this mindset is that it not only places genuine immigrants in a outsiders box; but it also curiously works to categorise people who've been born and raised in a country in a similar bracket. I'm curious and fascinated by what exactly this is? Is it simple racism being refracted or something more complex? In some states that arose from Euro-colonialism; are we seeing a shifting of power from traditional brokers? Or are things largely as they ever were?

    A point is that the sentiments behind what caused Mewa Singh to do what he did are plainly evident and going strong all around the 'civilised' world even today, although the level of violence that power-holders are prepared to use to maintain their hegemony seems to have attenuated.

    This globalisation thing is a fascinating beast.
     
  7. spnadmin

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    dalsingh ji

    You have said I
    Let's not move on from that but pause and reflect.

    So you are saying that the use of low-blows, ad hominem attacks, presumptuous and non factual statements about immediate participants in a discussion and about people who are not even alive, and the attribution of wicked motives without any tangible proof are all justified if the topic of discussion is serious. Does it not occur to you that these strategies actually trash a discussion and detract from its seriousness?

    I am sure these strategies "endear" you to many. That is not my concern. We are headed for deletions if you cannot discuss issues without becoming personal and uncivil. I will just clean things up. Do continue
     
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  8. dalsingh1zero1

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    Content deleted

    Oh my! You are still at it! Use a civil tongue. Discuss issues not personalities.


    And I DO believe the motives of imperialists and many colonialists of the past (and modern day neo-imperialists for that matter) were/are pretty dubious visa vis the people encountered on the lands they colonised; there IS a whole culture around that that exists to this day; the Said quote puts the same forward in better and clearer words than I ever could.

    The thing with what we are discussing is that it is almost amorphous yet surreptitious as a cultural formation; and it DOES appear to have grown in a culture of silence or negation that largely wrote out or misrepresented the experiences of those on the receiving end be they natives or later immigrants as in the Mewa Singh case. And here is the rub - I think that streak of silence (be it born of guilt or a tactical move) is one that gets perpetuated by others through a variety of mechanisms that I believe has some people almost unwittingly justifying or becoming apologists for what transpired/transpires.

    Without trying to be offensive to you personally; this thing seems so deeply rooted it's hard to tell when someone is doing the above. You just have bring the subject up and see for yourself the emotional responses and silences you get.
     
  9. spnadmin

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    dalsingh ji

    You said



    Which in turn would dictate that, when assessing another person's views and actions, one admit one's uncertainty, speak in a more tentative way, be less certain of the motives of others, judge less, blame less, and conclude that to be reality-based one does need evidence to support opinions. Otherwise, the "amorphous" "surreptitious" and essentially invisible information rules the day. And when we perform in that way, we are imitating imperialist habits of mind that the powerful use to subjugate the powerless.

    Oops! I forgot. The TOS for this asks you to reign in your negativity.
     
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  10. spnadmin

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    Time to reboot. Let's stay on topic.
     
  11. mandemeet

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    Respected Dalsingh1zero1 ji writes

    "Your interpretation of my comments appears to be mistaken anyway; it wasn't an attack on any one community but the whole imperialist mindset, which seems to manifest from certain quarters more than others i.e. English society produces more imperialist minded people than say Ghana in Africa. Facing up to this and exploring it shouldn't offend anyone - apart from neo-imperialists today".

    Dalsingh ji

    Sorry to budge in a discussion of two intellectual persons. I have felt to say something after reading your quote, because it is generalized and popular myth so to speak.As you say, the western society produces more imperialist minded people; I doubt it. Come to India and witness such kind of mind-set regardless the loudly beaten drums of socialism within; tendency is to increase influence on other small and poor countries around it for its personal gains of imperialistic nature. I dont know about USA, but I hear from my relatives that it is heading towards socialist and libertarian society abandoning imperialistic mentality; one example I got is "Rand Paul and libertarian agenda gaining support from lot of Americans.This is the only point I thought of sharing with you.
    Regards
    mandemeet:winkingkaur:
     
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