A brief analysis of the historical context of the murder of William Hopkinson, an Immigration Inspector in the aftermath of Komagata Maru episode of 1914
-A University of British Columbia research paper by Gurpreet Singh
This paper explores the murder of William Charles Hopkinson, an immigration inspector by Mewa Singh, an East Indian political activist in Vancouver in October, 1914 and tries to place this bloody incident in the broader context of history of colonialism, immigration and racism.
The murder of Hopkinson was an assassination that followed the Komagata Maru episode in which a Japanese vessel carrying more than 300 East Indian passengers was turned away in July 1914 under the discriminatory continuous journey law sparking clashes within the local East Indian community that led to a shooting inside the Vancouver Sikh temple in September, 1914 by Bela Singh an agent of Hopkinson which left two people dead. One of the victims was Bhag Singh, a towering Sikh leader who led campaigns against British imperialism, racial discrimination and anti immigration policies and whose killing culminated into the murder of Hopkinson.
Both Bhag Singh and Mewa Singh migrated from India to Canada as British subjects as their home country was under British occupation back then. The British Empire’s claims of fairness to all its subjects had greatly influenced these immigrants who came to Canada, a British dominion in the hope of better employment opportunities.
However, rampart racism and anti immigration attitudes in Canada disillusioned these people transforming many into die hard political activists, who later fought against both foreign occupation of their homeland and discrimination abroad. The British government’s double standards were exposed as it did not come to their aid when they were disfranchised or were unable to bring their families to Canada. As a result the East Indian immigrants realized the British Empire was discriminating against them by looking after the interests of white Canadians. Thanks to this awakening, the ouster of the British rulers from India became an important goal of their lives. Whereas Bhag Singh was a prominent figure in this political movement, Mewa Singh was one of his supporters who shot into prominence by murdering Hopkinson to avenge the death of his leader. His crime should therefore be seen in the broader context of the history of revolt that was a byproduct of systematic racism.
Since the Komagata Maru incident has been acknowledged as an act of racial discrimination by the Canadian establishment and remains an important chapter in the social history it is imperative to put Mewa Singh’s story in perspective.
This paper uses variety of sources for references. The primary sources used in the paper include the court statement of Mewa Singh that reveals interesting details about what prompted him to kill Hopkinson besides old news clippings, illustrations, copies of the confidential official correspondence and pictures of the main actors in the story and important places. These documents were either collected from the UBC library or the Vancouver City Archives while the pictures were either taken by the author of this paper or gathered from different resources, including the Khalsa Diwan Society, the oldest Sikh institution in Vancouver.
The secondary sources used for this paper include books written by historians and research scholars both in English and Punjabi languages besides, books authored by James Campbell Ker, a former personal assistant to the Director of Criminal Intelligence in the British India and oral traditions compiled and written by a Punjabi author, Kesar Singh who was empathetic towards Mewa Singh and his cause.
Arrival of East Indians in Canada and early challenges
The East Indians began migrating to North America in early twentieth century. Many of these people had served in the British army and came to US and Canada as British subjects. While over 75 percent of them were Sikhs around fifty percent were ex soldiers in the British army. They were predominantly peasants from rural Punjab that was annexed by the British in 1849.
Most of these immigrants came to British Columbia for economical reasons and found jobs in lumber industry, railway construction and canneries whereas others moved to US to work in farms. The hostility against these men mainly came from the white labourers, who believed that these people were being imported as cheap labourers to weaken their bargaining power. Even though many employers used East Indians immigrants to keep wages low and weaken the workers’ unions, the pressure was intense from the labour groups who were not progressive as today and sought exclusion of the Hindus.
This hostility was also visible in the mainstream press as newspaper cartoons frequently mocked East Indian immigrants. After all, the 1867 speech of the first Prime Minister of Canada, John A. Macdonald in parliament that proclaimed Canada to be a ``white man’s country’’ had already laid the foundation of an institutional racism in this country. Succumbing to these pressures, the British Columbia government disfranchised East Indian voters on March 26, 1907. In an atmosphere charged with anti Asian sentiments, race riots broke out across the border in US on September 4, 1907. A mob of white workers attacked and drove out over 250 South Asian workers from the lumber mills in Bellingham, Washington. Many of them were forced to take refuge in Vancouver. The municipal politicians used the episode to argue that the South Asian immigration must stop.
These immigrants lacked clear understanding of any relation of their problems with the British policies and imperial interests when they started migrating to North America.
The bitter experiences of racism and discrimination shaped their political views. In the light of these hostilities, Khalsa Diwan Society was established in Vancouver in 1906.
Since the Sikhs dominated the group of East Indian immigrants the society was formed to govern a Sikh temple that actually became a nerve center of secular political activities for Hindus and Muslims too. While the upper part of the temple was used for religious gatherings the lower part of the building was used for public meetings to discuss political problems which were shared by these communities alike. Every Sunday a public meeting was held after the religious congregation to discuss these issues. One of the hotly debated issues was how to bring families to Canada. It is not surprising that the East Indian immigrants were not allowed to bring their families in Canada to prevent permanent settlement of Asian men.
As if this was not enough, the Canadian government passed a controversial order-in-council or the Continuous Journey Law on January 8, 1908. It stated: ``All immigrants must come to Canada via a through ticket and by continuous journey from their country of birth or citizenship’’. A tone for the Komagata Maru standoff was formally set as direct passage was virtually impossible for East Indians sailing to Canada from their home country. However, the continuous journey law was not the only cause of anxiety within the East Indian community. There was an attempt to relocate East Indian immigrants to British Honduras. The official line was the Hindus were not suited for the climate of Canada. . The community leaders resolutely challenged the designs of the British Empire and the conspiracy was foiled. There was a public meeting on October 6, 1908 in the temple where it was resolved to send petitions before different levels of the government to challenge attempts to relocate East Indians. The resolution was co-signed by Bhag Singh who was the Secretary of the temple.
Bhag Singh served the Khalsa Diwan Society in different capacities and became its president in 1910. He came to Canada in 1906. He had earlier served in the British Army’s cavalry. He was indoctrinated by at least two prominent and well read radical leaders of the Indian freedom struggle; Taraknath Dass and G.D. Kumar. While Das published first East Indian newspaper, Free Hindustan from Vancouver, Kumar was instrumental behind publishing the first Punjabi newspaper of Canada, Swadesh Sewak.
Both papers were considered seditious by the authorities. All these men were convinced that without political freedom in India they won’t be able to get social justice in Canada.
He also became a member of G.D. Kumar’s Hindustan Association and United India League that was formed by Husain Rahim. Rahim consistently opposed the anti immigration laws and was arrested for defying ban on East Indians from voting during the March 1912 provincial election.
Bhag Singh was instrumental in encouraging ex soldiers to burn their medals and uniforms and severe all ties with the British Empire on October 3, 1909. He consigned his own uniform and an honourable discharge certificate to flames. It was a very radical action of its time as the Sikhs were largely known as pro British and were used to suppress the first Ghadar or mutiny against the British in 1857. The Sikh landlords were duly honoured by the British government for their services.
Across the border too the flames of rebellion were growing. An extremist group named Hindustan Association of the Pacific Coast of America that believed in an armed struggle against the British Empire was formed. But, the association soon came to be known as Ghadar Party after its newsletter, Ghadar was launched on November 1, 1913 from San Francisco. The paper that borrowed its name from the first uprising against the British rule published highly provocative poems and articles. The Ghadar literature clearly reflects that it was not just a war against imperialism but a resistance against racial discrimination too. One Punjabi poem published in Ghadar in December 1913 edition depicts how the East Indians were often insulted and called ``Coolies’’ by the white people. Despite that the Ghadar members were predominantly Sikhs- the party remained secular in its mandate and asked its members to keep their religious beliefs out of the party affairs.
Bhag Singh not only became a member of the Ghadar Party he openly helped it in fundraising and inspired many in Vancouver to join the movement. Soon, the Ghadar activities in Vancouver came to the notice of the authorities. There was a heavy exchange of correspondence between the local immigration officials and the federal government over the activities of the Ghadar leaders. On December 30, 1913 the Dominion Immigration Inspector for British Columbia, Malcolm Robert James Reid wrote a confidential letter to H.H. Stevens, a Member of Parliament from Vancouver providing him with translation of Ghadar newspaper. Reid was a protégé of Stevens and had no experience in immigration work. His was a patronage appointment and Stevens who was campaigning against Asian immigration was behind it.
William Charles Hopkinson was another immigration inspector who had mastery on these matters and kept a watchful eye on the Ghadar activists. Born in Delhi, he understood local languages of India. Before coming to Canada either in 1907 or 1908 he served as police inspector in Calcutta. He was hired by the Canadian government in 1909 as an immigration inspector and interpreter but he continued working for the Indian police. He also reported to the Deputy Minister of the Interior in Ottawa, the Agent of the Government of India in London and shared intelligence with the American Immigration service.
Hopkinson had roped in 50-60 East Indian supporters who helped him in information gathering. This group was widely identified as pro British ``Immigration faction’’. Bela Singh was the main leader of this group. Known as Hopkinson’s tipster he was on the government payroll for $62.50 a month. He helped Hopkinson in identifying the Ghadar activists whose names were to be sent to the British officials to prevent mutiny in India.
Even as the anxiety of the Canadian officials due to a possible violent uprising was understandable it would be wrong to presume that these activists did not exhaust other peaceful channels to get their grievances redressed. A three member delegation left Vancouver on March 14, 1913 for England to petition for right to bring families in Canada but the British officials snubbed them.
A separate deputation that was sent to Ottawa drew attention of the authorities to their loyalty towards the British rulers. This delegation submitted, ``With the name Sikh is linked up fidelity and heroic loyalty to the Empire. We instance the Indian Mutiny, Africa, Afghanistan, Somaliland; in other words, whenever the Empire needed in the past or may in the future need loyal hearts to protect or preserve her honour.’’ As these skirmishes continued a much bigger fight for immigration rights was about to begin which would not only change the course of the Canadian history but also galvanize the Ghadar movement.
Komagata Maru episode
The role of Gurdit Singh, who charted Komagata Maru, a Japanese vessel that brought 376 East Indian passengers to Vancouver on May 23, 1914 remains debatable.
While some historians describe him a freedom fighter who challenged Canada’s controversial Continuous Journey law others maintain that it was purely a business venture that eventually turned into an important chapter of the history of struggle against colonialism and racism due to mistreatment meted out to those aboard the vessel.
Whatever may be the case, these people came to Canada as British subjects like rest of the East India immigrants.
Gurdit Singh was confident that he would sue the government in the Canadian courts if at all they were denied entry to Canada. He also told the press in Canada, ``We are British citizens and we consider we have a right to visit any part of the Empire’’.
The vessel picked passengers from different countries before reaching Vancouver. Not surprisingly, there was uproar in British Columbia when the ship arrived. The Premier Richard McBride said, ``To admit Orientals in large numbers would mean in the end the extinction of the white peoples and we have always in mind the necessity of keeping this a white man’s country.’’
Khalsa Diwan Society came to the rescue of the passengers who were not allowed to disembark. It hired Edward Bird, a white lawyer who was associated with Socialist Party of Canada to challenge the government in the court. Bird had to endure threats and intimidations from white supremacists. Minutes of a public meeting held in Dominion Hall, Vancouver on June 23, 1914 give an insight of the anti Asian mood that prevailed in British Columbia. H.H. Stevens pulled no punches while attacking the Orientals. ``I hold, and I think I hold it in common with every member from British Columbia, that the Government of Canada – the Parliament of Canada – should pass legislation of a distinct and definite type, excluding Orientals (applause).’’
As the Komagata Maru ship remained stranded the situation on the vessel turned ugly. Hopkinson’s own letter dated July 3, 1914 to Reid reveals that there was little supply of ration and ship was in filthy condition.
In the end, the East Indian leaders lost their battle with the government and the Komagata Maru ship was forced to return on July 23, 1914. But this did not happen smoothly. On July 19, 1914 the police and the immigration officials tried to siege the vessel with help of a tugboat named ``Sea Lion’’ .This ensued a fight that left about 20 people injured, according to the official version of the story. One of the bricks that were thrown by irate passengers on the officials is now preserved at the Vancouver Museum.
In the meantime, Bhag Singh was arrested along with two more accomplices in US where he went to buy weapons for the ship passengers, whose exit was now imminent. These leaders were thinking of sending arms to India for mutiny. Mewa Singh also accompanied these men to Sumas. Mewa Singh also confessed it in the statement he gave to the Canadian authorities after his arrest for carrying concealed weapons. He admitted that they went to Sumas on July 16, 1914 and purchased four revolvers the next morning. Mewa Singh who came to Canada with one revolver and three boxes of ammunition was arrested. He stated, ``…..from what I could understand it was the intention of these people to try and convoy these weapons to the Komagata Maru.’’
Bhag Singh was released a week after the Komagata Maru departed. What added fuel to the fire was a shootout at Budge Budge shore near Calcutta, India that left 22 people dead, including a British police official after the ship reached there in September, 1914. The trouble started when the police tried to forcibly send these passengers to Punjab through a special train waiting at the Budge Budge rail station. The authorities suspected that men were Ghadar activists. The whole episode coincided with the World War I. Thinking that it was right time to strike against the British Empire which was now engaged in a conflict with Germany, the Ghadar leaders gave a call for rebellion provoking many to return to India. Over 14 Ghadar activists from Canada alone were killed during the uprising after returning to their home country.
Murders and mayhem
Tension filled the air in Vancouver as soon as Komagata Maru departed. The authorities were also apprehensive of dangers ahead. A confidential report reveals that the Ghadar activists were seeking revenge from Reid and Hopkinson much before the departure of Komagata Maru. A document dated July 8, 1914 reported controversial conversation between Husain Rahim and two other men, Sohan Lal and Mohamed Akbar in which a possibility of harming Reid and Hopkinson was discussed.
Merely five days before Komagata Maru’s departure Rahim was attacked with a sword by Bela Singh’s supporter. Though Rahim survived the assault it started a wave of murders. Two supporters of Bela Singh- Harnam Singh and Arjan Singh were murdered.
Harnam Singh was found murdered with throat cut on August 31 while Arjan Singh was shot to death on September 3. On September 5, 1914 Bela Singh went to the Vancouver Sikh temple and pumped bullets into the bodies of Bhag Singh and Badan Singh. Badan Singh, who also participated in different campaigns led by Bhag Singh tried to resist when he was shot. The two men succumbed to their injuries the next day.
Both Bhag Singh and Badan Singh in their deathbed dispositions charged Bela Singh with the shooting while those injured also supported the allegation.
These bloody events took a shocking turn when Hopkinson was shot dead on October 21 in the provincial courthouse by Mewa Singh. The Sun headline screamed, ``Fifth Local Victim of Komagata Insp. Hopkinson Added to List’’.
Mewa Singh was unrepentant as he shouted, ``I shoot. I don’t care’’, according to an eyewitness. The police believed that Mewa Singh did not act on his own and suspected a larger conspiracy behind the murder. The police arrested three people including Husain Rahim on October 23. Rahim was accused of inciting Mewa Singh to murder Hopkinson but was later acquitted for want of evidence. Following Hopkinson’s murder Reid was transferred to the East as the federal government felt that his life was in danger.
Meanwhile Mewa Singh remained unregretful. The statement read for him at his trial on October 30, 1914 gives some insight about why he killed Hopkinson. Since he could not understand English it was read on his behalf. He openly admitted his crime. He revealed that he could not bear the personal tragedy of two small children of Bhag Singh who were left orphaned with his death. Bhag Singh’s wife passed away early that year. He squarely blamed Reid and Hopkinson for these incidents in the statement and claimed that Bela Singh and Hopkinson were intimidating him and forced him to implicate Bhag Singh and others after his arrest for bringing weapons from US.
His statement also suggests that he endured racism in Canada. ``…there are a few who are Christian men, who have received us with the proper spirit, the other have treated us like dogs.’’
As Mewa Singh awaited his death sentence, Bela Singh was acquitted by the jury on November 18, 1914. The jury found him ``not guilty’’ of the murder charges. Bela Singh claimed that he fired in self defence. Several witnesses testified that the members of the other faction were having a meeting inside the temple where the killings of Reid and Hopkinson were advocated. The judge pointed out to the jury that Bela Singh was one of the men who stood for law and order in the community.
Mewa Singh was hanged on January 11, 1915. High on his conviction, he chanted prayers when he was taken to the scaffold inside the New Westminster jail. Outside the prison a small group of Sikhs gathered, while over four hundred showed up at the temple.
Later the body was handed over to the Sikhs for cremation. Over 500 people attended his funeral.
Whether Mewa Singh murdered Hopkinson for purely emotional reasons as he did not make any clear political statement in his confession remains inconclusive but his action should be seen in the broader context of the history. Though we may never be able to know if Hopkinson was murdered at the behest of the Ghadar leaders, we can piece together all this information to understand the circumstances that led to Hopkinson’s murder. Both Hopkinson and his assassin were the victims of the circumstances and political events which were beyond their control. If Hopkinson became a target of violence for pursing the policies of the British Empire, Mewa Singh’s action was a result of the murder and mayhem which brought destruction in the East Indian community of Vancouver on account of racism and discriminatory immigration policies. One can see Mewa Singh as an ordinary participant of the political movement whose understanding of larger political issues was limited as compared to Bhag Singh, Das, Kumar or Rahim. However, his exposure to racism and direct encounter with ruthlessness of the immigration officials tied him with others in the Ghadar movement whose ideology was shaped by similar experiences. Mewa Singh’s crime therefore should be interpreted as a political action as it cannot be isolated from bigger causes like colonialism and racism.
Confidential letters/reports of the Immigration Branch, City of Vancouver Archives
Minutes of the Public Meeting held in June, 1914 at Dominion Hall, City of Vancouver Archives
Statement of Mewa Singh to Immigration officials, City of Vancouver Archives
Statement read for Mewa Singh at his trial; National Library and Archives Canada
Pictures of Mewa Singh, William Hopkinson, Malcolm Reid, H.H. Stevens, the brick thrown by Komagata Maru passengers, Commemorative plaques and the old Sikh temple in Vancouver
The Daily Colonist, 1915
The Province, 1914
The Sun, 1914
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