Table of Contents
In about 1881, a young Punjabi Sikh from a landowning family, Otim Singh, left his home in Moga in the Punjab and began a journey that would take him to Sumatra, where he would work for five years, supervising Indian workers on an English-owned tobacco plantation, and where he also served with the British Mounted Police. He returned home to the Punjab and purchased land, but shortly after went to Batavia (Jakarta) to visit his brother. Thence he made the journey to Australia, arriving in Melbourne in 1890. He was to live in Australia for the rest of his life and was able to prosper and make his way there, initially as a hawker and later as the owner of a large general store in Kingscote on Kangaroo Island. Like the colonial gentlemen discussed by Cindy McCreery in this volume, Singh came to Australia in search of prosperity.
Otim Singh was one of the many British Indian men who were in Australia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A. Palfreeman estimated that there were up to 7637 Indians in Australia during the first decade of the twentieth century, while A. T. Yarwood set the 1901 population at 4681, declining by 1911 to 3653 and by 1921 to 3150. These men and their part in Australian history have been virtually ignored and under-researched. In an Australian history conceptualised within the bounds of ‘White Australia’, these men were irrelevant to the national imaginary. With a transnational and non-racial lens, they can instead be seen as constituting the first wave of migration to Australia from the Subcontinent.
Studies of gender have become influential in the ‘new imperial history’. In 1990, Jane Haggis called for a focus on ‘gender as a relational dimension of colonialism’. More recently, Angela Woollacott has noted the ‘central role of gender in the British imperial enterprise’. Much of the new scholarship in this field has emerged from the work of feminist post-colonial historians, who began by examining the role of white women in colonialism, and in particular their relationships with colonised women. The domination of white men in imperial spaces has also been examined by a number of scholars. Philippa Levine has written that ‘[t]he British Empire always seems a very masculine enterprise, a series of far-flung sites, dominated by white men dressed stiffly in sporting and hunting clothes, or ornate official regalia’.
H.T. Burgess (ed) 1909, Cyclopedia of South Australia, volume 2, p. 1019.
The masculinities of colonised men must also, however, constitute an important element in understanding the workings of imperialism. The connectedness of these various categorisations is crucial, as Catherine Hall has recently elaborated of colonial discourse: ‘[I]n demarcating black masculinity they enunciated white masculinity, in demarcating brown femininity, they elevated white femininity. Colonial discourses were critical to this process of mutual constitution.’ Mrinalini Sinha has delineated the colonial notion of the inferior masculinity of Bengali men, the ‘effeminate Bengali’, against which was opposed the constructions of other Indian men as particularly martial and manly.
The Indian men under discussion here were framed by and addressed a number of different and at times contradictory notions about their masculinity, ‘race’ and ethnicity as they moved between Australia and India and within the varied situations and groups they encountered. Indeed, they existed within and related to diverse discourses about masculinities and, of course, as much as they were made and confined by such notions, they also negotiated them and made their own way in relation to them.
Richard White has demonstrated how the white man came into his own in the Australian colonies of the late nineteenth century and in early federated Australia. Marilyn Lake also shows that the new nation—for the white ‘race’—was inaugurated ‘in a radical act of racial exclusion’ of those deemed inferior to the whites, who were destined, in this formulation, to carry the nation’s destiny. Lake notes, furthermore, that this clear demarcation occurred amid ‘postcolonial apprehensions’ as the white man observed the rising power of colonised masculinities and anticipated ‘white masculine humiliation’.
This chapter explores some of the notions of masculinity with which the Indian men engaged and by which they were framed, examining these in relation to specific incidents and to the histories of particular men. Administrative practices such as those of the White Australia Policy, with which these men had to engage, also embodied these discourses. Of course, ideas of masculinity were also interwoven with ideas about race, ethnicity and religion. In drawing together understandings of Indian masculinities within the Australian environment with those relating to Australian men, this chapter furthers the ‘goal of the trans-national…to unsettle national narratives’. By viewing these men and their masculinities within a transnational context, the pervasiveness of colonial discourses around race and gender become apparent. Such a perspective makes clearer the fact that these men had stories and histories in the Subcontinent as well as in Australia. In naming and giving agency to individual hitherto nameless subaltern figures in the Indian diaspora to Australia, this chapter contributes to a greater understanding of Australia’s transnational history.
It should be noted from the beginning that ‘Indians’ is a highly problematic term. Many of the men who came to Australia hailed from the Punjab, parts of which are now in Pakistan. In Australia, they were often referred to, erroneously, as Afghans. Of course, they were also ‘colonials’ or Australians, but they were apparently not referred to or viewed as such. In exploring their histories within a different policy framework and historical period, I seek to locate them as Australian colonials who, like the other settlers in nineteenth and early twentieth-century Australia, sought to make their way in the new country.
Otim Singh’s departure from his village, and his lengthy period abroad, must be understood in part in terms of indigenous categories, of the people and region from whence he came. It seems likely that he was from a landowning family that had a number of sons and could not provide ‘for all members of the family at an adequate standard of living from the property group’s holding in the village’. Emigration for a short or longer period on the part of one or two members was a strategy adopted by such families to enable them to improve their land holdings and thus their ability to support sons and provide for daughters’ weddings. During the 1880s, men such as Singh who had worked in South-East Asia or had contacts there picked up news from other Sikhs that Telia (Australia) was open and that there were opportunities to be had there.
Tom Kessinger has noted the potential of such emigration to repair family fortunes in the Punjab village of Vilyatpur. In 1903, 35 men, or approximately one-third of the men of working age, had gone to Australia. The wealth that they brought or sent back into the village had a noticeable impact on land prices and the standing of particular families. In 1896, fourteen-year-old Isher Singh went to Australia with his uncle Naraung, himself only eighteen years old. These young lads were to be very successful:
Isher’s stay in Australia was fruitful. When he returned in 1908 he had sufficient funds to take about eight acres by mortgage. By 1922 he had purchased six acres, which doubled his property group’s holding. Naurang never returned to the village, remaining in Australia until his death many years later. He sent enough money through the government post office in the first ten years after his departure to put the property group into the mortgage market. His brother added three acres to the holding by 1922 and constructed a good-sized brick house in the village.
As Kessinger points out, ‘Migration was a group effort.’ Although the individual man left the village, he did this in the interests of the whole group. Leaving his village ‘meant separation from family, community, and, in most cases, the impossibility of producing legitimate heirs’. Given Punjabi values, Kessinger notes, ‘the cost to the migrant was high. His only return was achievement for his family.’
Otim Singh worked as a hawker and, like other Indian hawkers in Australia, he would have sent money back regularly to his family by means of postal orders or through trusted friends. He had no children. He was a successful businessman and, when he died in 1927, his estate was worth £10,000. On the death of his Australian wife, the balance was to be sent to his heirs, his nephews Sundar, Eishar and Kham Singh of Bhgalawalla Village, Ferospur District, in the Punjab. His many years of work in Australia, as a hawker and subsequently as a shopkeeper, benefited his property group in his village.
In thinking about such men’s transnational lives, it is important to keep in mind the fact that they related to and were framed by differing and even contrasting notions of masculinity in Australia and in their home country. Therefore, while men such as Singh were working to lift their family’s izzat (their honour) back in their home community, in Australia they were at times reviled and seen as outcasts on the lower rungs of a hierarchy of masculinities.
When Singh arrived in Melbourne in 1890, he learnt how to be a hawker from a compatriot and proceeded to work in the Western District of Victoria and across into the south-east of South Australia. While hawkers were often represented as being of great assistance to outlying settlements and welcome friends at scattered farms, there was a certain amount of hostility towards itinerant hawkers in the Australian colonies during the 1890s. Racial prejudice was central to this social anxiety. Indian hawkers, although they were British subjects, were marginalised in emerging white Australia because of their race. While the controversy in Victoria seemed to focus only on Indians, in South Australia the authorities refused in 1893 to renew hawking licences for Afghans, Assyrians and Chinese. Popular understandings tended to push all those seen as not white into an inferior category. As an Adelaide Register columnist candidly admitted:
With true British arrogance we virtually regard all such, whether Chinese, Afghans, Syrians, Hindus, or Persians, as the scum and offscouring of the earth. They have committed the unpardonable sin of being coloured, and although they were not consulted in the choice of their complexion they must perforce be Ishmaelites.
Itinerant hawkers were outside society in a number of ways: they had no fixed address and they were racialised. L. F. Benaud, the editor of the Richmond River Times in New South Wales, declared in 1896 that ‘no greater pest is to be met in the country than the objectionable dirty Hindoo hawkers who infest many districts’.
Hawkers were represented as a threat to women alone on farms, whom they would pressure strongly to buy their goods. A NSW Member of Parliament is quoted in the 1890s as saying they ‘become a menace to the safety and comfort of the inmate of the house’ and use ‘most insulting language’.
Singh was more successful than many other hawkers. He became a property holder, establishing a store and enlarging it on a number of occasions. An enterprising businessman, he built up a large trade across Kangaroo Island, supplying townspeople, the farming community and the large summer-holiday trade. His story of hard work and personal initiative from modest beginnings to prosperity was outlined in the Cyclopedia of South Australia in 1909, echoing most of those in this volume. These short biographical accounts of mainly white settlers told many stories, if not of ‘rags to riches’, then of the self-made man who had built his own prosperity.
Singh, however, as an Indian man, had to negotiate the problem of being seen as too successful. With the establishment of a federated white Australia from 1901, his position became more marginal. Federation was, after all, ‘the coming of age of a white Australian masculinity’. While some reviled the Indians when they were hawkers, critics also saw their movement into other occupations as equally threatening. In 1911, therefore, the NSW Minister of Lands, Niel Nielsen, noted of Indians gaining land in northern New South Wales:
The Hindoo applicants are undesirable settlers in many ways and in any community of white settlers are regarded with much disfavour amounting almost to complete aversion. The majority of the Hindoos in this state have started as small hawkers or pedlars and saved a fair amount of money; they are naturally acquisitive.
In response to such charges, Singh might have been able to deploy a powerful colonial discourse by which the British had categorised and defined his people. Sinha, David Omissi and Thomas Metcalf have written about the categorisation of various Indian masculinities by British rulers. Certain groups were deemed to be ‘martial races’—namely, the Sikhs and the Ghurkas. The former were often referred to as ‘the manly Sikh’ or ‘the loyal Sikh’. Others, such as the Western-educated Bengalis, were termed ‘effeminate Bengalis’. Such categorisations could be limiting, but could also be productive for the individuals thus categorised. Indeed, Singh often referred to his family’s loyalty to the British Raj, emphasising their military involvement—possibly a strategy for alleviating anxiety around his material success.
In the entry he contributed to the Cyclopedia of South Australia, therefore, we read: ‘In earlier life he had a great ambition to join the British Army in India, and whilst in Sumatra served four years in the British Mounted Police.’ In his obituary in the Kangaroo Island Courier, we read that: ‘His father and uncles were soldiers and fought with the British forces during the Indian Mutiny of 1857/8.’ Singh did not emphasise his British military links in the same dramatic manner as did Sowar Saut Singh on one occasion in Singleton, New South Wales. When the governor, previously the commanding officer of his regiment in the Indian Army, visited Singleton, Sowar turned up ‘in full regimentals’, presenting ‘an impressive figure’. Otim Singh could, nevertheless, usefully deploy the late nineteenth-century construction of Sikhs as particularly martial and loyal. He seems to have been successful in this, as his obituarist noted that he ‘belonged to that fine type of Hindoo known as Sikhs’.
 Burgess, H. T. 1909, Cyclopedia of South Australia. Volume 2, Cyclopedia Company, Adelaide, pp. 1019–20.
 See Allen, Margaret 2008 (forthcoming), ‘Otim Singh in White Australia’, in N. Bierbaum et al. (eds), Something Rich and Strange, Wakefield Press, Adelaide.
 Palfreeman, A. 1967, The Administration of the White Australia Policy, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, p. 146.
 Yarwood, A. T. 1967, Asian Migration to Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, p. 163.
 Haggis, Jane 1990, ‘Gendering colonialism or colonising gender?’, Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 13, no. 1–2, p. 113.
 Woollacott, Angela 2006, Gender and Empire, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke. p. 1.
 Ibid., pp. 59–73.
 Levine, Philippa 2004, ‘Introduction: why gender and empire?’, in Philippa Levine (ed.), Gender and Empire, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 1.
 Hall, Catherine 2004, ‘Of gender and empire: reflections on the nineteenth century’, in ibid., p. 50.
 Sinha, Mrinalini 1995, Colonial Masculinity: The ‘manly Englishman’ and the ‘effeminate Bengali’ in the late nineteenth century, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York.
 White, Richard 1981, Inventing Australia, George Allen and Unwin, Sydney, p. 79.
 Lake, Marilyn 2003, ‘On being a white man in Australia, circa 1900’, in Hsu-Ming Teo and Richard White (eds), Cultural History in Australia, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, p. 98.
 Ibid., p. 102. See also Allen, Margaret 2008 (forthcoming), ‘Through colonial spectacles’, in K. Douglas and G. Bastin (eds), Journeying and Journalling, Lythrum Press, Adelaide.
 Ghosh, Durba 2005, ‘National narratives and the politics of miscegenation’, in Antoinette Burton (ed.), Archive Stories Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, Duke University Press, Durham and London, p. 32.
 Kessinger, Tom G. 1974, Vilatpur 1848–1968: Social and economic change in a North Indian village, University of California Press, Berkeley and London, p. 138.
 Ibid., pp. 163–77.
 McLeod, W. H. 2000, ‘The first forty years of Sikh migration’, Exploring Sikhism: Aspects of Sikh identity, culture and thought, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, p. 250.
 Ibid., p. 92.
 Ibid., p. 170.
 Kessinger, Vilatpur 1848–1968, p. 171.
 Last will of Otim Singh, Probate Registry Office, Supreme Court, Adelaide, No. 48675/1927.
 Datta, S. K. 1924, ‘India and racial relationships’, Young Men of India, vol. 35, no. 8, August.
 See Brewster, Athol 1978, The Indian hawker nuisance in the colony of Victoria 1890–1900, Hons History Thesis, University of Melbourne. My thanks to Dr Andrew Brown-May and Athol Brewster for access to this thesis.
 See reports in Register, (Adelaide), 22 April, 1 May, 5 and 7 July 1893.
 Register, (Adelaide), 5 July 1893, p. 4.
 Richmond River Herald, 10 January 1896, quoted in Potts, Annette 1997, ‘“I am a British subject, and I can go wherever the British flag flies”: Indians on the Northern Rivers of New South Wales during the federation years’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. 62, September, p. 105.
 S. T. Whiddon, MP, in NSW Parliamentary Debates, vol. 85, p. 3962, quoted in Potts, ‘“I am a British subject”’, pp. 105–6.
 See Allen, ‘Otim Singh in White Australia’.
 Sinha, Mrinalini 2004, ‘Nations in an imperial crucible’, in Philippa Levine (ed.), Gender and Empire, pp. 181–202, esp. p. 184.
 Enclosure in No. 37, NSW Minister of Lands, Colonial Office (CO), 886/4/21, Public Records Office (London); Niel Nielsen wrote this minute in 1911.
 Sinha, Colonial Masculinity; Metcalf, Thomas R. 2007, ‘“A well selected body of men”: Sikh recruitment for colonial police and military’, in Kevin Grant, Philippa Levine and Frank Trentmann (eds), Beyond Sovereignty: Britain, empire and transnationalism, c 1880–1950, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire, pp. 146–68; Omissi, David 1991, ‘“Martial race”: ethnicity and security in colonial India, 1858–1939’, War and Society, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 1–27.
 Indeed, Metcalf (in ‘“A well selected body of men”’) has argued that a number of Indians sought to be included in the category ‘Sikh’ because of the opportunities for employment it offered. Angela Woollacott (2007, ‘Rose Quong becomes Chinese: an Australian in London and New York’, Australian Historical Studies, no. 129, pp. 16–31) has discussed how Rose Quong could use orientalism to make a career performing ‘Chineseness’.
 Burgess, Cyclopedia, p. 1020.
 Kangaroo Island Courier, 10 December 1927.
 Green, W. C. 1961, ‘The Indian hawkers of the Upper Hunter’, Scone and Upper Hunter Historical Journal, vol. 2. p. 213.
 Kangaroo Island Courier, 10 December 1927.