Sikhs’ Emigration

Sikh troops returning via Canada from the Diamond Jubilee celebration of Queen Victoria reported it was possible to make as much as $2.00 a day in the mills and on railroad construction in Canada and the United States, nearly ten times the average wage in Punjab at the time.

It is estimated that 7348 Asian Indians migrated to the United States and Canada between 1899 & 1920.

The Punjab province in India was a great source of Asian Indian immigration to the United States and Canada. The composition of the immigrants from 1900 to 1917 included 85% Sikhs, 13% Muslim and 2% Hindu, though almost all that arrived were termed Hindus, even if the label was inappropriately applied.

The disparity explained, in large part, by the Sikhs' willingness to take advantage of opportunities to explore the greater British Empire. Punjabi culture suited the emigrants from Punjab for the challenges they would encounter in North America, stressing land ownership, courage, willingness to take risks, and some justification of violence to avoid defeat and submission.

The California Board of Control submitted a report to Governor Stephens in 1920 titled California and the Orientals: Japanese, Chinese and Hindus. It indicated that since 1910, the number of Asian Indians in the United States had increased by 33.5%. The California Board of Control perceived these immigrants as an economic threat, or competition for native farmers. They were referred to as a group of laborers becoming landowners and threating the monopoly of the majority group.

Source: Leonard, LaBrack, Chakravorti, Melendy in Bibliography

Why did they emigrate ?

The lands owned by Punjabi peasants were often reduced to small plots because there was not enough land to be shared among all the brothers of a family and as a result, the land was divided and subdivided into smaller and smaller plots.

The country was in the midst of an economic crisis. During the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, the economic condition of the Punjabi peasants deteriorated due to the havoc caused by British imperialist ruling of the country's economy. Both industrial urban centers and domestic industry in the countryside suffered from the crisis.

The increasing water rate and land revenue forced most of the middle peasants to mortgage their lands to the moneylenders. Many peasants found it difficult to feed their families because the triple toll of water rates, land revenue and interests to the money lender left very little money for themselves.

The immigrants learned from the American and Canadian travelers in Shanghai and Hong Kong that a worker could earn $2 to $2.50 daily. It came as a pleasant surprise to them because this daily wage was a great amount compared to the going rate of 30 cents in India. The incomes of the Punjabi peasants never exceeded 10 cents a day. This reason was enough to encourage some Punjabis who settled in Shanghai to move to Canada and the United States. The first migration took place around 1903-04. With strong builds, the new immigrants soon showed their worth in lumber yards and steel factories. The factory-owners convinced these first arrivals to call others from Shanghai and Hong Kong; eventually a good force of Indian workers formed.

The immigrants sent news about their exaggerated incomes to their relatives and friends who were living in the villages. As a result, a significant number of Punjabi peasants from the central districts of Lahore, Amritsar, Ferozpur, Gurdaspur, Ludhiana, Sialkot, and more particularly from Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur Districts mortgaged their land and migrated to America and Canada. (There was no passport system in those days, so people could travel from one country to another with ease.)

The first immigrants reached Malaya and China. Their basic primary concern was their daily livelihoods. Being of healthy constitution, they got recruited into the British police forces in Malaya and China. Those who did not get into the police services became watchmen to the rich and well-heeled. Eventually, the Punjabi peasants reached Shanghai. Their unfamiliarity with foreign lands led them to learn the languages of these countries such as Chinese.

They reached Canada and America after long and arduous journeys. This grand migration took place in 1904-05. A majority of these immigrants served as farm laborers in California. The others found employments in timber and steel factories in Oregon and Washington.

The Role of the Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) in Immigration, 1901-1915

Between 1901-1915, the place of Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) became the center of the immigrants' movement primarily because 95 percent of the immigrant were Sikhs. After a few years of service in Malaya and China, they managed to save some money and were able to repay the loans owned to the moneylenders. With their main problem alleviated, they started to think about practicing the Sikh tradition again. They got involved in constructing places of worship such as the Gurdwaras. They would meet in the Gurdwaras during the weekends to think about their common welfare. The Gurdwaras became places to welcome new arrivals and to help these new immigrants to look for jobs or until they can look after themselves.

The Sikhs built huge and elegant Gurdwaras in many locations including Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong (1901), and Shanghai. However, the influence did not stop here. It also spread to Canada and the United States; the Gurdwaras built in Vancouver, Canada (1908) and Stockton, California (1915) were such examples.

These Gurdwaras provided shelter, food, and social life to all immigrants without any consideration of caste, creed, or religion. Hindus and Muslims were also attending and living in these Gurdwaras.

Contact T.S. Sibia
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