The Society acknowledges the traditional owners of the Irwin Districts, their continuing connection to land, sea and community and pays its respects to elders and their cultures, past and present.

Sikh Heritage of Dongara – Part 2 Historical Themes

Sikh History and Heritage in Punjab

The Sikh community comes from Punjab ਪੰਜਾਬ, a region that now straddles the Indian and Pakistani borders.  The name ‘Punjab’ means ‘the land of five rivers’, and refers to the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas rivers that form a rich agricultural region in the Indus valley on the key trade routes of northern India.  The Punjabi people have a history spanning millennia, and their land has been subject to multiple invasions and occupations by imperial powers including the Ancient Greeks, Persians, Afghans and British.  Farming, trading and soldiering have been key social and economic occupations.

left: A miniature painting of the ten gurus, 1890 Wikipedia

The Sikh (meaning seeker or learner) religion was founded in the late 1400s by Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the first guru (mentor or guide).  Sikhism drew upon Hindu and Islamic sources and teaches the presence of one universal force (Ik Oankar) and the value of selfless service (seva).  Nine gurus succeeded until the tenth guru, Gobind Sikh (1666-1708) was succeeded by the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib as an eternally-living guru.  Guru Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa, a knightly order something like the European Templars in which men added Singh (lion) to their name and women Kaur (princess).

Map of British Punjab in 1880, around the time Sikh migration to WA began, and Punjab’s colonial coat of arms showing a lion and five rivers. Wikipedia

“The Sikh Empire was established in 1799 and lasted until 1849 when it was defeated in the Second Anglo-Sikh War and incorporated into British India.  This momentous event was first reported in Perth in the Inquirer newspaper of 22 August 1849, with great detail about the battle with the Sikh army on 21 February 1849.  A few months later the Perth Gazette reported that the koh-i-noor diamond and wedding garments of the intended wife of the last Sikh emperor, Duleep Singh (1838-1893), were to be presented to Queen Victoria.  Duleep Singh’s death in 1893 was reported in the West Australian and the Western Mail newspapers, which were both available in Dongara, and in their obituaries recorded the last maharajah having two English wives. 

Sikhs Come to Western Australia.

Sikh emigration from Punjab increased after 1849 to various British colonies.  Service in the British forces offered opportunities and a warrior reputation.  In 1885 the Banon Scheme proposed to settle Indian colonists in WA’s north, and some Indians, including Sikh men, later landed in WA.  Pal Singh, a cameleer at Wyndham, was probably the first Sikh migrant in 1886.  The gold boom of the 1890s attracted more Sikhs hoping to make their fortune as miners.  It also attracted large numbers of miners from the east coast colonies, with a long history of antagonism to Chinese and other Asian miners, attitudes they continued to hold.   This was one reason so many Sikhs became cameleers – and incorrectly became known as ‘Afghans’.  

Camel team with a load of wool in the Upper Irwin near  Mullewa  c1900 | IRME1948


From 1886 ‘Asiatic’ aliens were barred from holding miners licences.  The Sikhs, as British Subjects, were not legally aliens, but nevertheless found it difficult to obtain miners rights.  New immigration restriction laws in 1897 also began to halt Indian and other Asian migration to WA.  Sikh leaders in the colony protested their exclusion from mining, and in 1898 the ‘Sikh Petition’, signed by some 50 men, was presented to Premier Forrest to protect their rights as British Subjects.  However, the politician’s fear of outrage from white gold miners and the tabloid press meant the petition had little impact.  Sikh men were already turning to other work they could get, as well as camel driving, such as hawking and storekeeping, and agriculture, predominantly in WA’s rural districts.  This is the time when Dongara entered into Sikh history, and the Sikh pioneers come into the history of the Irwin districts.

Sikhs Come to the Irwin District

Colonisation in the Dongara area began in the early 1850s, after several battles between the local Wattandee people of the Yarranoo muraja (Irwin river) valley and pastoralists.  Large pastoral estates for grazing cattle and sheep and horse-breeding for the Indian army were then established over the Wattandee domain, of which ‘Irwin House’ was the earliest.  Dongara (Dhungarra, Dongarra) developed in the 1860s as a village with commercial outlets and public offices such as a police station.  These were to service the first large wave of colonists, mainly ex-convicts and their families, taking up small landholdings cut from the pastoral estates to farm wheat and other grains.  Port Denison (Port Irwin) began to develop around the same time as a harbour for exporting local wool and wheat to Fremantle, and sandalwood to Singapore (and on to Mauritius and India).  Intercolonial and coastal shipping calling into Denison was often crewed by Indian and Malay seamen.  By the end of the 1890s the Irwin district was an established farming area with fishing and tourism beginning to develop after the Midland railway line was opened in 1894.  This was the time of the WA gold rushes, with the Murchison goldfields inland from Dongara and Geraldton attracting a second wave of colonists, many of whom passed through the district seeking their fortune.

Among the seekers were the first Sikhs known to have come to the Irwin, the brothers Sojan Singh and Pola Singh.  They had both signed the Sikh Petition in 1898 and were now looking for a new life as hawkers and traders.  The first shop to be built in Irwin Road (now Moreton Terrace), Dongara was Morris Cohen’s Store in 1901.  Cohen was a Jewish refugee from Russia.  At around the same time Sojan and Pola commenced operating a hawker’s cart around Dongara, Port Denison and out to the little hamlets and sidings around Irwin (Yardarino) and Strawberry.  They dealt mainly in drapery, selling to and taking orders from local housewives.  Sojan appears to have been the main businessman, and soon opened a shop on Irwin Road, at first in rented premises at the end of 1901 (see Site 7).  In 1906 he built a new shop a few metres east of Cohen’s and Clarkson’s.  Pola and an employee, Easa Singh, ran Sojan’s hawker’s cart while Sojan built up his store.  Other Sikh men soon followed Sojan and Pola, including Attra Singh and his wife Mat Kaur and their children.  Attra Singh initially worked a market garden at ‘Irwin House’, near Irwin hamlet, 17 kilometers east of Dongara, and then operated a market garden on Clarkson’s ‘Tyford’ river flat between Dongara and East End.  Other Sikh men worked in the district as labourers, gardeners and hawkers using Dongara (and Sojan’s store) as their base.

Participation in the local community

As Dongara’s Sikh community began to grow, their participation in the broader local community grew beyond business through education, charity work, politics and social activities.
The Sojan Singh children were all enrolled at the Dominican Convent school in Dongara during the 1920s. 

Left: Lionel (left) and Guy (inner right) Sojan Singh while at New Norcia, 1920s.  SAWA

They were high achievers in the cultural subjects, with Estelle and Joyce receiving many awards for singing and music, and Guy excelling on the pianoforte and violin and the tennis court.  All the children regularly received annual prizes for their academic conduct.  The boys later attended Catholic boarding schools in New Norcia and Perth, and in 1929 Roy succeeded in his matriculation exams for university entrance.

Attra Singh and Mat Kaur sent their children to the Dongara State School, where their son Kishan or James Singh was enrolled in 1907 as a ‘Hindoo Syke’.  While the two families sent their children to different schools, they both valued education and the opportunities it bought for their children to integrate into and succeed in the local community. 

An important practice in both Catholic and Sikh religious practice is giving to charity.  The Sojan Singh children, with other local children, raised money and made regular donations during the 1910s to the Deaf and Dumb Institute, regularly giving six shillings (about $50 in 2021 values).  ‘Self-help’ was a popular idea in the early 20th century, and Sojan Singh was one of the founders of the Denison Lodge of the Order of the Good Templars in 1913.  The Templars were a temperance society that promoted abstinence from alcohol and other social drugs and provided alcohol-free social activities with the aim of liberating people for a better life.  There were several such groups active at the time, but the Templars were distinguished from the others by admitting both women and men, and people of all races (except in the US, which had separate black and white lodges).  Although modelled on the Catholic concept of religious orders, the Denison Lodge members were mainly Methodists and Anglicans, and elected 11 office holders, five of whom were women.  ‘Brother Sojan Singh’ was elected to the office of Guardian, with the role of admitting new members to meetings.  The Lodge held enthusiastic quarterly social meetings at Denison until mid-1915 when it disbanded due to the war.  

Sojan, Estelle, Marie and Pola Singh, dressed for the prize for a buggy pony, and second for show, with a show horse. c1913 SAWA

Dongara Sikhs joined in other social activities, especially exhibiting at annual rural shows in Dongara and Greenough.  The earliest known is Chatteree Singh, who won first prize for his radishes at the Irwin Agricultural Show in 1902 and probably worked for or with Attra Singh in his market garden.  Attra Singh won first prize for cauliflowers and lettuce at the 1918 Greenough Show.  More common were Sojan Singh’s prizes for his horses. 

At the 1907 Dongara Show he won second prize for a buggy, and second for his high jump horse in 1910. There were many other such prizes.  However, he did have cause to complain in 1906 that he had received no prizes for his horses, up to that time, because “It seems to me that other reasons than that of merit must be the cause”.  That cause may have been his ethnicity or religion, but it is notable that first prize in the horse categories consistently went to old local gentry exhibitors, especially Sam Phillips Esquire of ‘The Grange’.  Class was in important distinction in the Irwin community.  At least after his complaint Sojan rose to a regular second-place getter in the horse’s category at the show.   The rest of the Sojan family were also show enthusiasts, and at the 1917 Dongara Show Grace Sojan won first prize for the lady’s spray (of flowers), and in 1920 first prize in the bread and pot plant categories, Guy Sojan a first for radishes and Marie Sojan an honourable mention for drawing.  Grace Sojan was also a member of the Dongara Red Cross Society, which during the Great War often met at ‘Cypress Holme’, the home of its president Kate Clarkson, to make ‘comforts’ for soldiers at the front.  Grace was a regular attendee, and part of the circle who enjoyed the afternoon teas in the ‘Cypress Holme’ gardens.

Sojan and Grace Singh at  ‘Denison House’, c1905 | IRME 0017

The Clarkson’s were a leading local family at the time, engaged in local business and local politics, and moved among other middle class (not quite gentry) families such as that of Dr Bartlett at ‘Denison House’.  The Sojan Singh’s also moved in this circle.  In 1908 Grace Sojan Singh sang ‘Dream of Paradise’ at a farewell concert for the Anglican Reverend Armstrong, accompanied by Mrs. Scutt, wife of the WA Bank branch manager, on the piano.  In 1911, Grace Sojan Singh, Mrs. Bartlett and Mrs. Adams (wife of the local police constable), with their children, were camping together at the beach seeking relief from oppressive summer heat.  In 1915 a State government delegation headed by the Minister for Lands visited Dongara to inspect the lime sand deposits at Port Denison.  The Dongarra Progress Association nominated the town’s leading businessmen to escort the delegation, comprised of Dr Bartlett, the Clarkson brothers, Sojan Singh and eleven other men.  Thes were the men of destiny. however, as they sang a hearty rendition of ‘God Save The King’ to the departing minister, it could not have escaped Sojan Singh’s notice that he was the only one of them who was denied the right to vote.  In 1911 he was struck-off the electoral roll because he was a ‘native of Asia’, and his appeal was unsuccessful.  This time, the discrimination was openly based on Sojan’s race, not his class.  How he came to have a vote is not clear, but his disenfranchisement arose because of a complaint to the electoral registrar.  Despite his standing in the Dongara community, or perhaps because of it, Sojan Singh had made invisible enemies.  After 1911 he would never vote for or sit around the local council table with his peers, and he would never get to vote for his State and federal representatives.  The politicians he accompanied to the lime sands, and who feted him and his class, would not abolish the exclusion of British Indians from the electoral roll until 1934, 14 years after his death.  Sojan the social and business leader remained in the margins of political power.

Religious Practices (cremation)

Some of Dongara’s Sikhs engaged with the local Catholic community, and also with the Anglican and Methodist community through social activities.  No evidence has yet been found of observing Sikh religious practices in Dongara, with the notable exception of cremating the dead.

Tragedy struck in the summer of 1909 when Pola and Easa were heading out to Irwin with the hawker’s cart.  Easa fell from the cart, and was killed when the cart wheel passed over him, lacerating his liver.  A few days later on 15 February 1909 Easa’s body was cremated at the Back Beach (now Seaspray), under the supervision of Sojan assisted by Pola, Busan Singh and Chatta Singh, after which the ashes and bones were put into a bag and placed in the Indian Ocean. 

Consigning the ashes to the sea followed a practice that began in WA with the cremation of Kalla Singh at Claremont in 1897.  The ashes of Pola Singh, cremated in 1934, were also partly cast into the sea, and partly returned to India.  Easa’s cremation was recorded in the press as the first cremation at Dongara, and Sojan was by then the acknowledged leader of Dongara’s Sikh community.

The curious burial and exhumation of Sojan Singh in 1920 and 1922 was recalled in 1929 by Sergeant Campbell, the officer who found his body in the cell: ‘When his compatriots learned of his burial they were ceaseless in their endeavours to give him the last rites according to their religion’.  The Sikh community across WA rallied and was able to successfully impress upon the authorities their desire to have Sojan’s death marked in the appropriate way.  The cremation took place in the cemetery, presumably close to the grave site.  The method for disposing of the ashes is not clear, but is likely to have been in a suitable manner.  Apparently, a large number of local people attended and witnessed the cremation, a sign of the esteem in which Sojan was still held.

Sikh Martial Practices and Traditions in Dongara

The Sikhs have a long tradition of martial prowess in Punjab and Australia, as both soldiers and as exhibition wrestlers.  Sojan Singh’s headstone describes him as a former non-commissioned officer in the Indian Army.  In November 1914 Rur Singh was advertising for volunteers to join the proposed Australian Sikh Regiment ‘to show their loyalty and allegiance’ to the King and the Sikh maharajah, and claimed to be in contact with the Australian military authorities.  Sikhs did serve in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) at Gallipoli, the Western Front and the Middle East, and Goodger Singh enlisted in the AIF in Geraldton in March 1916.  However, an Australian Sikh force never eventuated.  Sojan Singh sought to defend WA’s Sikhs from charges of disloyalty after the Amritsar massacre in Punjab by British soldiers in 1919.  He was mercilessly mocked in the tabloid Truth.  All of Sojan and Grace’s sons enlisted during World War Two: Guy and Lionel in the Royal Australian Air Force and Roy in the 2nd AIF.  Even under the burden of White Australia, and endless quibbling around their British Subject status, the Sikh pioneers continued to drew upon a long martial heritage to display their loyalty. 

There was an established inter-colonial circuit for prize wrestlers, and some well-known Sikh fighters such as Massa Singh and Bhuttan Singh were well-known sportsmen.  On a less professional basis fighting was practiced in Dongara, and seen by police as a criminal rather than sporting activity.  For example, in September 1904 the press reported that ‘Dongarra has become noted lately for rows amongst the Sikhs of that town’, and reported that Sojan Singh, Bola Singh, Goodah Singh and Attra Singh were all charged with affray (fighting in a public place).  Sojan and Bola were fined £2 each, after which the four sued each other for assault but the cases were dismissed by the magistrate.  A month earlier, Esa Singh, Pedava Singh and Goodah Singh were arrested for ‘free fighting’ in Dongara.  They were taken to the cells where the doctor had to attend them because of serious wounds.  Esa and Pedava were each fined £3 and Goodah’s charges were dismissed.  The wounds suggest some sort of weapons may have being used, which the police misunderstood as fighting without rules (‘free fighting’).  The second incident may have been Sojan and his brother Bola (Pola) intervening to prevent such public displays, an internal Sikh community ‘policing’ not understood by the magistrates.  Rather than random street brawling, such incidents provide insights into the traditions and social structures Dongara’s Sikhs attempted to maintain in their new country.

Dirty Dongara in White Australia

The year 1903 was marked, not just by the marriage of Sojan Singh and Grace Maddison, but by the casting, in the tabloid press, of the infamous ‘Dirty Dongara’ slur.  In August 1903, two months before their wedding, one of the Geraldton Advertiser’s columnists, ‘Blunderbus’ wrote a column excoriating the inhabitants of Dongara for allowing their high street (Irwin Road) to be a ‘collection of foul piggeries, evil-smelling manure heaps, neglected latrines, bacilli-breeding beds’ and using the Irwin River as a rubbish tip.  Thus, wrote Blunderbus, the local residents only had themselves to blame for the epithet Dirty Dongara.  He continued that ‘despite the strong admixture of coloured aliens’, white Westralians had not yet suffered with leprosy, although there was said to be one white leper cured in Fremantle quarantine.  The same column was reprinted in the Murchison goldfields edition of the paper.  A few weeks later another Geraldton Advertiser columnist wrote that Dongara’s latrines were ‘simply atrocious’, and that Mingenew was much the same, the ‘degenerate daughter of Dirty Dongara’.  A Dongara resident put this down to ‘deliberate lies’ and jealousy from Geraldton, competing with Dongara for the goldfields summer tourist trade, but also returned the sledge that Geraldton had its own ‘piebald pedigree’ of Chinese and Japanese residents.

By this time the Perth tabloids had picked up the trail, reporting after Grace and Sojan’s wedding that Mingenew was the scene of a ‘mixed marriage’ between a ‘white wench of good family and a Hindoo storekeeper’.  A Mingenew resident quickly refuted the claim: ‘the late marriage of a Dongarra lady to an Afghan’ was in Dongara, he wrote, not Mingenew, ‘where the marriageable girls were not disposed to turn sentimental orbs “Asiawards”, this place does not support an alien tradesman of any sort.  Dirty Dongarra has a lot to be ashamed of’.  The Geraldton Advertiser and its goldfields edition were more than happy to keep such mud-slinging going, but no further responses were forthcoming from Dongara, and the paper moved on to reporting fights among the Dongara’s Sikh’s and implying the town was infested with Sikh gangs.

Grace Sojan Singh around the time of her marriage in1903 SAWA

By the time of the Sojan-Maddison wedding on 25 October 1903, everyone in Dongara would have been well aware of the cloud being thrown over their town.  Their community was being cast as riddled with the sort of disease and unhealthiness that only came from inter-racial mixing.  The ‘rubbish tip’ river was the location of the market gardens.  The foul, evil-smelling, bacilli breeding high street was the location of the Sikh stores.  ‘Piebald’ was a code for mixed race.  White people could be cured of their transgression.  The ‘white wench’ and the ‘alien storekeeper’ were Grace and Sojan.  The allusions were deliberately crude and cruel, unmistakable in their targets. They are typical of the sort of awful language that was made casually acceptable under the new White Australia Policy that came with federation in 1901.  The miner-oriented Geraldton Advertiser carried the story of the marriage in the midst of its Dirty Dongara beat-up, in which it described the wedding guests as … all the men, women, children, dogs and other animals who could get there who followed the ceremony with open mouths, many a poor fly must have found an
early grave in the scores of yawning chasms that loomed in the church
. Dongara and its people were being excluded, too ‘piebald’ for White Australia, for not just tolerating but apparently accepting the Sikh presence into their homes.  The frosty silence from Dongara in not replying to these charges was one thing.  The impacts on Sojan and Grace and the Sikh community, of having their wedding (and their love) so publicly debased in this way, must have been terrible.  The impacts would echo down the years.

A happy Sojan Singh family in their garden beside their store, c1912 SAWA

Rur Singh could tell a similar story.  He had also married a European woman, Annie Winter, in Perth in 1906.  Rur and Annie knew of the reception the Sojan’s had received from the racist press, but they persisted anyway, and after their wedding they moved to Geraldton.  Annie Singh, however, appears to have suffered with alcohol addiction, and in February 1908 she died by suicide after taking rat poison.  The Geraldton Guardian reported that Rur Singh ‘was apparently much affected by the tragedy, and affectionately kissed his dead wife, and said, ‘I wish I was beside you, old girl.’  After the funeral, Rur moved to Dongara and into business with Sojan Singh.  Both men were well aware of the opprobrium that ‘mixed marriages’ could generate in White Australia, and they both found some refuge in Dirty Dongara.  

The decline of Sikh Dongara

The death of Sojan Singh in 1920 marks the beginning of the slow demise of Dongara’s Sikh community.  The retirement of Rur Singh to Perth in 1947 marked the departure of the last of the pioneer Sikh’s.  After nearly 50 years, the first chapter in the history of Sikh Dongara had end by 1950.

The key reason is the impact of the White Australia Policy.  Immigration restriction from 1897 and especially from 1901 effectively stopped the migration of new Sikh settlers.  The youthful male Sikh population, could not be joined by family, friends or partners.  Added to that, the social practices of the early 20th century were very effective in deterring relationships between Sikh and non-Sikh.  The examples of Sojan and Rur Singh marrying European women are rare, the example of Attra Singh bringing his Indian wife with him is unique in Western Australia.  As the men aged they became fewer and fewer in number, and by the 1940s were either dying alone in country districts or moving to a few share-houses in Perth for their last days.  There was a (small) new generation born from the few marriages and relationships between Sikh and nonSikh, but the times deterred any identification with their Sikh heritage.  It was not a desirable passport in White Australia.  These were not supportive conditions for a community to grow, either biologically or to pass-on cultural knowledge and practices.  The pioneer Sikhs and their descendants had little if any contact with the new generation of Sikh migrants that began to come in the 1950s as White Australia began a long transition out of a moral cul-de-sac.

For Dongara, and other country towns like it, the gradual passing of its Sikh community seems to have been barely noticed.  The glamorous stores of the early 1900s, with their silks and drapery and clothing, were already a memory by the 1950s.  Dirty Dongara had been long forgotten (although not, perhaps, the tension).  When the plans to demolish the old Sikh stores were released in 1989, few people any longer knew of their Sikh history, and when it was raised as a reason to retain at last part of the buildings in the new development it failed to arouse any real appreciation.  The ‘Sikh Quarter’ has now been gone without a trace for over 30 years.

Is Dongara’s Sikh history uncommon in WA? Probably, although there are likely to be at least a few similar local histories.  There was no anti-White Australia ‘resistance’, as such, but we have the recorded actions of people who passively subverted White Australia and looked to other models for a good society, such as the Good Templars.  Sikh’s formed two percent of Dongara’s population in 1921, still a high proportion after two decades of White Australia.  Dongara’s women also outnumbered its men at this time, another uncommon characteristic for any community in WA.  Exploring Dongara’s Sikh heritage is leading to many other pathways into the past that have been little-travelled.  Now is the time.

This tour guide will, it is hoped, reawaken interest in Dongara’s Sikh heritage, and the Sikh community’s heritage in Dongara.  The story of the Sikhs in Dongara can provide many insights into the past that can help us move forward, together, for a common future.  Sojan Singh, and the values of loyalty, innovation, leadership and bravery that he tried to represent, as flawed as he might have been at times, should not be forgotten.

Continue to Part 3…..

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