I have come across many interesting photos of Christmas Island from the early 1900s. But one in particular immediately caught my attention because of its very unique subject matter. It was labelled “Cremation of a Sikh policeman”. Questions sprung to mind. Who was the unfortunate man? What had happened to him? An accident or illness? And there those thoughts ended. The curious image of a Sikh cremation on Christmas Island was tucked away into the back of my mind and a note made in my files.
Some months later, whilst researching a totally unrelated story, I happened to come across a newspaper article about the death of a Sikh policeman. As I read it I suddenly remembered the photo I had seen months before. Could there be a connection? I went back through my files and compared dates. The date of the photo and the date of the death as reported in the article tallied within a day of each other. I realised I had serendipitously found the story behind the photo.
And so, read the two newspaper articles below to find out how Sochot Singh met his fate and how justice doesn’t always prevail.
COOLIES TRIED AT ASSIZES.
Sikh POLICEMAN’S DEATH.
As to how a Sikh policeman named Sochot Singh, stationed at Christmas Island, came by his death, a jury in the Singapore Court of Assize, presided over by the Chief Justice, Sir W. H. Hyndman Jones, was yesterday called on to determine. In the dock stood five young Chinamen, coolies who had been employed by the Christmas Island Phosphate Company. They were charged with causing the death of the Sikh under circumstances which constituted the charge one of culpable homicide not amounting to murder. There was also a minor charge of voluntarily causing grievous hurt. The prisoners were named Chan See, Yee Tong, Mah Chu, Lam Choi, and Sam Foh.
Mr Hastings Rhodes, Acting Deputy Public Prosecutor, appeared for the Crown, and Mr R. St. J. Braddell defended the accused. Mr J. Crabb Watt watched the case on behalf of the Christmas Island Phosphate Company.
Some difficulty arose in the opening of the case in regard to the defence. Mr Braddell said he had been unable to get statements from the accused as apparently the only person they were able to converse with was their mandore, who was one of the witnesses for the crown.
Mr Rhodes suggested that if the defence was not yet complete, the case might be put back, and another one taken, but after some discussion Mr Braddell said he did not ask for an adjournment, and the case was accordingly proceeded with.
POACHING ON PIGEON PRESERVE.
Mr Rhodes explained that thirteen coolies had been under arrest originally on the charge of causing the death of the police constable, but after the preliminary enquiry conducted by the District Officer at Christmas Island, Mr P. Allen, eight of them were discharged. The main facts of the case were very simple, but the question of identification was very difficult. There were three Sikh policemen on duty. They went to the coolies’ quarters; two were attacked, and one was so severely injured that he afterwards died. It appeared that the trouble arose out of the taking of some pigeons. At Christmas Island there was a peculiar kind of large blue pigeon. This was the only place in the whole world where it was known to exist. They were kept under strict preservation, and there was one person on the island who had a permit to kill as many as a hundred in one week. The birds were sent to the hospital for the sick and needy, and what were not used in the hospital were used by the Europeans on the island. Other people were not allowed to take or capture these pigeons without a permit. The birds were very tame and easily caught, and, he understood, they were very good food. In these circumstances there was a continual struggle between law and order and a desire to get these pigeons.
FEUD BETWEEN COOLIES AND POLICE.
In consequence of this there was a certain amount of friction between the Sikh police constables stationed in the island and the Chinese coolies employed by the Phosphate Company. At 12:30 noon on Sept. 24th three Sikh policemen, Nos. 32 (the deceased), 203, and 235, started out on their rounds, and some time later No. 203 came back to headquarters and reported that No. 32 had been assaulted; not knowing, at that time, that the man was dead. No. 32 died in hospital without recovering consciousness. From enquiries it appeared that the policemen had seen a number of the Chinese in possession of pigeons, and a conversation took place. Before the date of the affray P.C. No. 32 had been offered $5 in order that he should forbear from arresting the coolies for taking pigeons. On this later occasion he asked for the five dollars. He spoke to one of the coolies in Malay, and the coolie, who did not understand Malay well, made some reply, to which the Sikh retorted (in Malay) “Don’t tell untruths, but give me five dollars.” The coolie then referred him to another Chinese named Yip See. There was some confusion between them, one not understanding the other. Then the policeman made a movement of tightening up his belt, whereupon the coolies, taking this as an indication of intention to fight, cried out “Pah!” (“Strike !”). At this time P. C. No. 235 had gone away some distance to the tip. The two Sikhs, seeing the threatening attitude of the coolies – there were about twenty of them in the place – began to run up the hill in different directions towards the jungle. The coolies gave chase, and one of them was seen to hit Sochet Singh on the forehead with a piece of wood. Other blows were struck. The evidence would show that the Sikh afterwards died from shock. Three of the coolies who were arrested were going to give King’s evidence. In regard to the difficulties of identification in the case, counsel mentioned that many of the witnesses who would be called did not know the names of the accused but only knew them by sight.
Mr Percy T. Allen, District Officer, Chief Police Officer and Magistrate at Christmas Island, gave evidence as to finding the Sikh policeman lying wounded, and as to the enquiries afterwards conducted.
“TAPPED” WITH AN AXE.
One of the Chinese coolies who gave evidence said that when P.C. 32 came to the coolies’ quarters he woke one of them up by tapping him on the head with an axe. The conversation that took place was half Malay, half Chinese. The policeman did not seem to understand, but he said “Kasi ringgit” [give ringgit].
The charge against the fourth prisoner, Lam Choi, was withdrawn for lack of sufficient evidence, and he was discharged.
The hearing was adjourned till this morning at 10:30, when the defence will be opened.
Source: The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (weekly) 19 November 1908, Page 329 © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reprinted with permission
CHRISTMAS ISLAND CASE.
RESULT OF CATCHING PIGEONS
The hearing of the charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and voluntarily causing grievous hurt, brought against four Chinese coolies employed by the Phosphate Company at Christmas Island, was continued before the Chief Justice, Sir William Hyndman Jones, and a jury, at the Assizes yesterday.
Mr Hastings Rhodes, Deputy Public Prosecutor, conducted the case for the Crown, and Mr R. St. J. Braddell defended.
The accused were alleged to have been concerned in an attack which resulted in the death of a Sikh policeman. The prosecution closed on the previous day.
Three of the accused, Cantonese, declined to say anything in their defence. The second accused refused to answer the interpreter when spoken to in Cantonese.
Mr Allen, District Officer at Christmas Island, said this man had answered intelligently when spoken to by him in Cantonese.
Yip Si, mandor of the accused, stated that the man understood Cantonese. He had spoken to him and had heard him talking to the other coolies. He thought he could understand the interpreter.
In reply to Mr Braddell, witness said the four accused were sinkehs [Hokkein: New arrivals from China].
STATEMENT BY ACCUSED.
After being spoken to by two of the other accused, the second prisoner went into the witness box and gave his evidence in a Kwangsi [Guangxi] dialect. He said that on the 28th day of the eighth moon, a coolie caught a bird. A policeman found it out and three Chinese promised to give him $5, but did not do so. The coolie was ordered to go to the court the next day and failed to obey the order. Two Sikh constables went to the bangsal [barn/shed] the next day. The deceased struck three of the coolies on the head with an axe and demanded money. He was abused by one man, and looked round the bangsal for birds. Two men called out “pah” and eight or nine coolies came out and chased the constables. Witness joined in the chase. Two or three men caught the deceased and one of them knocked him down with a blow from a pole on the forehead. Others also struck him, but witness did not join in the striking.
Why did you run after him ? asked his lordship.
Because all the others did, was the reply.
In addressing the jury for the defence, Mr Braddell said there was no doubt that the P.C. was killed, and that the affair occurred owing to the action of the members of a large gang of eighteen or nineteen coolies. The only evidence of any one having arms, was one man who had a big stick, and he was still in the jungle. One man who was said to have had an axe was discharged. The accused were sinkehs who had only run out and followed the other men. It was the other men who had taken the birds. The jury could not say that the four men had any intention of causing culpable homicide or grievous hurt. In fact, they had all gone down in a body to Mr Allen’s office and made a statement. The man who had taken to the jungle had not been seen since. The only evidence against number one was the statement of a policeman that he had a stick. Counsel asked the jury to say on the evidence of the prosecution that this case had not been made out.
His lordship, in the course of his remarks said the case was somewhat unsatisfactory.
ALL ACCUSED ACQUITTED.
The jury found that the evidence was not sufficient to convict on either charge, and unanimously found the accused not guilty. The prisoners were discharged.
Source: The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser 18 November 1908, Page 5 © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reprinted with permission