A “Dusky Peril”: Trade Unions Resent Indian Labor

A “Dusky Peril”: Trade Unions Resent Indian Labor

“Work is plentiful in the mills. In fact too plentiful and this is responsible for the ease with which the foreigners have found employment. The scarcity of white men has led mills to accept the service of those whom American workers regard as a common enemy. They feel that wages will be reduced if suppressive measures are not taken in the beginning. They argue, also, that the presence of several scores or hundreds of Hindus in Bellingham will act as a brake on the city’s progress. A strong point against them, they say, is that they live cheaply and save their earnings to return to India to spend them”.

– Puget Sound American, Bellingham, Washington, September 16, 1906 –

“GET out of my country” is what the white, Navy veteran Adam Purinton is alleged to have said  before shooting and killing Indian Srinivas Kuchibhotla  and wounding Alok Madasani in Austin’s Bar and Grill in Olathe, Kansas, on the evening of February 22, 17.

A Sikh victim of a shooting on Friday, March 3, was also told to “go back to your country”.  In a span of 2 weeks, 4 Indians were shot at, 2 fatally, sending shock waves through the Indian American community. The vast majority of the 3.3 million Indians in America, have immigrated after 1965 and therefore have been spared the racial struggles and violence that defined the civil rights era for other minorities. The Indian American story is a success story and “desis” and Americans alike flaunt it. It’s been easy to believe that America’s doors would always remain open to deserving desis.  Indians are unaware however that American labor, influenced by racial politics and the economy, has organized to alter  the nation’s immigration laws on several occasions in the past. Hostility toward “Hindu” immigrants was rampant at the turn of the century and immigration laws passed as a result of this hostility, stripped Indians off US citizenship and  kept them out of the United States for 40 years.

Indians, first started to arrive in the United States on the west  coast in 1899.  They were referred to as “Hindus” but were primarily Sikhs.  India was under British rule at the time and Punjabis were, in effect, forced to leave in search of better prospects elsewhere. They were being impoverished by a colonial administration that imposed high taxes and forced this agrarian community to grow cash crops rather than food, to benefit the new industries of Great Britain. Affected by drought and famine they looked abroad for better prospects. Many joined the British Army. Upon hearing of higher wages in America, several thousand Indians set out to find their fortunes in the U.S. over a period of about 20 years.

The Indian immigrants to both the U.S. & Canada (many went by ship to Canada’s Pacific coast too) worked primarily as laborers in lumber mills and iron foundries. Many helped build the Western Pacific Railroad lines. Eventually many Punjabis took up farming in the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys of Central and Southern California. Between  1899 and 1908, about  150-200 Indians arrived every year. By 1910, a total of 4,713 Indian immigrants had come to America, including those who crossed the border from Canada. This number increased to 6,795 by 1920.

The initial, bemused reactions to the Indian arrivals soon turned to hostility, discrimination, violence and ultimately exclusionary immigration laws. Resentment toward the primarily laboring classes of Indians (as well as Japanese and Koreans) by the local European immigrant labor unions and leaders led to the formation of the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League in 1907 (renamed the Asiatic Exclusion League). The stated goal of the Asiatic Exclusion League was to extend the Chinese Exclusion Act to all Asians.  The Chinese Exclusion Act had prohibited the immigration of Chinese labor since the time it had been signed into law by President Chester Arthur in 1882. The law was repealed only in 1943.


On 14 May, 1907,  67 labor unions including the powerful Building Trades Council (BTC) and the Sailors’ Union formed the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League. Based in San Francisco, the objective of the League was to bring about legislation to keep all Asian labor out of the U.S. Ironically, the leadership of the League were immigrants themselves. Patrick McCarthy, the President of the Building Trades Council was an immigrant from Ireland and Andrew Furuseth of the Sailors’ Union was from Norway. The first president of the League – Olaf Tveitmoe – was also a Norwegian immigrant and the founding editor of the weekly newspaper, “Organized Labor”, the official organ of the States and Local Building Trades Councils of California. A letter from Olaf A. Tveitmoe, published in the April & May 1906 (combined) edition of the paper he edited – Organized Labor – stated the fears and intentions of the League:

“The literature and statistics sent out by the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League has done wonderful work in educating the public.”

“Thousands of fair minded and well meaning people who were biased and ignorant on the question of Japanese immigration have during the last year, entirely changed their views on the subject. They have learned the truth that the Japanese coolie is even a greater menace to the existence of the white race, to the progress and prosperity of our country than is the Chinese coolie. But if there has been danger from Asiatic immigration to our state before, that danger has not lessened now.”

“On the contrary, it has increased. The great calamity which befell San Francisco will furnish the Orient with lurid tales of opportunity for employment and profit. California, the land of fabulous wealth, revenue and mountains of gold, and San Francisco with its wonderful wages will be exploited before the ignorant coolies until they will come in ship loads like an endless swarm of rats.”

“Do not for a moment think that the Japanese will keep away on account of the earthquakes. They are raised on earthquakes in Japan, and the earthquake will only make the Nepponese coolies feel more at home in California.”

“Great as the recent catastrophe has been, let us take care lest we encounter a greater one. We can withstand the earthquake. We can survive the fire.”

“As long as California is white man’s country, it will remain one of the grandest and best states in the union, but the moment the Golden State is subjected to an unlimited Asiatic coolie invasion, there will be no more California”.

It was this climate of  hostility that eventually led to the riots of 1907 in the town of Bellingham in northwestern Washington. The town was home to nearly 800 members of the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League, and Indian workers, like the Chinese and Japanese before them, were met with hostility and racism. A boomtown in the early 20th century, Bellingham employed hundreds of migrant workers, including many Asian-Indians, in its lumber mills. It is estimated that about 250 Indians were working in Bellingham’s lumber mills at the time of the riots.

On September 4, 1907,  about 500 working class white men gathered to drive the Indians out of the city. The riot began when the mob of white men chased and beat two Sikh workers on the street. They eventually went from house to house (boarding houses) and mill to mill to drive the Indians out. That night about 200 or so Indians were rounded up at the City Hall in Bellingham and eventually, in about 10 days every single Indian had left the town to never return.

In retrospect, the coverage of the Indian community in Bellingham newspapers might have tipped off readers to the racial tension that eventually  erupted in the riots. On September 16, 1906, an article titled “Have We a Dusky Peril” in a local Bellingham paper, the Puget Sound, lamented the arrival of Indians. One reader wrote to the editor of the paper:

Keep the Hindus out”. (…) “I consider their advent to this country very undesirable. They are strictly non-progressive and adhere to their old established customs with far more tenacity than either the Japanese or Chinese. Their code of morals is bad from our point of view, and if allowed the freedom which they naturally expect in America, they will eventually become troublesome”.

The AEL eventually succeeded in its efforts to curtail Indian immigration. The Angel Island Immigration Station in the San Francisco bay was opened in 1910 and arriving Indians were detained and turned away along with many other Asians. Eventually the Asian Exclusion League was able to pressurize politicians to pass the Immigration Act of 1917, also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, legislation that barred the natives of most countries in Asia from entering the United States.

Shefali Chandan
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