Global Causes of the Singapore Mutiny of 1915

Heather Streets-Salter brings a lot of fascinating historical threads together in The Local Was Global: The Singapore Mutiny of 1915, in Journal of World History 24 (2013): 539-576 (Project MUSE subscription required). Here is her summary of the mutiny:

On the early afternoon of 15 February, about half of the 850 soldiers in the 5th Light Infantry had risen against their British officers while loading ammunition at the Alexandra regimental barracks. After firing shots to signal the start of the mutiny, the rebels split into three groups. The first headed straight for a German POW camp at Tanglin—where the officers and men of the German ship Emden, which had been sunk off the coast of Malaya, were being held—and released the prisoners, in the process killing fourteen British and Indian officers and men. The second headed toward the center of Singapore, killing six soldiers and civilians along the way. The third proceeded to the barracks of the Malay States Guides artillery unit, where they attempted to force the soldiers there to join them. At various points along the way, this third group killed ten British civilians—nine men and one woman.

As news of the mutiny spread in Singapore, panic broke out among the Europeans. They realized with horror that a significant portion of the only regular army regiment garrisoned for the defense of Singapore was now in open rebellion, which of course meant that the colony was almost completely undefended. A year earlier there had been a British regiment—the King’s Own Light Infantry—stationed there, but those troops had been shipped back to Europe at the start of the war in 1914. There was a civilian volunteer force (the Singapore Volunteer Corps, or SVC), which in August 1914 was composed of about 450 Malay and Chinese men but no European corps. In any case, the SVC troops were not well trained. At the outbreak of the war a European infantry corps, called the Singapore Volunteer Rifles, was formed, but since all of the men who joined were professionals with full-time positions, their training had been sporadic. Finally, Singapore maintained a police force of about 1,200 strong, which was comprised of Malay, Chinese, and Indian men who were not trained to routinely carry arms. The only contingent of the police who were trained in the use of arms was a group of about 220 Sikhs. In any case it was Chinese New Year, and thus nearly all of the Chinese volunteers and police were in the midst of celebrating. There were no regular Malay regiments, partly because British authorities disparaged the military potential of Malay men and partly because officials had long been confident that troops from the vast Indian Army would more than suffice for defending Singapore. So when the 5th Light Infantry—ironically called the “Loyal 5th” for their role in suppressing the Indian Revolt of 1857—mutinied on 15 February, the colony appeared to be in real danger.

And here are some of the global threads she weaves together:

Prior to being sent back to Malaya, however, a corporal in the [Malay States] Guides persuaded Kasim Mansur, a pro-German Indian nationalist merchant living in Singapore, to write a letter to the Turkish consul at Rangoon indicating that the Guides were ready to turn against the British, and asking the Turkish authorities to send a warship to Singapore to support them. The letter was intercepted by British authorities in Rangoon, and on 23 January 1915 Mansur was arrested in Singapore….

Moreover, statements made by individuals within the Guides clearly demonstrate that they conceived their discontent not only in terms of local, individual problems within the regiment, but also in terms of global events outside the immediate orbit of Singapore. One of the most important of these was the fate of the Japanese ship Komagata Maru. The ship had been chartered in early 1914 by an Indian man, Gurdit Singh, to carry 376 Indian passengers (of whom 340 were Sikhs and 24 Muslim) from Hong Kong to Vancouver, with the purpose of deliberately challenging Canadian laws restricting Indian immigration. However, once the ship arrived in the port of Vancouver it was not allowed to dock, nor were its passengers allowed to disembark. The passengers were forced to wait on board ship for two months in difficult conditions while their fate was decided, only to discover at the end that the entire ship had been ordered back to India. The ship left Vancouver under escort by the Canadian military on 23 July 1914. When it finally reached Calcutta on 26 September, the outraged and weary passengers tousled with British authorities, who were intent on treating them as prisoners. The altercation resulted in gunfire by the authorities, during which nineteen of the Indians on board were killed.

The Komagata Maru incident galvanized anti-British sentiment among many Indians around the world, particularly Sikhs and Punjabis. Soldiers in the Indian army were particularly outraged, since many of the potential settlers aboard the ship had served in the army themselves. News of the Komagata Maru easily reached the Malay States Guides, who informed their officers that the treatment of Sikhs and other Punjabis on the ship indicated that the colonial government did not hold the service of Indians in high regard and that they therefore were not willing to sacrifice their lives abroad….

The likelihood that the events of the Komagata Maru helped sow the seeds of discontent among Indian sepoys in Singapore was greatly enhanced by the actions of individuals associated with a radical Indian nationalist movement known as Ghadar. The movement itself began in 1913 with Indian expatriates in California—many of them Sikhs from the Punjab—who had come to the western coast of North America in the early years of the twentieth century to escape conditions of poverty. In both the United States and Canada, however, these expatriates experienced increasingly hostile discrimination, not only at the state level but also from white communities….

Ghadar activists did not just send literature from North America: they also sent people. The specific purpose of Ghadar agents was no less than to foment revolution in India and to overthrow colonial rule, using whatever means possible. Beginning in September and October 1914—just months before the Singapore Mutiny—Ghadarites left San Francisco for India and the Far East. Specific target areas included Hong Kong, the Malay States, Rangoon, and Singapore—each of which had Indian Army garrisons that Ghadarites were eager to penetrate….

We know that German agents in the United States did offer material support for the Ghadarites, including the transport of Ghadar propaganda from San Francisco to points east. In recognition of their shared program of British destruction, the Ghadar paper explicitly and regularly exhorted Indians to support Germany in any way possible during the war. On 18 August 1914, an article titled “O Hindus, Help the Germans” encouraged Indians to take the opportunity of Britain’s weakness to mutiny….

In addition to appealing to Indian sepoys’ potential sense of exploitation as colonized Indians more generally, both the Germans and the Ghadarites made special efforts to appeal to Indian Muslims—especially after the Ottoman Empire’s entrance into the war on the side of Germany in November 1914. Indeed, Germans, Turks, and Ghadarites worked together in a self-conscious program of encouraging disloyalty among the Allies’ Muslim subjects—of which the largest population in the world was Indian. Upon entering the war, the Ottomans declared the liberation of occupied Muslim lands as a specific war aim. Almost immediately, on 11 November 1914, the Ottoman sultan extracted from the highest religious authority in his empire a declaration of jihad, in which all loyal Muslims were to fight on behalf of their religion against the Allied infidels….

News spread through these propaganda channels that Kaiser Wilhelm had converted to Islam and that large segments of the German population had converted as well. That these or similar efforts had an impact on at least some men of the 5th Light Infantry can be gauged by several letters intercepted by the censor in the days surrounding the mutiny. As Lance Naik Fateh Mohammed wrote to his father in the Punjab: “The Germans have become Mohammedans. Haji Mahmood William Kaiser and his daughter has married the heir to the Turkish throne, who is to succeed after the Sultan. Many of the German subjects and army have embraced Mohammedism. Please God that the religion of the Germans (Mohammedism) may be promoted or raised on high.”


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Filed under Britain, Canada, Germany, Islam, migration, military, nationalism, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Turkey, U.S., war

One response to “Global Causes of the Singapore Mutiny of 1915

  1. Pingback: Global Causes of the Singapore Mutiny of 1915 | The Singapore Mutiny – A Reclaimation

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