Hopkinson, William Charles (1880-1914)

William Charles Hopkinson was an immigration inspector and Hindu interpreter in Vancouver—appointed in February 1909—with a special commission to report on seditious activities in the Indian community on the Pacific Coast. He was well known to senior officials in Ottawa and had been appointed at the request of the Governor General (who at that time was British rather than Canadian). Hopkinson’s reports went to the Deputy Minister of the Interior in Ottawa and were relayed to the Governor General and then on to London and Delhi. He was a key figure in the cooperative efforts of Canadian, British and British Indian agencies in the surveillance of Indian political activists and militants (similar cooperation has continued in recent years between Indian and Canadian police in dealing with the Sikh community and its Khalistani militants).

Hopkinson was thirty-four years of age in 1914. He was a tall man (6 ft. 2 inches) with a swarthy complexion. In the immigration department he had the reputation of being thoroughly reliable and cool and collected in difficult and dangerous situations.

In understanding Hopkinson and his role in Vancouver, one has to come to grips with his denial of his Eurasian (Anglo-Indian) ancestry, a denial he maintained from the time he landed in Vancouver. He was born and raised in the Indian city of Allahabad, although in Canada he claimed to be English from Yorkshire. Growing up in Allahabad, which is 500 miles south and east of Punjab, he spoke Hindi as well as English but identified with his English heritage. In reality, whatever ambition he had, it was confined by his ready identification in India as mixed-race, Anglo-Indian. As an Anglo-Indian he belonged to a community that was closely tied to the British regime and protected by it, but treated as second class. For example, the sons of Anglo-Indian families had no hope of marriage into the white community, although daughters often did. That could lead to an increasing social divide between brothers and sisters as they matured. More to the point: in the civil service and in the military, Anglo-Indians had little hope of promotion beyond subordinate ranks.

 In Vancouver, Hopkinson was married to a woman two years younger than himself, Nellie Fryer, from a comfortable, close-knit, middle-class English family from the up-scale London Highgate area, a trained stenographer and who had immigrated on her own at the age of twenty-four, to be followed in a couple of years by a teenage brother and, after her marriage to Hopkinson, by her sister, another young brother and her widowed mother. After her marriage, they all shared a large home in Vancouver’s rapidly developing Grandview neighbourhood. Here they kept two female family servants brought from London by her mother. Hopkinson met Nellie not long after he landed in Vancouver in 1907 and they married in November 1908, with Hopkinson becoming the head of a large household.  This was Hopkinson’s second marriage, the first (presumably within the Anglo-Indian community) being in 1906 in Calcutta and ending within months when his young wife, Lilla May (Carleton), died. His decision to immigrate to Canada had followed shortly. With Nellie he had two children, both girls, who were two and six in October 1914 when he died from the bullets fired by Mewa Singh.

Hopkinson was a trained and experienced police officer before he came to Canada. He had entered the police in Punjab at the age of 16, which is when he became acquainted with Punjabi language and culture, but he evidently did not see a future for himself in Punjab, and transferred to the Calcutta police when he was twenty-one. By the time he was twenty-four he was a sub-inspector of police in Calcutta, where sometimes violent, nationalistic, and anti-British militant activity, particularly amongst student cells, was then a great concern.

In India, as an Anglo-Indian, Hopkinson’s opportunities for promotion were likely to come slowly and with a probable ceiling at the rank he had already achieved, or at best a step up to inspector. Here was a powerful motive for him to seek opportunities elsewhere.

These elements of his life gave Hopkinson a fascinating complex of loyalties and motivations: attachment to the empire; denial of his own antecedents; ambition; industry; self-control and rationality and discretion—all combined with a competent, courageous but not impulsive nature.

Hopkinson spoke English as a first language as well as the Hindi with which he had grown up and, because he had spent time in Punjab and because Hindi and Punjabi are closely related, he could speak Punjabi, although not like an native and he evidently could not read it (he needed an interpreter for texts written in Punjabi).

In his early months in Vancouver, Hopkinson worked as a storekeeper. By chance he was settled in the city in time to witness the excitement generated by an influx of Punjabi immigrants in the fall of and winter of 1907-08, leading to the federal government’s institution of the continuous passage provision that stopped further immigration from India. He was the unnamed source for a story published in May of 1908 by a correspondent for the Times of London about seditious activity in Vancouver among immigrants from India. In June he met with the Deputy Minister of Labour, Mackenzie King, and supplied him with material for a nine-page confidential memorandum. By now he was a familiar resource for local immigration officials, although not yet employed in government service. That came seven months later at the specific request of the Governor General of Canada, Lord Grey, who took the reports of anti-British sedition seriously and who had learned of Hopkinson’s background and qualifications through Mackenzie King and the Governor of British Honduras, Col. E.J. Swayne—who had undertaken an investigative trip to Vancouver for the Canadian and Imperial governments.

Swayne was involved in Canadian affairs because the British, Canadian and British Honduran governments had briefly proposed sending Punjabis from Vancouver to British Honduras as indentured immigrants. And J.B. Harkin, the private secretary to the Minister of the Interior had seen Hopkinson in action when he took him as an interpreter along with two Vancouver Punjabis delegated by their community to go at government expense to British Honduras to look at conditions there (they found the situation in British Honduras entirely unacceptable). Through these contacts Hopkinson made a very positive impression at the highest levels of the Canadian government and this led to his appointment in the immigration department with surveillance his first responsibility.

Hopkinson was immediately well known to Indians (South Asians) in British Columbia. He had a network of informants in their community; he turned up at their meetings to make his reports; and he interviewed Indian immigrants when they arrived at the border. The stories that circulated in the Indian community about Hopkinson were about his bribe-seeking corruption and his dictatorial actions. Indians made charges and complaints about him to the immigration department but these were discounted by his superiors as self-serving attempts to discredit him and get him fired—motivated by members of a community who had many reasons not to like what he was doing in his official capacity.

Within the immigration department, Hopkinson had an understanding and perception of his job not fully understood by his colleagues. He had an Indian police perspective; they were Canadian immigration officers. He had more cautious respect for the political activists he faced on the Komagata Maru, and a greater concern for their potential impact on Indian public opinion. Very few Canadians at that time had any doubts about the role that the British were playing in India. Rudyard Kipling’s words about the “white man’s burden” (written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee) met no critique or reservation in their minds. This would be true of Canadian immigration officers who, with so many others, believed in the blessings of British rule for India. For Hopkinson and his immigration colleagues the Komagata Maru was a ship full of illegal immigrants and fiery seditionists. That put the immigration office in Vancouver into an extremely combative frame of mind. But Hopkinson was not party to this kind of thinking. He saw the Komagata Maru affair as an encounter that had to be managed with care not to give the activists on board the “cause celebre” that he thought they wanted. His was the judicious voice in the immigration office, on the pier and in reports, expressed when and where it could be.

Just two months after the Komagata Maru sailed from Vancouver, Hopkinson was shot to death in the Vancouver courthouse. His assailant was Mewa Singh, a Sikh whom he knew well and whom he had tried to cultivate as an informant. Mewa Singh was arrested on the spot and quickly tried, convicted and hanged. He has been remembered in the Sikh community ever since as a martyr. To the general public in Vancouver at the time, however, Hopkinson was a fallen hero and a state funeral procession for him, in which 2000 police, firemen, immigration and customs officers, militia and Orange Lodges marched, drew a vast crowd of citizens.

Hopkinson’s will, drawn up early in his marriage, was simple.  Everything he possessed went to Nellie—he acknowledged no relatives beyond hers. At his death he carried $4000 in life insurance (a little more than twice his annual salary) and with Nellie he owned a house in Vancouver, which was three-quarters paid off and which they were renting out. All she was entitled to from the government was two months of his salary past his death. To compound her worries, her brothers were unemployed. But understanding that Hopkinson’s work had led to his death, the immigration department helped by employing Nellie as a stenographer until 1921 when she and her two small girls—Hopkinson’s daughters—went to California where her mother and one brother were settled, initially in Oakland and later Santa Monica and finally the posh seaside city of Coronado, across the bay from San Diego. Her youngest brother was by then a merchant living in Tientsin (Tianjin) China. Her now married younger sister stayed a few more years in Vancouver before she also moved to Coronado with her husband and child, leaving no family behind in Canada with any memory of Hopkinson.

Sources: Vancouver Daily Province, 21, 22, 26, 30, Oct., 1914; Vancouver Sun, 23, 23, 26 Oct., 1914; Hugh Johnston, “The Surveillance of Indian Nationalists in North America,” BC Studies, no. 78, Summer, 1988, pp. 3-26; Library and Archives Canada, Immigration Files, RG 76, Governor General Files, RG 7; Public Record Office, UK, Colonial Office Papers; Hugh Johnston, interview with Hopkinson’s former colleague Fred “Cyclone” Taylor, Vancouver, 19 Oct., 1979; Thacker’s Indian Directory  (Calcutta, 1904-07); Andrew Parnaby and Gregory S. Kealey, “Origins of Political Policing in Canada: Class, Law, and the Burden of Empire,”: Ogoode Hall Law Journal, vol 41, no. 2 & 3. PP. 211-213; J.B. Harkin, The East Indians in British Columbia (Ottawa: Department of the Interior, 1909), Manuscript Census of Canada, 1911; Manuscript Census, England 1881, 1891, 1901; England and Wales, birth index; British Columbia, marriage register; US naturalization record; California death index; New York passenger lists; Canada ocean arrivals; California passenger and crew lists; US consular reports of marriages.