Swayne, Col. E.J.E. (1863-1929)

Colonel Eric John Eagles Swayne was born in 1863 and commissioned in the Indian army when he was twenty in 1883. He was attached to intelligence branch headquarters, India, 1892 to 1898. He was commissioner and consul general for the Somali Coast Protectorate, 1902 to 1906, and Governor of British Honduras, 1906 to 1913. While he was Governor he retired from the army, and he also he married; he re-enlisted in 1914 and finished his career in 1917 as a brigadier-general. He died in England in 1929.

Col. Swayne played a brief but influential role in assessing the situation of India immigrants in Canada in 1909. He happened to be in London when Canada was looking for ways to encourage Indian immigrants to leave -- possibly by sending them to the West Indies as coolie labour. The Canadians referred the idea to the British Colonial Secretary who asked Swayne about it. Swayne, who had seen service in India and knew the Sikhs, did not believe that they would work as indentured labourers or coolies; but he did think that they might come to British Honduras as independent settlers. As a result, the Colonial Secretary suggested sending a couple of Indian immigrants from Vancouver to Honduras to see what it was like. They could report their findings and then Sikhs and other Indians in British Columbia could decide whether or not they wanted to go.

This was the plan and carrying it out became the responsibility of J.B. Harkin, private secretary to the Minister of the Interior, who had already spent some time in Vancouver on the Indian immigration issue. He obtained two delegates, a Sikh and a Hindu, chosen at a meeting at the Vancouver Sikh gurdwara (temple), and he accompanied them to Honduras, taking W.C. Hopkinson as interpreter. It proved a futile mission. Wages in Honduras did not compare with those in British Columbia. As the number of unemployed among Indians in British Columbia fell, week by week, all incentive to think about re-emigration disappeared. Moreover, under the leadership of Prof. Teja Singh, an educated Sikh, the immigrants themselves organized a mutual self-help group so that none were on the streets asking for relief. Such self-help was necessary because the threat of deportation hung over the community like a guillotine, and especially over those who sought relief. The Honduras idea, linked as it was with the threat of deportation, assumed an ominous appearance. By the time Harkin returned to Vancouver from Belize, the Indians in Vancouver, led by Prof. Teja Singh, were antagonistic. In this atmosphere the Honduras idea died. 

Col. Swayne was already on his way from London to Ottawa at the expense of the Canadian government, having agreed to take a Canadian detour on his way home to Honduras, so he could visit the Indian immigrant community in British Columbia. In Ottawa, Swayne met with the Prime Minister and with the Governor General. He then came on to Vancouver where he quickly concluded that Sikhs had no reason to go to Honduras because they were making too much money in Canada. In Vancouver he met Hopkinson who told him about activists among the immigrants, particularly Taraknath Das, a Bengali student who, Hopkinson said, had been associated with militant nationalists in Calcutta before he came to North America. All this Swayne relayed to the Governor General in Ottawa in a confidential report. In this report he explained that British Columbia was bound to be attractive to Punjabi peasants who sought a few years employment overseas; but he thought the Indian government should stop them from going because, he predicted, a regular movement of labour back and forth from India to North America would have an unsettling effect on the Punjab population. He recommended that a watch be kept on Das and other agitators (whom he identified as Brahmans). He could think of no one better to maintain such a watch than Hopkinson and he recommended he be given a special appointment by the Canadian government.

Sources: Library and Archives Canada, Borden Papers, Col. E.J.E. Swayne, Confidential memorandum on the Indian community in British Columbia, Dec. 1908; Hugh Johnston, “The Surveillance of Indian Nationalists in North America,” BC Studies, no. 78, Summer, 1988, pp. 3-26; J.B. Harkin, The East Indians in British Columbia (Ottawa: Department of the Interior, 1909).