Three Cyclists’ from India and Imperial Encounters 

Bombay 1920: the departure and point of arrival.

For an edited and expanded version of this blog, see:

Published on LeftWord Blog, 11 August 2017

From the archive (RGASPI 542/1/5, 68)

”In China, the people did not believe they were Indians, because they were clean-shaven…”

The continual mining of the Comintern Archive in Moscow, either by visiting the archive or consulting the digital archive online, furthers our understanding of (as in my case) anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements and experiences in the interwar period. By perceiving these movements as circulations of experience, and as transnational in scope and nature, documents located in the Moscow archive tells us about previously unknown encounters and narratives that either supports already established research results or adds new layers of understanding to what really happened in Europe, the US, Latin America, Asia or Africa between the wars. Hence, what I am thinking of here is the combination of global and transnational perspectives as a theoretical and methodological way of understanding history and historical processes. One example of this is the story of three cyclists’ from India who departed from Bombay (nowadays: Mumbai) sometime in 1923 for ”a world tour”, only to return four years later to the same city. In the files of the League against Imperialism, according to one of the organization’s official publications, ”Press Service” (1927), the following remarkable transnational tale of imperial encounters in China, Indo-China and the US unfolds itself.

The three Indian cyclists’ left Bombay in 1923 with the intention of visiting and experiencing new vistas and meeting other cultures rather than reading about it. Returning back to India in 1927, it had been a journey covered first, on wheels, and second, it had deepened their insight into the ”methods of Japanese, French, American and British imperialism.” According to the ”Press Service”, what they had seen ”convinced them of the urgent need of national independence,” which, in hindsight was an echo of the initial points declared by the US President Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, an epochal event that faded rather as power interests took the leading role, but which found new impetus with the official establishment of the League against Imperialism in Brussels 10-14 February 1927. Hence, it was all about continuing the need of declaring and furthering the demands of the colonies to receive national independence based on the premises of national self-determination. What did the three cyclists, of whom there is little known after just reading the report in ”Press Service”, experience on the journey through Asia, reaching all the way to the US and back again to Bombay?

If we adopt a geographical perspective, the cyclists’ encountered various forms of racial prejudice and segregation, either openly or moderately expressed. Arriving in Korea they were welcomed and ”received a very heartily” reception wherever they went with their bicycles. As ”victims of Japanese imperialism”, the Koreans connected with the Indians and their heritage of belonging to a ”great land” that had been subjected to cruel exploitation by the British ”for over a century and a half”. In Indo-China, the three cyclists’ got to know very well the ”blessings of French imperialism”, a statement that explicitly referred to the most stringent and racial laws against Indians and the Chinese that had been put into effect to subject them for the reason that they were ”regarded as pariahs by the French authorities”. Different treatment of nationalities also emerged during the journey, and as was noted, the Japanese population in Indo-China was exempted from discriminating laws and given the status of ”civilized beings” in comparison with the Indians and Chinese. As the adventure finally reached the US, and as the three cyclists’ made port in San Francisco, they could read on signboards in many places that ”Japs, Chinese, Indians, Dogs and Cats not allowed.”

Thus, as much as racial prejudice was a natural feature in various national contexts, it was also increasingly transnational in scope and intent wherever the three cyclists’ chose to steer their direction. The report in ”Press Service” concludes the impressions of imperialism made by the cyclists’ after ”the world tour”. Accordingly, French imperialism was as far away as possible from the national insignia of ”liberty, equality and justice” as it was put into practice in the French colonies, whereas British imperialism came as no surprise to the three Indians, meaning, it was pretty evident that all means were taken by British colonial authorities to act as ”protector of the interests of British nationals.”

This single document outlines in general terms the fundamental approach of ”thinking transnational”, or as Akira Iriye writes in Global and Transnational History (2013): ”[T]ransnational history, … focuses on cross-national connections, whether through individuals, non-national identities, and non-state actors, or in terms of objectives shared by people and communities regardless of their nationality.” Hence, what the encounter of these three unidentified cyclists’ from India tells us is that regardless of identifying themselves as ”Indian”, communication and travel across continents during four years was made possible with mechanical means: the bicycle, and through this vehicle, this enabled encounters and meetings of a novel kind that changed their understanding of colonialism and imperialism.

Transnational Travel and the Life of an Activist: Sen Katayama (1859-1933)

Standing on Lenin’s tomb at the Red Square in Moscow (from left to right: Katayama, Rykov, and Stalin, year unknown).

From the archive: Sen Katayama’s autobiography (Moscow, 22.10.1922)

Sen Katayama was born in ”a far away country village” in Japan on 1859, and died as a distinguished leader of Japanese communism in Moscow 1933. Eleven years earlier, Katayama arrived in Moscow for the first time, and as it turned out, the capital of Soviet Russia would be his ”home” for the reminder of his life as a national revolutionary. As for everyone who was connected to or worked for the Communist International (1919-43), Katayama had a personal file (lichnye dela), comprising of documents that outlines his life in the international communist movement between the wars. The personal files of international communists in the interwar period represents a crucial source of information for any serious historian on the history of radicalism, communism, socialism and international organizations in the twentieth century. The Comintern was pivotal in spurring and establishing numerous associations and campaigns with emphasis on social and political issues, and, as Brigitte Studer writes in The Transnational World of the Cominternians (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), ”[I]t was through the Comintern that the Soviet Union became the centre of a worldwide zone of circulation”. Katayama was part of this circulation, and he depended on this circulation in achieving a prominent position in the international communist movement up until his passing away in 1933.

I visited the Russian State Archive for Social and Political History (RGASPI) in November last year, and examined (among many other files in the archive) Katayama’s personal file. Below follow an excerpt of the content in his autobiography he wrote and handed over to the Comintern after arriving in Soviet Russia in 1922. It is a fascinating narrative that disclose a political journey that covered transnational aspects (Japan – Southeast Asia – US – Europe – Soviet Russia), and meetings that evolved into life lasting contacts. It also shows that experiences formed in different spatial settings, and taking place in contexts not by choice but by necessity, should have a central role in historical examinations of ideology and biographical accounts.

”In a far away country village twenty miles from sea three miles from a town I was born 1859. My register shows I was born in December 5th of that year. I was born and brought up in a farm house; my father and mother were all peasant and worked all in the field. At the same time my family has been for many and many decades or it may be a century or more served as a village mayor so my father as well as my brother served as the village mayor. But the family was not rich so every one of the family worked. My native village is in valley surrounded by high mountains with one small river that run eastward that meets in the middle of the village with several small brooks that run down from the mountains. […]

I was 9 when the revolution took place in which we the tenants became the owners of the land and paid tax in money until that time we paid rent in rice. My education consists of learning IROHa, that is, A. B. C. in Japanese at a house of the Shinto priest and also in a Buddhist temple that stood on a mountain some distant of a mile and a half. […] From 15 to 20 I worked in the farm, but during those years I studied myself to fit to enter the normal school which I did in 1880. Next year I quitted the normal school and came to Tokyo where I worked as a printer and studied Chinese classics in the private school conducted by Senjin Oka, an old revolutionary leader of Sendai who associated with the most leaders of the revolution of 1868. My progress in learning was quite rapid last few years […]

I worked as a janitor in the school soon so I was able to study more the helping the Principal in the history itself was study, for I have to read many old documents for the Principal. I travelled with the Principal in the country and also taught Chinese classics in a school where only Chinese classics are taught. But dissatisfied with the Chinese classics myself, for then the English language was quite popular, I very wanted to study the English but it cost much and I was unable to pay for it. Just at this time my friend sailed for America in the spring of 1884 to escape the conscription and wrote me from San Francisco in the effect that in America it is possible for a poor boy can study without money, namely, by work. […] There I worked and studied [in San Francisco] went through Academy and college as well as university finishing my courses that American colleges could then give after 11 full years beside to do all kinds of works from farming, that is, ploughing with horses or mules, making hay and cutting rice plant in the field of Texas. […]

But I was soon called to enter in the wider movement, namely, the labor movement, which was started in the summer of 1897. From 1897 to 1903 I was regular labor agitator organising labor unions and going round the country as labor agitator and union organiser. At one time our Iron Workers’ Union had grown to a membership of over 6,000 with 42 branches scattered all over Japan. […] I became one and decided to work for the cause of socialism. We organized the Social Democratic Party but was suppressed on the very day of publication of the Manifesto and Platform of the Party and I was tried and fined just for publishing the Manifesto of the Party. In December of 1903 I left for America with intention of attending the Amsterdam Socialist Congress arriving Seattle in early spring of 1904. […] In America during the war I mostly worked a casual day labourer for the families in San Francisco and also in New York. In the latter place I was in the left wing movement with many comrades such as Rutgers, Boudin, Lore, Debs and many now prominent leaders in Russia such as Trotsky, Bukharin, Kollantai, Volodarsky and others. […] In March 1921 I went to Mexico on the same duty where I stayed till October 31, 1921 and then came to Moscow in December. Since then I am here. Moscow, October 12, 1922. Sen Katayama”

The detailed autobiography of Katayama entails a narrative of a political journey that was enacted in different settings, but foremost, it was transnational by nature and scope, and in the end, it facilitated a transformation and political development of Katayama’s life as a political activist. Part of the information in Katayama’s autobiography will be included in my forthcoming monograph on transnational anti-colonialism between the wars.