Henry Polak and his sources

by Margaret Allen

In Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire: Interfaith, Cross-Cultural and Transnational Networks, 1860-1950, (with Jane Haggis, Clare Midgely and Fiona Paisley) I wrote about Henry Polak (1882-1959) ‘a British-born lawyer, journalist and activist who campaigned on behalf of Indians across the British Empire against racism and discriminations, in the first half of the twentieth century.’ He worked closely with Gandhi in South Africa, edited Gandhi’s newspaper, Indian Opinion from 1905-16, took part in the campaign to end Indian indentured labour around the British Empire and then both as a lawyer to the Privy Council and through the Indian Overseas Association, which he helped found, campaigned for Indians around the empire to enjoy their rights as British subjects.

H.S.L.Polak
Source: Golden Number of Indian Opinion 1914: Souvenir of the Passive Resistance Movement in South Africa, 1906-1914, Courtesy Professor Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie
H.S.L.Polak; Source: Golden Number of Indian Opinion 1914: Souvenir of the Passive Resistance Movement in South Africa, 1906-1914, Courtesy Professor Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie

I first came across Polak of the Indian Overseas Association writing to the Colonial Office on behalf the Queensland cane cutter Addar Khan, who was appealing his conviction under the discriminatory Queensland Sugar Cultivation Act (1913). My curiosity was sparked, who was this Polak and how was he involved on behalf of Indians in Australia? I soon found that he communicated with a bewildering number of people and organisations in Britain, India and around the Empire. I was able to research papers on Polak at both the British and Bodleian Libraries. I found that his letters could be traced through a number of collections, including the Sapru Papers, Gokhale’s papers, Gandhi’s correspondence, and India Office, Foreign and Colonial Office Files. Unable to spend the time to trace Polak through these files, I longed to locate the records of the Indian Overseas Association. Here I expected to read the letters from Indian activists around the Empire, in the United States and across the diaspora. However I was to be disappointed, for Gregory notes that these ‘voluminous files’ were destroyed in World War Two.[1]

But then with all the happenstance of research, I investigated Australian library holdings relating to Polak through the data base, Trove.

There, in the University of Sydney Library, I came across: S. Durai Raja Singam, H.S.L. Polak – Friend of Gandhiji, (Singapore: self-published, 1957). This was a roneoed compilation of a number of Polak’s writings and a short biography by the author.[2] It also comprised obscure publications, such as the first Gokhale Society Publication namely lectures on ‘India and the Dominions’ by Mr. Polak and Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, first published by the Allahabad Leader (1917). This slim work, of course, did not compensate for the loss of the records of the Indian Overseas Association, but Singam wrote of the regard with which Polak was held: ‘His name is a household word among Indians in India, Ceylon and South Africa.’

This ephemeral work threw up other questions. Who was S. Durai Raja Singam and how did this self-published work get into the Sydney collection? It was written at the time of the White Australian Policy when Australians apparently had little interest in their Asian neighbours. However the author’s inscription to Marie Byles, provided the probable answer. Marie Byles (1900-1979), an Australia solicitor and conservationist, travelled widely in Asia and became a Buddhist. She visited Gandhi’s ashram and in ‘The Lotus and the Spinning Wheel (1963) … she set the teachings of Gandhi alongside Buddha’s and saw both as necessary in the modern world.’[3] Like Polak, she was rather cosmopolitan in her outlook.

As I compiled this blog, my questions about S. Durai Raja Singam (1904-1995) were begun to be answered. Thanks to Google, I found information about an exhibition by Dr. Niranjan Rajah at the University of Malaya on Singam’s work on Ananda Coomaraswamy, the Sri Lankan philosopher and art historian. Here Singam was described as ‘a Malaysian scholar, historian, biographer and bibliographer of high international regard who collated, wrote, designed and published books on various topics.’[4] It seems that S. Durai Raja Singam, a secondary school teacher, was yet another cosmopolitan.


[1] Robert G. Gregory, ‘H.S.L.Polak and the Indian Overseas Association’, Vivekananda Kendra Patrika (Madras) February 1973, note 10, p. 38.

[2] The frontispiece records that ‘Hundred copies were duplicated for the Author by Kwok Yoke Weng & Co, 22 The Arcade, Singapore, 1).

[3] See Heather Radi on Marie Byles at http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/byles-marie-beuzeville-9652

See also http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/biogs/WLE0298b.htm

[4] See Koboi project, https://koboiproject.com/2017/11/16/the-gift-of-knowledge/

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