News APP

NewsApp (Free)

Read news as it happens
Download NewsApp

Available on  gplay

This article was first published 7 years ago  » News » The American who fought for India's freedom

The American who fought for India's freedom

By Archana Masih
Last updated on: August 10, 2016 11:09 IST
Get Rediff News in your Inbox:


Samuel Stokes

IMAGE: Samuel Stokes in a photograph taken in Pennsylvania with his Indian wife and his first born. Photograph, kind courtesy Asha Sharma

Samuel Stokes made India his home and participated in the freedom struggle.
He was the only American to be imprisoned for sedition; the British CID even maintained a special file on him.
Stokes also bought apples to Himachal Pradesh and transformed the lives of the state's farmers.
As India celebrates its 70th Independence Day next week, Asha Sharma, Samuel Stokes' grand-daughter, tells's Archana Masih about her extraordinary grandfather and wonders why he is hardly remembered today.

When Samuel Stokes left home in Philadelphia and set sail for India aged 22, his parents had hoped he would return home after a year or two. But this did not happen.

Instead, Stokes made India his home.

A young man from a wealthy American Quaker family, he had come to India to work for a home for the leprosy-afflicted in 1904 and went on to become an active participant in India's struggle for freedom.

The brutality of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in April 1919 drew him into the freedom movement.

Stokes worked closely with Mahatma Gandhi and took part in the Non-Cooperation Movement. He was imprisoned for six months for sedition in the Lahore jail and refused bail, the only American to be jailed in India's struggle for Independence.

The British CID also maintained a special file on him.

He also fought against begar or forced labour that the British exacted out of Indians, which was finally abolished.

He wore Khadi, married an Indian, learnt Sanskrit, became a Hindu, set up a school and introduced apples to Himachal Pradesh.

The hill state's most famous produce owes its origins to the apple cuttings Stokes had brought from America to persuade farmers to start apple cultivation.

Samuel Stokes renamed himself Satyanand and never went back to the United States after a trip he made with his young wife in 1914. His family still maintains roots with Kotgarh in Himachal Pradesh where Stokes started it all.

Stokes, who was born on August 16, did not live to see India gain freedom. He died in 1946 and was cremated in the hills he loved so dearly.

The letters and articles he wrote are preserved in the Nehru Memorial Library. There is also a picture of him on its walls, but his contribution has largely been ignored.

A few years ago, his granddaughter Asha Sharma, wrote a biography on Samuel Stokes, An American in Khadi which was published by Penguin Books India. An American edition of the book titled An American in Gandhi’s India with a foreword  by HH the Dalai Lama was published in 2008 by Indiana University Press. 

The author, who divides her time between California where her children live and Himachal Pradesh, tells's Archana Masih about Samuel Stokes' extraordinary life and wonders why he is hardly remembered in India.

What was Samuel Stokes' contribution to our freedom?

His contribution to our freedom was very substantial. He was very active in the first Non-Cooperation Movement and worked closely with Mahatma Gandhi, Lala Lajpat Rai, Motilal Nehru, C R Das and other national leaders.

He wrote articles, gave speeches and organised meetings. Though he was an American his fierce denouncement of imperialism and absolute identification with Indians had a deep impact.

His unequivocal support of Gandhi through these years was valuable to the cause. He had full faith in Gandhiji and believed that he was the only one who could lead India to independence and so he gave his wholehearted support to him and urged others to do the same.

What was Mr Stokes' friendship with C F Andrews (Gandhiji's friend and a Christian missionary who supported India's freedom from British rule) like? How did they become friends and how did Mr Stokes become associated with Gandhiji?

Stokes knew Andrews for a long time. Andrews lived in Delhi, but used to come up to the hills to escape the heat of the plains and that is where he met Stokes. Both men were very much alike in their thinking and so it was easy for them to become friends.

It was Andrews who brought Gandhiji and Stokes together. It was at the time when Stokes was fighting against begar in the hills. Gandhi came to know about Stokes and his work through Andrews.

In September 1920, when the viceroy of India, made a trip to Baghi in the interiors of Himachal Pradesh, thousands of poor villagers were called upon as begar labour to serve him.

The villagers were in the midst of sowing winter crops, so it was hard for them to get away at this time. Stokes was greatly troubled to see the plight of the people and wrote an article 'The Viceregal Trip' describing their situation.

The article was published by Gandhi in Young India and drew national attention. It also brought Stokes closer to Gandhi.

Can you elaborate on Mr Stokes’ relationship with Gandhji? 

Stokes always admired Gandhi and had a very close relationship with him. A long abiding friendship was forged between the two men during the early years of the Non-cooperation movement when

Stokes worked closely with Gandhi, travelled and toured with him, gave speeches in support of his programme and lived in the Sabarmati Ashram with him. Their friendship sustained through life his even though they did not meet much in later years.  

Gandhi and Stokes did not always agree with each other but this did not affect their relationship. If anything it brought them even closer as they could discuss their differences without any  reservation.

Stokes always felt that Gandhi was one of the 'greatest and noblest of men – both simple and profound. I doubt if there is such another in the world today,' he wrote in 1921. He stands for the noblest in our nature.

He often said that his association with Gandhi was the part of his life of which he was most proud.

Gandhi in turn held Stokes in high regard and spoke of him as an example to others. 'Non-co-co-operators worship Andrews, honour Stokes,' he said.

He also admired Stokes' courage of conviction and his love for India. 'He has made India his home in a manner no other American or Englishman has,' Gandhi wrote in Young India at the time of Stokes' arrest.

 He also took to khadi as a response to the Mahatma’s call?

Yes he did take to Khadi as a response to Mahatma Gandhi’s call. In fact he took to wearing Khadi in the presence of Gandhiji when he put his own clothes in a fire lit by Gandhiji himself in Parel, Bombay on 31st July 1921. Thereafter he embarked on a tour of UP with Gandhiji dressed in khadi coat, dhoti and cap. From then on he always wore khadi. His wife and children did the same. He and his family also took to spinning everyday.

As his biographer, what do you find extraordinary about his life?

His life was extraordinary in many ways. The most remarkable trait of his personality was perhaps his empathy for those who needed help. For example, when his father gave him money to start a business, he used it to start a Neighbourhood House in Philadelphia where the poorest boys of the area were taught skills like carpentry so that they could earn a living.

It was the same when he came to India. He was always willing to share what he had with those who had less.

His intolerance of any kind of discrimination and injustice and his quest to remedy it wherever he found it led him to fight against begar and join India's freedom struggle.

Your mother was his eldest daughter. What stories did she tell you of your grandfather?

My mother did tell me many stories about her father which reflect the kind of person he was. I have included all this information in the book. For example, she told me that she and her brothers and sisters always dressed very simply, just like the other village children.

She said her father would not encourage or even allow his daughters to wear fancy clothes or jewellery because the village girls could not afford to wear them.

'How would they feel seeing you dressed up in such finery?' he would tell them.

Did he speak Hindi well?

Yes, he spoke Hindi well even though his accent remained foreign. In fact, he started learning the language soon after he arrived in India in 1904 to work in a leper home in Subathu in the Simla Hills.

The motivation came from his desire to interact with the patients at the Leper Home and with other locals who only spoke in the pahari dialect or in Hindustani. Knowing the language helped him in coming closer to the ordinary people.

He was a great advocate of Hindi and encouraged his children to speak in Hindi rather than in English. He himself spoke with them in Hindi. He was also in favour of first making children proficient in Hindi and only then teaching them other languages like English.

In his own Tara School in Kotgarh, all teaching was done in Hindi for the first few years. English was introduced only in the 4th, 5th class.

He also learnt Sanskrit in his later life. His interest in Sanskrit grew from his interest in Indian religious philosophy. After studying the English translations of the Upanishads he wanted to study the original texts and hence learnt Sanskrit.

Did he like being called by his Indian name Satyanand or was he called Samuel too?

I do not know if he liked being called Satyanand or not, but I presume he must have.

In my interviews with his contemporaries in Kotgarh, I saw that he was addressed in several different ways -- Sahibji, Stokes Sahib, Satyanandji and even Mr Stokes. For the locals, the affectionate name for him was Sahibji.

Samuel Stokes in Himachal Pradesh

IMAGE: Samuel Stokes teaches an outdoor class in Shimla in 1930. Photograph, kind courtesy: Asha Sharma

Did he miss anything about Philadelphia?

He did miss Philadelphia especially at first -- not the place so much as his family and friends.

In his early letters he often wrote of how home-sick he was and wanted to meet everyone. But this changed with the passing of time and with his involvement in his work.

But he remained connected with his American roots through his correspondence with his mother.

What was it about India that never made him never want to leave? I believe he never went back to America after making one trip with his wife very early on in their marriage.

He seemed to have fallen in love with India and its people from the time he landed here. When he left home in Februray 1904, his parents had hoped that he would return home after a year or two.

But this did not happen as within months of his living in India he decided to remain here permanently. While the beauty of the Himalayas was a strong attraction for him it was the simple, trusting pahari people who truly won his heart.

He did go back to America a few times during the early years, but after his marriage in 1912, he went only once. He was keen for his wife to get to meet and know his mother and other members of his family when he took her and their infant son to Philadelphia for an extended visit in early 1914.

They stayed there for about a year-and-a-half. He could never return to Philadelphia after that. He was too involved with Indian affairs, both national and local. Also traveling with his large family was unaffordable for him. But his mother came to India twice to visit him.

His brother also came a couple of times.

How has India preserved and honoured his memory and contribution to India's freedom struggle?

Hardly -- only his photograph hangs in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi beside those of other national leaders of the freedom struggle. As a result the younger generation do not know much about him at all.

This is perhaps due to the fact that he passed away just before India became independent. Even in his lifetime very little was known about my grandfather's life even though he had done so much for the country.

Most people knew he introduced the American Delicious apples in the Simla Hills, but that is about all. Even the family did not know much about his other accomplishments. We had heard, of course, that he knew Gandhiji well and went to jail during the freedom struggle, but that is all.

There were occasional articles, but they did not add too much. When I began researching the book, I discovered a wealth of information about his life -- the hardships he went through and the sacrifices he made in the service of the country.

I hope that he will get his due recognition. How and when that will happen I do not know. But I do know that many of those who have read his life story are over-awed and feel the richer for having read it. They invariably ask why there is no mention of him anywhere among other freedom fighters.

What drew him to be a part of India's struggle for freedom?

The brutality of Jallianwala Bagh and the treatment of Punjab in its aftermath affected him deeply and made him join the struggle for freedom from British rule.

Mr Stokes responded to Gandhiji's Non-Cooperation Movement. Do you have any letters by him that reveal what it must have been in those days?

He made a compilation of excerpts from his letters for his children and grandchildren which give a fare account of his life in India. The letters reflect his thinking and also describe the situation in the country at that time.

About how was it being an American fighting for India's freedom?

He identified himself as an Indian, so this was not an issue.

I understand he was a prolific writer.

He was a prolific writer. He wrote letters, journals, newspaper articles as well as a number of books. What struck me most was his determination and truthfulness in all he did. There were no compromises in his life. He was very hardworking and continued to work till the end of his life -- even when he was in poor health.

His papers are with members of the family and some are also in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

Was he the only foreigner to be imprisoned for sedition in India's struggle for freedom? What were his days in prison like? I understand he refused to be put in a cell set aside for Europeans.

I do not know about other foreigners, but he was the only American to be imprisoned during India's freedom struggle.

It is true that he did not want to stay in a European cell. He said he was an Indian and wanted to be treated as such. He requested for a change of his cell, but the administration did not agree.

He had arrived in India as a Christian missionary to work in a leper home and spread the word of Christianity, but ultimately converted to Hinduism. What brought about that transformation?

One of the chapters in my book is titled 'Came to teach and stayed to learn.' It describes his spiritual journey. Though he spent the greater part of his life fighting for justice and the rights of the common man he was also a seeker of truth.

In that sense his life was also a spiritual journey in which he was willing to take the best of what he found along the way. Thus when he discovered that there was a lot to learn from ancient Hindu scriptures he began to study these in earnest. He even learnt Sanskrit so that he could read some of the original texts in the language.

There was no conflict in his mind about religion as he found much in common between Vedanta and his own Quaker beliefs. His conversion had more to do with his family and social concerns than with religion.

Did he build a temple? Is it still there?

Yes, he built a temple near his home in Kotgarh. It is called Paramjyotir Mandir (temple of eternal light). It is a small, simple, temple built in keeping with local architectural style.

The temple has wooden panels engraved with shlokas from the Vedas engraved on them.

It was Stokes' hope that the temple would become 'a means to show the way to those looking for peace and internal strength, more so during times of difficulties and trials.'

'It is my prayer that the temple and this little booklet may bring peace to many,' he wrote in a booklet when the temple was completed.

Mr Stokes brought apples to Himachal and brought in a revolution. How difficult was it for him to do this? How is he remembered by the orchard-owning families and farmers of the region?

He was struck by the extreme poverty of the local people and wanted to help them in whatever way he could. Once he settled in, the area finding a solution to the poverty of the people became a top priority for him. The answer to his search came in the form of apples.

Some British variety of apples were already growing in the region, but they were not good in taste and were not popular, so he knew he would have to find a new strain of apples which would be commercially viable.

During a visit to Philadelphia in 1914 he studied apple growing in America and also brought some apple cuttings with him on his return which he planted near his house. In the following years he imported and experimented with over 33 varieties of apples to determine which would be most suitable for the area.

Finally, he selected the American Delicious variety which had already proved a success in America. He first planted the trees on his own land and only when he was satisfied with the results did he encourage others to do the same.

But persuading farmers to switch to apples was not easy because of the long gestation period of apple trees, and though he distributed free saplings and offered to help the farmers to grow and nurture them, their response was very discouraging.

But he persisted in his efforts and slowly the people began to be convinced. Once the apple trees started bearing fruit, there was no turning back and many farmers became enthusiastic about growing apples. The rest is history!

Is there a statue/memorial in his remembrance in Kotgarh? How have his memories and his contribution to India been preserved and remembered?

A Stokes Memorial Farmer's Community Centre was built in Kotgarh in 1974. A bust of Stokes was installed in it subsequently.

Are there any anecdotes about him that have been passed down in the family that you can share?

We were always hearing stories about him like the time he lived as a sadhu in a cave and had two snakes as pets and when he slept in the cremation ground one night to prove to the villagers that they should not be afraid of the dead.

How does the American part of the family remember him?

The American branch of the family remember him with great pride and affection. Some distant cousins have visited Kotgarh.

How is he best remembered by family and the families of acquaintances that knew him or knew of him?

I have heard of the free dispensary he ran in his house and of the way he tried to educate people about basic health care; of instances when he rushed the critically ill to Simla in his own dandi or in hired rickshaws, or brought in specialists doctors from the plains to fight epidemics in the area, all at his own expense.

What was forced labour begar in those days like and how did it move him so much to be a part of the campaign to end it?

He was largely responsible for getting begar or impressed labour abolished in the Simla Hills. Begar was a system under which villagers were obliged to provide services to traveling officials and others either free or for a pittance.

The practice was not only demeaning for them, but it also affected their livelihood as the farmers were often called in for begar during planting or harvesting times, and they lost their crops in the bargain.

Some begar, like the dak begar was dreaded most by the villagers as they had to walk long distances in the cold and snow to distribute letters in different villages and many villagers lost their lives.

When Stokes saw this injustice he decided to fight it tooth and nail. He criticised the practice in the press and complained against it to the British administration. When despite all his efforts no action was taken he decided to get the villagers together and protest against the injustice.

This organised resistance to the practice -- a kind of Satyagraha was Stokes' first battle against the British administration and brought him into the limelight and drew the attention of Mahatma Gandhi and other Indian leaders.

Would you have any idea of how the British in India thought of him?

Some Britishers admired and respected him. Others couldn't stand him. He had many British friends and could count on their support when it came to getting any kind of help for the local people. However, the British administration had very early noted his empathy for Indians and had kept a watch on him.

The CID had a special file on him even though he did not know about it.

Get Rediff News in your Inbox:
Archana Masih /
India Votes 2024

India Votes 2024