New children’s book tells the story of Sikh hawkers in Australia

“Annie and Arthur have been eagerly awaiting Bhagwan Singh’s next visit. What wondrous things will he have in his cart this time, among the silk and soap, spices and shirts? As the hawker makes his camp for the night, the children savour spun sugar and food from the Punjab, discovering the secret star anise.”

A new children’s illustrated book, Star of Anise by Jane Jolly and Di Wu tells the tale Sikh hawker in Australia in the late 1800s.

This book is published by National Library of Australia.

“Woo! Hoo! I have been waiting a long time for this book, so it will be very exciting to see it in real life. Can’t wait,” notes author Jane Jolly on her blog.

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During the 1800s, there were an estimated 2,000-3,000 hawkers in Australia.

Many of the early hawkers in Australia were Europeans.

Later, British Indian ‘hawkers’ who were mostly Punjabis acted as intermediary salesmen to isolated farms in Australia by delivering supplies.

Before Federation in 1901, these British Indian subjects could move freely into Australia. 

Some of the hawkers were able to spin sugar, like fairy floss and often brought small gifts for the children living in faraway stations.

Len Kenna and Crystal Jordan who are the founders of the Australian Indian Historical Society Inc.

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According to them, “Indian Hawkers supplied a large range of items used in everyday life for people in cities and towns throughout Australia.”

In 2016, Len and Crystal located and purchased a rare 19th Century original Indian Hawker’s Wagon with an intention to restore it to its original state.

WATCH VIDEO: Australian Indian History – Meer Singh’s Wagon

The inside of an Indian hawker’s wagon was often crammed with shelves and racks carrying for sale jackets, flannel shirts, singlets, socks, night dress, boots, flour, butter, sugar, oil, baking powder, combs, scissors, shaving requisites, talcum powder, soap, perfumes, necklaces and medicines.

Charles Sturt University (CSU) Cultural heritage expert Professor Dirk Spennemann painstakingly gathered the stories of Punjabis to trace their impact on the rural landscape of colonial Australia.

“The hawkers faced marginalisation and racial prejudice. … But despite the racism, the hawkers made a living because they provided a vital intermediary service between country towns and outlying farms,” Professor Dirk Spennemann observes in the CSU blog post.

In December 1901, with the enactment of the Immigration Restriction Act, also known as the White Australia Policy, the doors were shut for the Indian hawkers.

Well-known Australian author Patrick White in his book The Aunt’s Story (1948) gives us a glimpse into the excitement of a hawker’s arrival:

“It was exciting as the cart grated through the yard. Turkeys gobbled. Dogs barked. The day was changed, which once had been flat as a pastry board. Now it was full of talk, and laughing … Now there was no question of work.”

Western Australia has introduced the history of Punjabi hawkers in its Year 5 history book: ‘Sikh and Indian Australians Learning sequence 3: Stepping into the daily life of the Indian hawker in the colonies’.

However, the contribution of the humble Indian hawkers have gone mostly unrecognized in Australia’s mainstream narrative.

It is hoped that this new illustrated book will enlighten the children on the contribution of Indians to Australia’s economy, society and culture.