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A Quaker in Himachal Pradesh

Samuel in 1904

Samuel Evans Stokes, Jr. was born on 16 August 1882 in Philadelphia, PA into a wealthy and distinguished Quaker family. His father, Samuel Evans Stokes, Sr., was an engineer, the holder of numerous patents, a successful businessman, a pioneer in elevators in America and the founder-proprietor of the Stokes and Parish Machine Company. Samuel attended the Mohegan Lake Military Academy and, upon graduation, enrolled at Cornell University. The intention was for young Samuel to learn the business and eventually take over. However, Samuel was not interested in that; he desired to do a great good with his life instead.

On 9 January 1904, he set out for India from Philadelphia aboard the Haverford. It was a cold and dreary day, but his parents and siblings were there to support him and see him on his way.

Six months earlier he had met Dr. Marcus Bradford Carleton who headed the Leprosy Home at Sabathu, a small town of Punjab in the Shimla Hills. Dr. Carleton was home for a visit and influenced Samuel with the description of his work at the leper home and the dire need for dedicated workers. It was then that Samuel decided to join the small band of workers and help Dr. Carleton in India. His parents, understandably, were initially disappointed with his decision. They were worried that he would get leprosy and never return. Since Samuel was going in a voluntary position, he did not have any means of support so his father decided to give him $500 a year, in quarterly installments, for five years. His father was certain that by the end of that time, Samuel would return home and settle down.

After crossing the Atlantic, Samuel spent some time in England and Scotland before his next voyage on the Olympia. Samuel arrived in Bombay on 26 February 1904. His work with the Mission started at Subathu in the Shimli District at the foothills of the Himalayas. The city of Shimla, at the time, was the summer capital of the British Raj. In the summer, Dr. Carleton sent Samuel to Kotgarh, a little hamlet about 50 miles beyond Shimla on the old Hindustan-Tibet Road. He had to walk to Kotgarh since there was no road suitable for automobiles. When he arrived, it was love at first site. He found the area captivating, exploring the surrounding hills and the trail that was the road and soon found himself in love with nature. He decided to spend rest of his life at Thanedar, called the "Mistress of the Northern Hills" by Rudyard Kipling.

Once Samuel's parents realized that the trip filled a deep emotional need in their son, they financed his stay. Samuel would use the funds to help both the lepers and the local villagers. Dr. Carleton was extremely pleased with the young American volunteer and entrusted him to perform some elementary surgical procedures.

As time went by, disillusionment began to set in. Samuel noticed a wide gap between what missionaries preached and practiced. Although the locals extended to him due respect as a "white sahib" and behaved deferentially, there was no emotional empathy. "There seems to be an invisible barrier that stands in the way of any unaffected natural relationship," he had once noted. How could the villagers think he was one of their own if he did not appear or talk like them? Convinced that his western clothes and alien customs were the problem, he decided to forsake them. He began to pick up the Pahari dialect of Hindi and even traded his western clothes for the local dress. Being raised a Quaker, Samuel was drawn to the asceticism that is exalted in Indian spirituality and began living a simple, frugal life among the villagers.

A few years later, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was visiting the Viceroy at Shimla heard of the leper colony and was impressed. He encouraged Samuel to form an order of Franciscan Friars, an order of monkhood committed to living in poverty and aiding the diseased and dying. Samuel formed such an order, but his membership in this wandering brotherhood of monks lasted only two years.

In 1912, Samuel fell in love with Agnes Benjamin, a local girl and daughter of a first-generation Christian. They were married on 12 September of that year. He gave up his life of poverty, purchased some farmland near his wife's village and settled there. He built a western-influenced, two-story house on the ridge above Thanedar and named it "Harmony Hall" after his family's home in Moorestown, NJ. Samuel and Agnes would have seven children.

Agnes, Samuel and son Prem

Samuel adopted the lifestyle of a local farmer. Initially, he tried to grow wheat and barley, as well as vegetables like peas, beans, potatoes, and cabbages. He would often relax in the evening with a hookah.

During a visit to America in 1915, Samuel heard about a new strain of apples patented by the Stark Brothers Nursery in Louisiana called Red Delicious. He bought a few saplings and planted them at his orchard in Thanedar in the winter of 1916. Five years later, his mother sent him a consignment of saplings of the Stark Brothers Golden Delicious Apples as a Christmas gift. The first apples bore fruit a few years later and were sold in 1926.

Previously, in 1870, Captain R. C. Scot of the British Army had introduced the Newton Pippin, King of Pippin and the Cox's Orange Pippin apples to the Kullu valley. But they were not popular because of their sour and tangy taste. Indians were used to traditional fruits lie mangoes and preferred something sweeter. During those days, sweet apples were imported from Japan to meet the demand of the Indian market.

Samuel's apples, however, were an instant success. The divinely sweet taste and the inviting color had the Indian market going crazy over them. Their popularity even spurred locals into planting apples, rather than their usual crops of potato and plums. Soon the demand for the Kotgarh apples sky-rocketed and orchards cropped up all over the valley of Himachal Pradesh, to meet this demand. It was from those first few saplings that the sweet delicious Apples of Shimla and the Golden Delicious of Kinnaur became popular and Himachal Pradesh grew to become one of the largest producers of the fruit.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, also known as the Armritsar massacre, occurred on 13 April 1919 in which British troops opened fire on a largely peaceful crowd. The order was given by Brigadier General R.E.H. Dyer, who, without warning the crowd to disperse, blocked the main exits. Dyer ordered his troops to begin shooting toward the densest sections of the crowd in front of the available narrow exits, where panicked crowds were trying to leave the Bagh (garden). Firing continued for approximately ten minutes. Unarmed civilians including men, women, elderly people and children were killed. Cease-fire was ordered only when ammunition supplies were almost exhausted. Dyer later stated that this act "was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience." About 400 people were killed and 1,500 wounded.

Samuel had been aware of the unfair rule of the British and had previously opposed the "impressed labor" policy, known as "Begar", where men were forced into unpaid labor by the British to work on public services and utilities. He became more politically active after the massacre. He was inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi during the Indian Independence Movement and only wore khadi, the hand-spun and woven natural fiber cloth Gandhi promoted as self-sufficiency for the freedom struggle of the Indian people.

In December 1920, Samuel was a delegate from Kotgarh to the All India Congress Committee session in Nagpur; the only American to have had this unique distinction. He met Gandhi and became a close associate of his, but disagreed on several points and, after the Nagpur Congress, Samuel said: "I have argued with him (Gandhi) by the hour, but can no more convince him than he does me."

On 4 October 1921, leaders from all parts of India gathered at Bombay's Laburnum Road for an important meeting presided over by Gandhi. The outcome was a manifesto calling for every Indian soldier and civilian to sever his connection with the government and find some other means of livelihood. The manifesto was signed by Gandhi and forty-seven other leading nationalists. Samuel was the only foreigner who signed it. It would become one of the most important documents in the history of India's struggle for freedom.

When Edward VIII, the Prince of Wales, was scheduled to visit in 1921, the British Indian administration and the Congress party naturally took contrarian positions. A meeting of the Punjab Provincial Congress Committee (PPCC) was scheduled for the afternoon of 3 December. Samuel was on his way to Lahore to attend the meeting when he was arrested at Wagah. The charge against him was sedition and promoting hatred between different classes of His Majesty’s subjects. One of the "seditious" documents found in his home was a copy of the Declaration of Independence, which the British police considered as particularly insulting to the British government. He was offered bail but he turned it down. By that afternoon, most key members of the PPCC were also arrested.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869 - 1948)

Gandhi called Samuel's arrest a "unique move on the part of the government" in a front page article in Young India. Gandhi continued: "That he should feel with and like an Indian, share his sorrows, and throw himself into the struggle, has proved too much for the government. To leave him free to criticize the government was intolerable, so his white skin has proved no protection for him...."

He was tried and sentenced to six months in the Lahore jail. Far away in the United States, the news of the Samuel’s arrest was headlined in several newspapers including The Philadelphia Ledger , The New York Times and many others. He was the only American to become a political prisoner of Great Britain during India's struggle for freedom.

Samuel wrote to his mother that he was a "guest" of the British government. When interviewed about his incarceration, she said: "It is distressing, of course, to think of one's son in prison, but, after all, it is merely a political arrest, and I know that Samuel is the sort that will gladly bear that and more for what he believes to be right."

In 1924, Samuel started a school, where he taught the children of local villagers. He taught Hindi, English, Religion, Horticulture, and self-defense. The main focus of the school was to educate girls.

Teaching Prem, two local students and Agnes

While fighting for the Independence of India, he was also had struggles in his personal life. His son Tara died at the age of 8 due to amoebic dysentery. Unable to deal with the loss, he decided to take refuge in religion. One of the most interesting aspects of his life was the “gradual evolution of his religious beliefs” that made him increasingly interested in Hindu philosophy. He converted to Hinduism in 1932 and changed his name to Satyanand Stokes; Agnes changed her name to Priyadevi.

Satyanand Stokes in his later years

The leader and social reformer died on 14 May 1946 at Shimla after an extended illness. Ironically India’s top leaders were gathered there, discussing India’s future constitutional framework with the visiting Cabinet Mission from England. His was a death unwept and unsung. He was cremated in Shimla and his ashes later taken to Kotgarh. He did not live to see the Indian independence.

He dedicated his life selflessly to the economic and social upliftment of the people of Kotgarh, Shimla. Not only did he introduce apple farming in the region, but he also struggled for the freedom of India. He was an idealist, rebel, visionary, social reformer and political worker.


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