The farmers movement
has transformed tractors into vehicles of protest. This has happened elsewhere – in France and the Netherlands, for example, where tractor protests have jammed roads. And in 1978-9, protesting American farmers lead ‘Tractorades’ on Washington DC.
But the use of tractors has been particularly striking in the current agitation, not least on Republic Day when they were vividly juxtaposed with the Indian Army’s tanks rolling in the official parade. The tanks and tractors, thankfully, never came into conflict, but it was an odd reminder of how their history is linked.
It is a history that also interlinks with a global history of Sikh lead protests. The point where these histories come together is Stockton, a city in California at the edge of the fertile Central Valley where the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers meet through many waterways to form the California Delta region.
Benjamin Holt arrived there in the 1880s to set up a wheel-making company. This led him to devise machines, like early versions of combine harvesters and tractors that could be rolled out to work in farms. These were initially horse drawn, but then used engines, steam powered at first, and then by coal and oil.
But they all shared one problem – their wheels sank in the moist Delta soil. Holt realised that using tracks that the wheels turned in a continuous loop would distribute the weight and stop them sinking. In effect, the tracks provided their own surface for the machines to move on, even on rough ground or muddy terrain.
It is unclear if Holt devised this solution himself or appropriated concepts others had come up with earlier. But his were the first track mounted machines to become a commercial success, and his company also came up with the term ‘caterpillar’ term to describe their movement. He trademarked this in 1910 and renamed the company Caterpillar Tractors in 1925 (it is the giant Caterpillar Inc. corporation today).
Historian Reynold M Wik noted in an essay in Agricultural History magazine that a Hungarian engineer named Leo Steiner was the first to see the battlefield potential of Caterpillar tractors. He tried to show the Austro-Hungarian military how they could pull artillery guns, but they ignored him, which would later prove to be an immense historical mistake. But then even the American military was uninterested when Holt approached them, believing that mules could do the job.
The breakthrough came with the British. In 1915, after suffering huge losses in the early years of the First World War, the British were desperately looking for ways to move artillery guns rapidly in the mud of the battlefields. Mules and horses were easily killed, and even men in exposed vehicles were sniper targets.
In July 1914, Colonel ED Swinton, a British officer who had been born in Bangalore, received a letter from a friend describing a Caterpillar tractor. Swinton realised this could be the basis for a fully armoured vehicle that could operate in rough terrain and carry a mounted gun. This became the basis for the first tanks and provided the British with a crucial advantage in the battles ahead.
Holt’s company would provide 2100 track mounted tractors to the British army and in 1918 Swinton visited Stockton to express their appreciation. He told Caterpillar’s workers that their tractors were vital to winning the war. Later on, they would be used for the bulldozers that would become crucial in World War II. Wik writes that “Admiral William F Halsey in 1945 stated that the four machines which won the war in the Pacific were the submarine, the airplane, radar and the tractor bulldozer.”
Stockton is also where the Sikhs come in. Between 1899 and 1914, an estimated 6,800 South Asians came to the American West, mostly Sikh farmers from the Punjab. They were driven out of India by the same problems of declining farm size and rising debts that bedevil the farmers today. They heard of the fertile lands of California where their skills could be used and came to settle around the Central Valley. Stockton was where they built the first gurdwara in the USA, which opened in 1912.
These Sikh farmers would definitely have used Holt’s tractors, but their interests weren’t limited to farming. Jawala Singh, who became a successful potato farmer and one of the founders of the Gurdwara Sahib Stockton, would also become one of the founders of the Ghadar Party, a movement of expatriate Indians to protest British rule in India and work for revolution. Ghadar was one of the first modern examples of Punjabi lead political protest, and it shows how deep the links lie between Sikh farmers, tractors and even tanks.