The SAADA 2020 calendar began January with a striking image. It was taken by photographer Augustus Sherman in 1911, part of a series depicting new Ellis Island arrivals. We don’t know much at all about the boy in the picture. Titled “Hindoo boy”, the subject is identified in Peter Mesenhöller’s “Augustus F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920” (c1905) p.94 from another print that bears a caption: Thumbu Sammy, aged 17, Hindoo ex SS ‘Adriatic’, April 14, 1911.
Who was this boy, I wonder? He’s well dressed. Look at the gold-trimmed cap, the diamond earring, and the shawl wrapped about his shoulders. What would have sent a 17-year-old around the world on the SS Adriatic in 1911? Here was what happened in 1911 in his native India:
- A census “beset with special difficulties”
- An outbreak of plague
- The world’s first airmail delivery–yes, really
- A prohibition of Indian migration to Natal, South Africa
- A grand Durbar, a celebration of Empire, attended by King George V and Queen Mary
I wonder, was it plague that drove the boy? Or was he part of a resistance to British rule so he had to leave? Or was his wealthy family interested in sending him to an American university? And what became of him? Where did he go from Ellis Island in 1911? Where did he live and die? Is there anyone today who counts him among their ancestors?
So many unknowns. And a photographer who caught a face, a posture, and those remarkable details of clothing and jewelry and hair.