If we are strong, and have faith in life and its richness of surprises, and hold the rudder steadily in our hands. I am sure we will sail into quiet and pleasant waters for our old age, said the famous British travel writer, Freya Stark. And so did think the 376 passengers aboard the Japanese ship liner, the Komagata Maru. The journey from India to Vancouver and the unfortunate events that followed at Burrard Inlet from May 23rd to July 23rd, 1914 made the ship Komagata Maru engrave its name as part of the history of struggles for justice and freedom in the world. 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus chartered the Komagata Maru to sail from one corner of the British empire, Hong Kong, to the furthest corner of the British empire, Vancouver, Canada. There was nothing that could have stopped those men, as they were strong, had faith in life and were prepared for any surprises in the hopes that they would be welcomed as common British subjects upon their arrival in Vancouver. However, the news that was reflected in the papers was different and demonstrated the image of Canada during the time.
The Vancouver newspaper, “The Daily Province,” published news reports under the heading of “Boat Loads of Hindus on Way to Vancouver” and “Hindu Invasion of Canada.” The British Columbia authorities instantly reacted by claiming that “Hindus would never be allowed to land in Canada.” Though the common reference of “Hindu” was used, an ignorance of the nuances of the peoples of India led most newspapers and Canadians to confuse Sikhs as Hindus. And so the term Hindu became an all encompassing word for any migrant from India although the majority of these men were Sikh. According to a 1900 census, although these ‘brown men’ of South Asian descent in Canada were only 2000 in numbers, it was considered enough forsuch men to have a political and economic say in Canada.
Increasing numbers of these men meant for white Canadians that their jobs would be taken over in factories, mills and lumber yards. It was these insecurities which led British Columbia to pass stringent laws discouraging the immigration of Indians to Canada. One such law required all Indians migrating to have at least $200 to enter British Columbia (and at an average par rate of $.10 per day this was a real task). In 1908, the Federal government passed into Law the now infamous “Continuous Passage” Act which stated that Indians would have to come to Canada via direct passage from India. This meant that the migrants from India were free to come from India to Canada, but only on a ‘through’ ship, and there were no ‘through’ ships then. Also, considering the distance from India to Canada by boat and the average income of those Indians living in India, the rules and laws were obvious discriminatory in nature, and meant to stint Indian migration to Canada.
Gurdit Singh, the harbinger of the Komagata Maru, in response to the racially motivated restrictions put on by the Canadian authorities, reacted vehemently, declaring that “We are British citizens and we consider we have a right to visit any part of the Empire.” Gurdit went on to claim, “We are determined to make this a test case and if we are refused entrance into your country, the matter will not end here.” Who was this courageous Gurdit Singh who thought of challenging this law and what were his reasons to sail to Canada? Was he a refugee trying to flee his own country? Or was he economically deprived and wanted to sail to the green pastures of Canada? Gurdit Singh was a fairly well-off Sikh who lived in Hong Kong. As such, he could afford to charter a Japanese steam liner, which was specially converted to accommodate passengers instead of its usual coal cargoes. Once he had engaged the Komagata Maru, and accommodated it enough to handle passengers of a larger capacity, Gurdit Singh began selling tickets to sail to Canada.
Two days before the scheduled departure date, Gurdit Singh was arrested by Hong Kong Police for selling tickets for an illegal voyage. The ship was placed under police guard. On March 24, 1914, the governor of Hong Kong, who had known Gurdit Singh in Malaysia, released him from custody and granted him leave to sail to Canada on April 4. Gurdit Singh was a man who was on a mission to challenge discriminatory laws adopted by the Canadian government against the Asian community.
Joined by 150 Sikh passengers, the ship upped its anchor that very day. The ship made stops in Shanghai, Moji and Yokohama where more would-be immigrants were picked up. When the Komagata Maru made it to Shanghai, a German cable company sent a message to the German press announcing the departure of the steamer Komagata Maru from Shanghai for Vancouver on April 14 with “400 Indians on board”. Eventually, this news was picked up by the British press. The news of its departure had also reached the British Columbia authorities. Their instant reaction was that “Hindus would never be allowed to land in Canada.” Those Indians who had already settled in Canada had also started to prepare for the arrival of the Komagata Maru. Local meetings were held in the Gurdwaras concerning what actions to take. Indeed, the Indian community came together as provisions were collected to help the passengers upon their arrival in Vancouver. The entire Indian community in Canada united to fight the opposition. On May 23, 1914, the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver and anchored near Burrard Inlet.
One day prior to the arrival of the ship, the then Premier of British Columbia, Sir Richard Mc Bride made the following statement: “To admit Orientals in large numbers would mean the end, the extinction of the white people. And we always have in mind the necessity of keeping this a white man’s country.” Edward Bird, the Barrister who was hired by a committee of 15 local Indians (referred to as the Shore Committee) to represent the passengers aboard the Komagata Maru, asked Immigration Inspector Malcolm Reid for permission to go to the ship and talk to his client Gurdit Singh. This simple and obviously necessary request was denied. A meeting was held to discuss the Komagata Maru, in which over 500 Indians, of which there were a group of 20 Caucasians as well, as well as reporters and immigration staff attended. $5,000 dollars was raised and another $66,000 pledged in support of the passengers. Meanwhile, on-board the Komagata Maru, Gurdit Singh and all the other Indian passengers commenced a hunger strike to protest their treatment and sent messages to the King of England and the Governor General of Canada, declaring that “no provisions…. passengers starving…. kept prisoners.”
The Shore committee sent several tonnes of food to the passengers. Reid adjourned the Board of Inquiry with the excuse that the staff needed to attend to regular office work. The Khalsa Diwan Society of Vancouver and the United India League called another meeting in support of the Komagata Maru. Over 400 Indians and 125 whites attended the meeting. After nearly a month of proceedings back and forth, and as those aboard the Komagata Maru were forced to suffer and wait patiently, a meeting was held by the opponents of the Komagata Maru. Harry Stevens M.P. was the main speaker representing these Canadians opposing the rights of the Indians. Although a delegation of Sikhs attempted to take part in this large meeting, they were refused entry. Some of these Sikhs were even hustled away and abused by the police. Reid wired Ottawa to ask permission to put the passengers of the Komagata Maru forcibly on the S.S. Empress of India sailing at 11 am the next day. The Prime Minister Rober L.Borden rejected the plan.
Meanwhile, the passengers of the ship wired the following message to the Governor General expressing the unbearable conditions they were being forced to live under while all the deliberations and squabbles continued: “Many requests to the Immigration Department for water but useless, better order to shoot us than this miserable treatment.” The court of Appeal upheld the Anti-Asian Order-in-Council. A test case of one of the passengers Munshi Singh was dismissed. Clearance and deportation papers were delivered to the passengers as Reid decided to use force to expel the Komagata Maru at 1:15 AM.
As such, the Sea Lion, alongside 160 Police and Immigration officers attempted to board the Komagata Maru. The passengers resisted and the Sea Lion was forced to retreat. MP Stevens wired this information to Prime Minister Borden, claiming that “The Hindus on ship apparently desperately revolutionary and determined to defy law. Absolutely necessary that strong stand be taken and would urge that Rainbow or some Naval Department vassal be detailed to take charge of situation.” Prime Minister Borden then made the HCMS warship called the Rainbow available. 204 militia men prepared to board the Komagata Maru to once again use brute force on the already weakened Indians aboard the Komagata Maru. The Rainbow, a naval ship, anchored a few hundred yards southwest of the Komagata Maru. The guns of the Rainbow were uncovered as thousand of people gathered on shore to watch the events.
The new Royal Canadian Navy—in its first official task—tried forcing Komagata Maru back to the shores of India. However, an agreement was reached between the officials and passengers. It was decided that the Government would agree to send provisions to the ship in return of which, the Komagata Maru would agree to return to India. The anchor of the Komagata Maru was thus raised. The Komagata Maru left Vancouver Harbour. The Rainbow and the (tug boat) Sea Lion followed the Komagata Maru out to the sea. This tumultuous stay of the Komagata Maru in Vancouver became a black spot in Canada’s history. For two months the passengers of the Komagata Maru, the Indians in British Columbia, and the authorities of British Columbia were involved in a heated legal battle.
All but 20 passengers (those who already had resident status) were refused permission to leave the ship. The agony of the passengers of Komagata Maru did not end even after they left Vancouver. As the Komagata Maru approached Calcutta on 26th September, 1914, a European gunboat signaled the ship to stop. The ship was put under guard and all the passengers were held as prisoners. On September 29th, 1914, at 11 am the Komagata Maru reached the town of Budge Budge, which was 27 Kilometers from Calcutta where the passengers were forced to come ashore the ship. The port officials called additional police and military to enforce the order amongst passengers who then were interested to go to Calcutta. Some of them wished to place the holy Sikh text, the Guru Granth Sahib at the Gurdwara (Sikh temple) there.
Consequently, this resulted in riots where the police used brutal force in addition to shooting the innocent people, and of the 321 passengers on the ship at Budge Budge, 62 left for Punjab, 20 passengers died, one drowned, 9 were hospitalized, 202 jailed and 28 remained unaccounted for. A number of passengers, including Gurdit Singh, escaped. Gurdit Singh lived in hiding until 1922 until he was urged by Gandhi to give himself up as a true patriot. He was imprisoned for five years upon his doing so. Thus was the tragic end of the passengers of the Komagata Maru freedom fighters.
Ninety three years later, on May 23rd, 2007, at Bear Creek Park, the harbingers of the effort to keep the Komagata Maru history alive among us and our future generations, shared historical news with the public. The Sea Lion, the tug boat which was used by the immigration officers and the police authorities had been brought over by the men of our own community. It will no longer fear of dying in some docks, because it will live forever, as if blessed for associating itself with South Asian community. This tug boat, which was used to suppress Komagata Maru freedom fighters, will exist to tell the tale of tyranny and suppression which was once a political reality within Canadian ideology.
Harbhajan Singh Gill of the Komagata Maru Foundation said that it is time that all of us belonging to the South Asian community unite to make Komagata Maru, “Guru Nanak Jahaz” a symbol of shared South Asian heritage. Gill further added that today’s Canada is a country where diversity is celebrated. Canada of today is governed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He pointed to the fact that it is time to ask for an apology for the Komagata Maru incident from the Canadian government. He added that this is the chance to weaken the grip of the dark spot in Canada’s history and that the Canadian government should come forward and apologize. This meeting was very well attended by people from all walks of life. The meeting not only enlightened those present about the unfortunate incident, which it is indeed, but also gave direction to the manner in which this historic incident should be preserved in Canadian history and taught to the future generations.
It is important for Canadians to be aware of the Canada left far behind and the Canada we embrace today, through this saga of the Komagata Maru! -Written by Rishi Singh as seen in “Darpan Magazine,” issue July/August 2007
In 2021, the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley launched an exhibit (one permanent in the exterior and temporary on the inside), on the story of the Komagata Maru. This exhibit, located at the Sikh Heritage Museum, National Historic Site and Gur Sikh Temple, is based on a partnership with the Vancouver Maritime Museum and is from their 2014 exhibit.
A short film as part of the South Asian Canadian Legacy Project’s South Asian Historic Sites of Significance in BC, Canada.
Historica Canada published a detailed video on the history of the Komagata Maru and Sikh settler experience in May, 2021 to commemorate 107 years on the day the ship arrived on the shores of Burrard Inlet. The video can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZyvg_87e6o
Credits: Scriptwriter – Paneet Singh Illustrator – Angela Aujla Produced by Bonfire Originals Family photos provided by Jagdish Kaur Aujla This project has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada.
“The Voyage of No Return” is an online video created by Barrett and Welsh for the Sikh Heritage Museum Canada. It tells the tragic story of the Komagata Maru.