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It is one of the darkest chapters in Canadian history, when a group of people were looking for a better life and were turned away by the government simply because of the country they came from.
It is the Komagata Maru, and it was an event that typified Canada’s racist immigration policies of the early 20th century.
Before the Komagata Maru arrived, there were several thousand South Asians located in Canada, mostly in British Columbia. Working in Canada, they found that their wages were higher than what they would make in India and they began to encourage their friends and family to migrate to Canada to join them.
Even though there was only a few thousand South Asians and Punjabis in Canada at the time, there was a severe negative reaction to them in Canada. Vigorous campaigns were launched to stop immigration from places like Southeast Asia and India.
Responding to this, Canada stopped immigration from those places in 1908, which was followed two years later by the United States.
Under regulations imposed by Canada, anyone who did not take a continuous journey from their home country was denied entry. This was not a problem for anyone coming from Europe, but coming from India there was no direct route and the regulation helped stop immigration to the country from India and Southeast Asia.
Another regulation imposed by Canada required that anyone coming from Asia or India had to have at least $200 with them. This would amount to over $5,000 today and was far more than most of the immigrants had.
Many Punjabi and South Asian activists began to work to reopen the ability of people from their home countries to come to Canada, especially from India. At the time, both India and Canada were part of the British Empire, and activists began to fight for individual immigration cases in court.
In November 1913, a Canadian judge prevented the deportation of 38 Punjabi Sikhs by the Canadian government. The immigrants had come from India via Japan and they had been rejected from settling in Canada because they did not come straight from India. The judge ruled there was fault in requiring a continuous journey and to have over $200. The judge allowed the immigrants to land, and this encouraged Punjabi Sikhs to attempt to get their friends and family to the country.
This would lead to the arrival of the Komagata Maru in April 1914.
Over the course of only a few months, the Canadian government rewrote regulations, and continued to require $200 for entry to Canada for each person.
Gurdit Singh Sirhali was the man who commissioned the Komagata Maru to bring immigrants to Canada. He had made a fortune as an importer and contractor, and he felt confident in the success of settling the passengers in Canada. He would begin searching for a ship in December 1913, a process that took several months. The ship he would settle on was the Komagata Maru, a Japanese transport ship that had been under German ownership for 20 years.
He would say in January 1914 in the ship’s log quote:
“What led me to this work, is that when I came to Hong Kong in January 1914, I could not bear the trouble of those who were in the Sikh temple waiting to go to Vancouver. They were waiting there for years. How tyrannical and hard was this on our brothers. This affected my mind and I resolved to take them to Vancouver under any circumstances.”
The ship was 3,000 tons and quite large with modern conveniences such as running water and electric lights. It could also accommodate 550 people in steerage and 16 cabin passengers. Gurdit Singh installed 533 bunks for passengers, and made room in the ship for a temple space for daily worship, led by a Sikh priest.
In April 1914, the Komagata Maru left Hong Kong for Vancouver, and it was felt among the passengers that a Canadian court would rule in their favour, and if not, they would be able to build a protest among Sikh troops in India that would pressure the British Empire to allow the immigrants to settle.
The ship officially left Hong Kong on April 4, 1914 with 150 passengers. Stops in the Philippines and China brought more passengers on and by the time the ship left Japan, there was 376 passengers.
On the ship were 337 Sikhs, 27 Muslims and 12 Hindus. Most of the passengers were from farming villages in various regions of India and South Asia. Nearly all the passengers came from families that were defined as elite landowners, rather than lower income groups. A large portion of the passengers had also served in the army or police at British outposts. Nearly all the men on board were veterans of the British Army’s Sikh regiments They were self-financed or family-financed, who hoped to settle in Canada and then bring families over to join them. There were only two women and three children on board.
One passenger told a British officer quote:
“The ship belongs to the whole of India, this is a symbol of the honour of India and if this was detained, there would be mutiny in the armies.”
Rumours began to swirl in Vancouver that the Sarita Queen had left to intercept the Komagata Maru and prevent the ship from reaching Canadian waters. This proved to be a fake story. The Victoria Times Colonist wrote in a story the day before the ship arrived quote:
“If the ship succeeds in landing 350 Chinese on some lonely part of the island, the newcomers could easily lose themselves among the resident Chinese population but with the Hindus things are entirely different. There are not very many natives of the Indian empire on Vancouver Island and authorities would be able to keep track of any who evaded the regulations in entering Canada.”
On May 21, 1914, the ship reached Canadian waters and anchored in Vancouver Harbor on May 23.
Upon arriving, Gurdit Singh knew that there would be difficulties in getting the passengers admitted into Canada but he believed they would at least be able to land and then begin the process towards immigration.
What he did not expect was the complete refusal of any passenger to be allowed on Canadian soil by the Canadian authorities. The passengers found themselves confined to a ship, sitting in the harbour, unable to go anywhere.
Canadian authorities stated that it was because Captain Yamamoto of the Komagata Maru was unable to produce a clean bill of health from Japan. This was obviously a trumped up reason to prevent the ship from landing. Yamamoto would even produce papers showing that his ship had been fumigated before leaving.
The reason for this was that if any of the men aboard the ship were rejected by an immigration board of inquiry and held for deportation, they could claim they were illegally detained and apply for a writ of habeas corpus with a B.C. Supreme Court judge. They had many avenues for appeal and the government wanted to avoid all of this.
The first immigration officer to step foot on the ship was a man named Fred Taylor, known across Canada as Cyclone Taylor. A star player for the Vancouver Millionaires, two-time Stanley Cup champion and future Hockey Hall of Fame member, Taylor worked for the federal Interior Department during the off season. Taylor would spend a great deal of time on the ship, and would say after the whole affair was over, quote:
“It was a terrible affair and nobody was proud of it.”
The press would portray the people on board as poverty stricken and the forerunners of the quote:
“hordes of Asiatics”
One minister told his congregation at one point quote:
“It is our duty to explain to those men in the harbour that we do not despite them as dogs.”
This was met with a cry from the audience from one individual who said quote:
“But we do!”
H.H. Stevens, the local Member of Parliament was firmly against the Sikhs landing and he would devise a plan in which the Empress of India would be brought alongside the Komagata Maru, and a boarding party would seize the Sikhs and put them on an CPR liner. He wired Ottawa for approval and $18,000 for the Sikhs fares aboard the ship back. His request was turned down.
Rumours swirled among the public, who gathered on the shore in large numbers to see the ship. Some said that the Sikhs were planning to set fire to the vessel and jump overboard.
Newspapers didn’t help matters. The Vancouver Sun reported in a large headline quote:
“Hindu invaders now in the city harbour on Komagata Maru.”
The newspaper goes on, stating quote:
“As soon as daybreak came this morning many Vancouver Hindus collected on the waterfront in excited groups, talking in low voices, as if plotting schemes to aid their countrymen on the Japanese steamer to get ashore.”
Some residents were sympathetic to the Sikhs. Edward Bird, a local lawyer who was helping the Sikhs with their case, stated quote:
“If these people wish to come to this country, can we blame them? Are not most of the residents of Canada settlers from some other country?”
The government would offer a deal where the Sikhs surrendered their right to go to one judge or another, and instead one of them would be allowed to file his application for a writ to be dismissed by a judge, where he could then go to a court of appeal. The Sikhs on board rejected this.
The Canadian government not only prevented the passengers from landing, but they also limited their communication with the outside world, blocked any attempt to take the case to a Canadian court, and refused to supply the ship with food and water unless the situation was desperate. The government would also try to take control of the ship by force with a boarding party made up of police officers.
Gurdit Singh would cable protests to King George V, stating that 300 of his subjects were being starved in Canada.
The Vancouver Province would state in an editorial that the people on the ship were subjects, not citizens, which was an important distinction according to the piece. It stated quote:
“While all Britishers are subjects of the Crown, they are not all citizens. The inhabitants of India are not citizens but subjects governed by the King through his viceroy and council and not by a Parliament. Mr. Gurdit Singh evidently believes his excursion is going to rouse all Indian to demand the same rights as the citizens of the Empire.”
To ensure that the passengers had food and water while they waited, lawyers who had been hired on behalf of the passengers by their friends in Canada sent supplies to the ship. At one point, several people on the ship seized a local immigration officer demanding food. That night, the government sent them some supplies.
The owners of the ship in Japan cabled to Canada stating they would pay none of the expenses for the passengers. The cable stated quote:
“The charterers shall pay all charges and expenses arising from taking steerage passengers and shall supply all provisions, water, galleys, cooks, fittings, medicine and medical stores, also doctor and purser if required by the charterers in every respect.”
A shore committee was formed and they raised $22,000 for chartering a ship back to India, stating in a meeting that if the passengers were not allowed off, Indo-Canadians would follow them back to start a rebellion in India.
On July 19 at 1:15 a.m., the Sea Lion tug set out with 120 police, H.H. Stevens and 40 immigration officers. The plan was to board the Komagata Maru and allow the Japanese crew to get up to steam and leave. The men soon found that the Komagata Maru’s deck was 15 feet above the Sea Lion and the Sikh began to throw garbage, dining room chairs, scrap metal, driftwood and coal down on the tug. Eight men were injured on the tug, including the chief of police.
After one month of waiting, the case was finally taken to the British Columbia Court of Appeal. The judgement was given in favour of the Canadian government.
After the decision, angry passengers relieved the Japanese captain of control of the ship and the Canadian government ordered the Sea Lion, a tug in the harbour, to push the ship out to sea. Passengers became angry and mounted an attack from the ship.
The Vancouver Sun reported quote:
“Howling masses of Hindus showered policemen with lumps and coals and bricks. It was like standing underneath a coal chute.”
The Victoria Daily Times would report that a message came from the ship stating quote:
“We will obey the law if you give us sufficient provisions immediately and provide us with passages across the Pacific.”
Provisions would be sent over, something that did not please Vancouver Mayor T.S. Barker who was reported to have said quote:
“The Hindus believe they have the authorities whipped into a tin. Sentiment in the city is very strong that the authorities are making themselves ridiculous.”
With no other option available to them, the passengers and Gurdit Singh decided that they could not have a long legal struggle, and they would have to return back to Asia. Only 24 passengers were able to get into Canada.
On July 23, the ship began to go back to Asia, escorted by the HMCS Rainbow, one of two ships in the Canadian Navy. On Sept. 29, after many delays, 321 of the 355 passengers reached Kolkata, India. At this point, the First World War had begun and the Komagata Maru had long faded from the newspapers.
The British saw the men on the Komagata Maru as lawbreakers and political agitators by this point. This was not helped by the newspapers in Canada. The Saskatoon Star Phoenix reported quoted:
“They declare they are going back to India for the purpose of spreading revolution as a result of the trials of the Hindus in Vancouver.”
The passengers on board were angry over how they had been treated. British officials in India also questioned the loyalty of those on board after the incident, and a deep mistrust for the British fostered among the passengers.
As soon as the Komagata Maru left Canadian waters, Australia and the United States stated it would not be welcome in their waters. One person in Sydney was reported to have said quote:
“The situation that has arisen in British Columbia over the exclusion of the cargo of Hindus on the Japanese steamer Komagata Maru is one of wide Australian interest. Though she does not take identical means, Canada, like Australia and the Western united States, appears determined not to allow what she regards as an undesirable race admixture.”
Only hours after the passengers disembarked from the ship in India, 20 were killed in an encounter with British Indian police and troops when they were unwilling to disperse and tried to get onto a specially commissioned train heading for Punjab. The British also attempted to arrest Baba Gurdit Singh, who resisted arrest, leading to the overall riot. The entire incident would become known as the Budge Budge Riot.
Most of the passengers escaped, with 27 avoiding arrest as the police conducted an extensive search for them throughout the region. Most of the passengers were arrested and put into a local prison.
One of the men, Gurdit Singh Sandhu, escaped and lived in hiding until 1922. His friend, Mahatma Gandhi encouraged him to give himself up as a true patriot. He agreed, and was imprisoned for five years.
At this point, the Indian government portrayed the passengers as dangerous revolutionaries and it would not be until after the First World War that the passengers side of the story began to emerge, that they were simply people looking for a new home who had been treated poorly both in Canada and back in India.
For decades, the story of the Komagata Maru was mostly forgotten except among Punjabi Canadians. Racist immigration policies would continue for some time. In 1961, only 6,774 South Asians lived in Canada. After immigration policies were opened up, 67,925 were living in Canada by 1971.
In the 21st century, Sikhs in Canada began to push the Canadian government to apology for the Komagata Maru incident.
In May 2008, the British Columbia government made an official apology for the incident.
In August of 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized at a Sikh fair in a park in Surrey, B.C.
He stated quote:
“On behalf of the government of Canada, I am officially conveying as prime minister that apology.”
Many felt that this was not an official apology and asked that one be delivered in the House of Commons.
Secretary of State Jason Kenney stated quote:
“The apology has been given and it won’t be repeated.”
The official apology would not happen for nearly a decade.
On May 18, 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for the Komagata Maru.
In 2012, a memorial was erected at Coal Harbour in Vancouver to honour the passengers of the Komagata Maru. In May 2021, the City of Vancouver officially apologized for the incident and city council designated that May 23 be an official day of remembrance. In September 2021, the City of New Westminster gave its official apology.
Information from Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, Global TV, CBC, Victoria Times Colonist, Wikipedia, Vancouver Sun, Saskatoon Star Phoenix,