The Komagata Maru attracted a lot of attention while she was
[Photo: City of Vancouver Archives #CVA 7-129]
On May 23, 1914 a ship called the Komagata Marunormally
used for transporting coalarrived at Vancouver and anchored
in Burrard Inlet. She carried 376 Indians: 12 Hindus, 24 Muslims
and 340 Sikhs, British subjects all, and people who had come to
make a new life in Canada. (In this article Indians
means people from India.)
The arrival of the Komagata Maru had a convulsive effect on the
city. There was already deep-seated prejudice against non-white
residents in the area, mostly Chinese and some Japanese. Anti-Oriental
riots had occurred as recently as 1907. That was also the year 901
Sikhs had arrived in Vancouver aboard the Canadian Pacific steamer
Monteagle. Many white residentsparticularly those who felt
their jobs were threateneddecided the new arrivals must be
prevented from getting off the ship.
They had a lot of official sympathy. The federal government was
pressuring steamship companies to stop selling tickets to Indians.
In 1907 Ottawa passed a bill denying Indians the right to vote.
They were prohibited to run for public office or serve on juries,
and were not permitted to become accountants, lawyers or pharmacists.
The provincial government had passed laws specifically intended
to discourage their immigration. They had to have at least $200
on their person to enter British Columbiathe average Indian
earned about 10 cents a dayand they had to have come via direct
passage from India.
Left from Hong Kong
The Komagata Maru had not left from India. She had departed April
4th, 1914 from Hong Kong with 150 passengers, picked up another
111 in Shanghai four days later, 86 more on the 14th at Moji in
Japan and a final 14 at Yokohama. Then she headed to Canada.
The ships journey was intended as a direct challenge to BCs
exclusionist laws. She had been chartered by Gurdit Singh, an affluent
Hong Kong businessman.
Word of the ships approach reached Canada
and newspapers picked up the story. The Province newspaper
headlined its report Boat Loads of Hindus on Way to Vancouver.
(To white Canadians, it seems, all Indians were Hindus.) Other headlines
referred to a "Hindu Invasion."
Indians who already lived here began to gather and discuss how
to help the new arrivals.
On May 23, seven weeks after she left Hong Kong, the Komagata Maru
arrived in Vancouver.
in Vancouver harbor
Canadian and BC authorities were waiting for her.
They refused permission for the passengers to leave the ship, saying
it had not arrived via direct passage from India and most of the
passengers did not have the $200 required to enter British Columbia.
They repeated their demand that the ship leave. The passengers refused.
They were denied food and water, but local supporters managed to
supply the men, women and children aboard the ship. Desperate, the
passengers seized control of the vessel. Attempts by local mobs
to expel them were met by a hail of bricks from the people aboard.
(One of those bricksmade, incidentally, in Japanis preserved
at the Vancouver Museum.)
Vancouver mayor Truman Baxter organized an anti-Asian
rally, and the first speaker was the prominent politician H.H. Stevens.
I have no ill-feeling against people coming from Asia personally,
he told the crowd, but I reaffirm that the national life of
Canada will not permit any large degree of immigration from Asia
. . . I intend to stand up absolutely on all occasions on this one
great principleof a white country and a white British Columbia.
Stevens speech was followed by thunderous applause.
In June a board of inquiry found all the passengers inadmissible.
But without supplies for the return voyage, the ship would not leave.
Maritime Museum picks up the story: In the early
morning hours of July 19, 1914, Sea Lion, with 35 specially
deputized immigration officers, armed with rifles borrowed from
the Seaforth Highlanders, and 125 Vancouver Police officers, approached
Komagata Maru to force the vessel from Vancouver harbour.
The enraged passengers resisted any effort to board their ship.
Manning the rail, an armed group shouted and threatened to board
the tug if she made fast. Nonetheless, Sea Lions captain
brought her in close, grappled and then tied on to Komagata Maru.
Passengers and police then battled, as one man with an axe chopped
at Sea Lions line. Finally, as a gunman aboard the
ship opened fire on the tug, the line was cut and the tug retreated
looking as if it had run under a coal chute.
Finally, the new Royal Canadian Navyin its first official
taskwas called in. Its ship, an elderly training vessel, HMCS
Rainbow, entered Burrard Inlet July 21 and trained its six-inch
guns on the Komagata Maru. (This was the first appearance of an
RCN vessel in Vancouver.) On July 23, 1914exactly two months
after she had arrivedthe Komagata Maru was forced to leave
the city. Some 20 of its passengers who already had resident status
had been allowed to disembark. The more than 300 others had to return.
This incident naturally raised tensions among members
of Vancouver's Sikh community. Some had a particular enmity for
Yorkshire-born William Hopkinson, a local immigration official,
who had once served on the Calcutta Police Forceand who had
an affinity for Indian languages. He spoke Hindi fluently, and could
get by in Punjabi. Hopkinson had come to Vancouver in 1907, and
was hired by the Canadian Government as an immigration inspector
and interpreter. He was also monitoring the activities of East Indian
extremists living in British Columbia, and developing a network
of pro-British Sikh informants. (He also apparently disguised himself
as a Sikh named Narain Singh, and gathered more information in this
way!) He had been one of the men aboard the Sea Lion.
On October 14, 1914 a man named Mewa Singha supporter of
India's independence movementshot Hopkinson to death at the
provincial courthouse in Vancouver. Mewa would be hanged January
11, 1915 for the murder. A hall in the Ross Street Sikh Gurdwara
is named for him.
The Komagata Maru story had not yet ended.
On September 26, 1914 the ship, with its passengers
now having been aboard for a miserable four months, approached Calcutta.
A British gunboat stopped the ship and held the passengers as prisoners.
Then they were taken to a place called Baj Baj, a Calcutta suburb,
and told they were being sent to Punjab on a special train. Many
of the passengers, says one website www.sikhpioneers.org
about the incident, did not want to go to Punjab. They had
business to attend to in Calcutta, some wished to look for work
there, and most importantly, the passengers wanted to place the
Guru Granth Sahib, which they had taken with them on their
journey, in a Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) in Calcutta.
The arrival at Baj Baj
The Guru Granth Sahib could be described as the scripture
of the Sikhs. They hold the book in great reverence and treat it
with the utmost respect.
The British officials refused this request and repeated
their insistence that all the passengers would be put on the train
to Punjab. The passengers rebelled and began to march toward Calcutta.
They were forced back to Baj Baj and ordered to board the ship again.
Led by Gurdit Singh, they refused. A police officer attacked Singh,
but was stopped by another passenger. Then gunfire broke out. Twenty
passengers were killed, another nine were wounded.
The shooting at Baj Baj
On May 23, 2006---92 years to the day after the
arrival of the ship---The Vancouver Sun published an article
by Kim Bolan beginning: Descendants of passengers aboard the
ill-fated Komagata Maru want to open discussions with the
federal government about a formal apology and possible compensation
over Canada's racist immigration laws early this century.
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