May 23rd is Komagata Maru Remembrance Day
by Hisako Masaki
On May 23rd, 1914, Komagata Maru, a ship from Hong Kong carrying 376 passengers arrived in Vancouver. However, these migrants, originally from Punjab, mostly Sikh British military veterans, were denied landing. After two months of discussions between the governments, immigration officers, activists and lawyers, all passengers, except twenty-two who had previously lived in Canada, were denied entry. At the time, Canada was inviting immigrants from Europe to build a ‘White Canada’. Asians had been invited to provide cheap labour in building the country, but policies had been established to exclude Asian immigrants. Komagata Maru used to be a German ship which brought many immigrants from Europe to Canada, But after it was purchased by a Japanese company and chartered by an Indian businessman to bring South Asians, it became the first ship of migrants to be turned away from Canada.
In British Columbia, Chinese labourers were recruited to build the railroad in the late 19c. Then, Japanese labourers were recruited to work in mines. As many industries continued to recruit Asian labourers, Asian migrants increased. However, their presence angered white workers who feared them taking jobs and white residents who wanted to keep their city white. After the railroad’s completion in 1885, the Chinese head tax was introduced to limit the migrants from China. Migrants from India started arriving in 1903, filling the drop of Chinese labourers caused by the head tax. However, as the unemployment rate rose, British Columbia pushed harsher Asian exclusion policies. The amount of Chinese head tax was increased, and after the 1907 Vancouver Race Riot, Canada made the Japanese government limit the number of immigrants by the 1908 Gentlemen’s agreement. To limit South Asian immigrants, the entry requisite was increased to $200 and the Continuous Journey regulation was added to the Immigration Act.
The Continuous Journey regulation required the migrants to come straight from their country of origin to enter Canada. Purchase of tickets from India to Canada was forbidden to Indians, and the ship from India to Canada was cancelled. The regulation was so successful, that few South Asians migrated to Canada after. This regulation also denied entries to the Japanese migrating through Hawaii, while European immigrants were allowed to come through other countries.
People of British India believed they were entitled to equal rights and free travel within the British Empire as British subjects. However, in reality, they experienced harsh racism.
After British Empire abolished slavery in 1838, Indians took over slave-like indentured labour across the British Empire. They had been told that the British Empire was their mother/father who looked after them. Indians, especially Punjabi Sikhs, served in the British military and police, and many were proud British subjects. However, the unfair treatment in the British Empire pushed them to start the movement demanding equality. India’s independence movement was also building up as a way to end oppression. Racism in North America, especially the Continuous Journey regulation in British Columbia, provoked resistance.
In Hong Kong, inspired and supported by the local and international South Asian community, Gurdit Singh, a Punjabi businessman, chartered Komagata Maru to challenge Canada’s Continuous Journey policy. The British subjects from Punjab boarded the ship to immigrate to Canada. Challenging Canada’s unfair immigration policy in court was discussed in Indian communities in Asia, Canada and the United States. When the ship reached the port of Vancouver, the passengers could not land. Being denied entry to Canada, they had to stay on the water. However, on the shore, the Indian Shore Committee was formed at the Sikh temple to fight against the government demanding British subjects’ right of entry. The Indian community in Vancouver provided all the support for the passengers, including payment for provisions and other necessary funds.
A lawyer was hired to fight in the court, insisting on their rights as British citizens. However, the judges decided that the Canadian government was allowed to limit the civil rights of citizens, as it had already done to Aboriginal people. The ship was ordered to leave. Passengers fought back against armed police, but the ship was escorted out of the harbour by the military ship. By the time they arrived in India, they were considered dangerous revolutionaries in the wake of the First World War, therefore attacked by British soldiers. 18 passengers were killed and more than 200 were imprisoned.
After the incident, Canada closed its doors to Asian immigrants. Britain oppressed India’s independence. Yet the activism grew in BC and across the British Empire. India eventually won its independence in 1947, and Canada’s immigration removed racial discrimination in 1967.
However, racial oppression continues today in Canada in international relations and its treatment of migrants. The Komagata Maru incident questions our continuing history of racism and reminds us of the continuing resistance against racism.
The story of Komagata Maru is well described in many resources:
I was amazed to learn: how Britain depended on the people of British India to manage the Empire, how Indians worked across the Empire and beyond which built transnational communities, and how they came together under discrimination to help each other and fight against oppression for social justice.
The way Canada sent armed police and military to remove the people of Komagata Maru, who stood for their basic rights, reminded me of Oka (1990), Gustafsen Lake (1995), and Wet’suwet’en (2021).
Komagata Maru (The Canadian Encyclopedia) https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/komagata-maru
The Journey of the Komagata Maru (Descendants of Komagata Maru Society) https://descendantskomagatamaru.ca
British Columbia: An Untold History – Episode 3 Immigration (Knowledge Network) https://www.knowledge.ca/program/british-columbia-untold-history/e3/migration-resilience
Producer, writer, director, Ali Kazimi; produced in association with TVOntario. (2004)
The Komagata Maru incident is well-told in this documentary, with the creative use of limited visual records of that time. The story starts with the director’s personal experience at the immigration office when he entered Canada, arriving from India as an exchange student. His desire to understand why he was treated like a criminal, unpacks the history of the Komagata Maru incident: how Indians were seen and treated as ‘undesirables’ by Canada. The film ends by portraying how ‘Continuous Journey’ regulation continues today in the refugee claimant system, as some people are still regarded as ‘undesirables’.
Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru: An Illustrated History
Kazimi, Ali (2011)
The documentary director re-tells the story of Komagata Maru in this book with more historical detail. Beginning with the author’s personal experience of entry to Canada in the 80s when he was met with racism and exclusion by an immigration officer, the book leads us to the study of racism and identity in early Indo-Canadian history. Canada’s relationship with South Asian immigrants is examined, centred around the Komagata Maru incident. South Asian immigrants’ encounter with Canada is well explained from both perspectives with many visual images of that time, such as photographs, posters, newspaper articles, official documents, etc. Beautiful photographs remind us of the strong presence of Indians in Canada, hidden in mainstream history.
The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada’s Colour Bar
Johnston, Hugh J. M. (2014 expanded and revised)
This book tells the history of Indians, especially Sikhs, as subjects of the British Empire, and how they struggled between the Empire’s ideals of equality and the reality of racism. Transnational resistance against the unjust treatment of its subjects in the British Empire and its relation to India’s independence movement is well explained. The history before Komagata Maru Incident, during and after reveals a complicated relationship between the Empire and the Sikhs. They were landowners and warriors that supported and protected the Empire, many served in the British military and police force travelling to the colonies working for the Empire with the British. However, as protectors of their community with broad knowledge, many also engaged in resistance and/or independence movement of India, and ended up being punished and killed. Both Britain and Canada needed/used Asians as labourers and soldiers but did not want Asians as citizens. Therefore, ‘immigration’ became a crush point. The story of exploitation, control and resistance is well told in this solid academic work.
The Komagata Maru and Canada’s anti-Indian Immigration Policies in the Twentieth Century
Hickman, Pamela (2014)
Clearly written, easy-to-read book for young readers and beyond, which covers core information with many visual images. Starting from India’s history, the book tells the story of Komagata Maru as a crucial part of Canadian history as well as Indo-Canadian history. The book also covers Canada’s story after the incident, such as today’s flourishing South Asian Canadian community, its human rights activism, immigration and refugee issues, and ends with Komagata Maru Incident apology and memorials.