A little over a hundred years ago on May 23, 1914, residents of the north Pacific British colonial city of Vancouver woke up to a Japanese freighter carrying British Indian immigrants weighing anchor in its harbour. The Komagata Maru had been chartered by a wealthy Sikh merchant from Hong Kong, Gurdit Singh, to ferry his community members from then British Punjab to a better life in British Columbia. The unexpected arrival of the rundown freighter anchored in Burrard Inlet was first viewed with horror by the predominantly white Canadian population of Vancouver, and then indignation by the provincial press. Worse than the strident outcry was the two-month incarceration of Komagata Maru’s passengers on board.
The presence of the ship in Burrard’s Inlet was the first serious challenge to Canada’s newly enacted Continuous Passage (Amendment) Act (1908), which tried to keep out fellow British subjects. Finally, the ship was forcibly turned back on July 23, 1914, to sail for India. The ship’s reception on its arrival at Budge Budge (Calcutta) was even more ignominious because the passengers (mostly Sikh farmers and their families) were taken into police custody. This, after having braved a trans-Pacific voyage to and fro (Calcutta to Hong Kong to Vancouver), isolation aboard the anchored Komagata Maru for two months and shattered dreams of a new life in a brave New World. A riot broke out soon after the immigrants were arrested in India, in which 20 passengers died.
This incident, known as the Komagata Maru affair, is today a milestone in Canada’s Asian immigrant history. In Vancouver, a museum commemorates the ordeal of these Sikh immigrants, with exhibits ranging from photographs of the passengers taken on the first day when the press were allowed on the ship — an embargo was imposed the very next day — right to the bricks that the passengers threw at police and immigration officers.
As simplistic as this narrative sounds, the year 1914, when the Komagata Maru affair took place, adds important facets to why this incident is significant. First, the immigrants were as much British subjects as the residents of Vancouver. To stem the flow of Asian immigrants, the Continuous Passage (Amendment) Act (1908) barred any immigrant from entering Canada who had “not made a direct continuous journey” from their country of origin. Since there was no direct steamship service from British India to British Canada then, this automatically barred all British Asian subjects.
The 19th century witnessed the largest migration from the subcontinent across the colonial world, with no real entry barriers. Indentured labour (“coolies”) were sent to colonial plantation economies like Mauritius, and petty clerks, administrators, policemen, traders and bureaucrats settled in British colonies in east Africa, South Africa, southeast Asia, and Hong Kong. Problems arose at the turn of the 20th century, when they were no longer needed. Second was the fact that the Komagata Maru immigrants were Sikhs. According to Canadian Indian folklore, the first Indian immigrants to land in British Columbia were Sikh soldiers returning via Canada, after attending Queen Victoria’s jubilee celebrations in London in 1897.
The Sikh regiments of the British Indian Army were considered among the most loyal to the British Crown. Soon after the Komagata Maru standoff in Vancouver, World War I began on July 28, 1914. An exhibition, “Empire, Faith & War: The Sikhs and World War One”, held last year by the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, highlighted the fact that 20 per cent of the British Indian Army was made up of Sikhs, who formed less than 2 per cent of British India’s population. The exhibition drew attention to the contribution of Sikh soldiers, as also the fact that Indians made up one of every six soldiers in the Allied Forces.
However, white Canadian paranoia towards Asians (the Chinese and Japanese too) echoed that of its neighbour, the US. Though the number of Indian immigrants was relatively small compared to Europeans, the surge between the years 1906 and 1908, of 5,000 Indians, scared the local population, which compared it to just 258 Indians who immigrated in 1904, and 387 in 1905.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the Komagata Maru Museum & Monument will highlight the trials the first generation of Indian immigrants to Canada faced. It is on their sacrifices that the flourishing Canadian Indian diaspora has since prospered.
The writer is Mumbai History Fellow, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai.