The Komagata Maru represents a complex and volatile mix of hope, despair, treachery and tragedy. The facts of the incident are well known. In the Spring of 1914, Baba Gurdit Singh chartered a steamer named Komagata Maru to carry Indian emigrants to Canada. On May 23, 1914, the ship arrived in Vancouver with 376 passengers aboard, all of them Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims from the Punjab. The ship was detained in the harbour for nearly two months until July 23,
1914. During this period of time, except for twenty returning residents, the ship's doctor and his family, no one was allowed to land. That summer, the tragedy of the Komagata Maru unfolded both on the front pages of the local papers and in the corridors of government. In this issue of Rungh we have chosen to reprint an article from the Vancouver Province, a local daily newspaper, and an editorial from the Hindustanee, an English-language newspaper based within the South Asian community.
The passengers of the Komagata Maru had come to Canada in the belief that as British Subjects, they should be able to travel freely anywhere within the British Empire. The Canadian government did not share this view and in 1908 had enacted the Continuous Journey Provision in the Immigration Act. The effect of the Provision was that Immigration officials could refuse entry to anyone who did not come by continuous journey from his or her country of origin. The Canadian government, in order to crack down on immigration from India, had convinced shipping companies not to sell direct tickets from India to Canada to Indians.
None of the passengers of the Komagata Maru met the continuous journey requirement since the boat had commenced its journey from Hong Kong, and had made stops at Shanghai, Moji and Yokohama to pick up passengers and cargo before reaching Vancouver Island. From the moment the boat arrived, it was met with hostility by Immigration officials. Passengers were denied landing and held in comunicado. Since their rations were depleted and officials would not allow provisions to be brought aboard in a timely manner, several times during the ordeal, passengers were left to go without food and water.
The Khalsa Diwan Society had organized a shore committee led by Bhag Singh, a community leader and Hussain Rahim, publisher of the Hindustanee. Through the intervention of the Society, thousands of dollars were raised to feed the passengers and to keep the ship in the harbour Further funds were raised and used to launch a legal challenge in the British Columbia Court of Appeal against the draconian immigration laws. The court case was lost not on the merits of the arguments presented but on the basis that each person aboard the ship did not have the funds requested by immigration laws ($200) to support themselves in Canada.
Upon hearing news of their defeat in court, the passengers agreed to leave Canada but only if sufficient provisions were put aboard. After much argument and posturing, the requisite supplies were provided and the Komagata Maru left with 352 passengers aboard. The ship was escorted out of Burrard Inlet by the HMCS Rainbow, a Canadian military cruiser.
While the legal battle was proceeding, a human tragedy was beginning to unfold. Inspector Hopkinson was an Anglo-Indian who served as an interpreter for the Immigration office in Vancouver. But his power within the department exceeded simply interpreting. Hopkinson was known to have informants within the South Asian community. He used these informants during the course of the Komagata Maru incident to thwart all attempts by the Khalsa Diwan society and their legal advisors to assist the passengers. Bela Singh, who was thought to be one of Hopkinson's informants, shot Bhag Singh and Battan Singh in the Vancouver Gurdwara on September 5, 1914. Bela Singh's motives were unclear, though Hopkinson was scheduled to testify in his defence on October 21, 1914. On that day Mewa Singh entered the Provincial Court house in Vancouver and shot Inspector Hopkinson before he could testify. Bela Singh was subsequently acquitted of murder while Mewa Singh was found guilty and hanged on January 11, 1915.
The Komagata Maru arrived at Budge, India on September 29, 1914. The passengers hoped to raise sympathy for their plight but the Indian government viewed them as agitators. Upon their arrival, police attempted to arrest Gurdit Singh and some other passengers. During this process, a riot ensued and by the end, 19 of the passengers were killed. While some of the passengers escaped, the remainder were imprisoned or kept under house arrest in their home villages during the course of WWI.
The Komagata Maru incident serves as a lesson of the danger of expressing racist sentiments through government policy. This shameful chapter of Canadian history bears remembering at a time when xenophobic attitudes are on the rise and when, once again, government policy is being manipulated to quell racist fears.
The following editorial is excerpted from the Hindustanee—The Official Organ of the United India League, Vol.1 No.5, Monday, June 1st 1914.
The Hindustanee was an English language newspaper, published from 1913-1914 in Vancouver. The United India League's objective was to 'carry on activities with constitutional means. Object: social and political regeneration of the Hindustanees' (1:5, p16). The paper took an aggressive stance, demanding change in the British attitude towards 'hindustanees' throughout the empire, and discussing the 'problems with Economics, Politics, Labour and Industry as they affect the lives of Hindustanees at home and abroad.' Its target audience was all Indians of any language group and interested white Canadians. The Hindustanees articles came from local writers, reprints from other newspapers, local, national and international, and analysed within a Marxist framework. For example, the anonymous article, A Lesson From the Famine in the United Provinces (1:5) states that 'The workings of the capitalist government of India, while it was directly ruinous to Hindustanees also adversely affected, in no small degree, the conditions of the working class of the British Isles, owing to the fact that the same capitalist interests which exploit India also exploited England, Ireland, Scotland, etc.' (1:5, p4)
The editor of the paper, Hussain Rahim, was a 'Ghadharite supporter.' The Ghadr Party based in India with satellite groups through the world, was a revolutionary organization whose 'avowed target was to drive the British from India.' Rahim was also known to be a member of the Socialist Party of Canada and in 1912, he organized his 'own branch with more than a dozen Sikhs and Hindus as members' (Johnston, Hopkinson File, 231). He was seen as a threat to Dominion security, and his newspaper an organ through which to spread dissent. The paper was eventually banned by the Canadian government.
Editorial — Welcome to Komagata Maru
—by H. Rahim
We extend a cordial welcome to Bhai Gurdit Singh and his party of 375 Hindustanees on board the SS Komagata Mam, which arrived in this harbour on the morning of the 22nd of last month.
All kinds of spectacular and alarming stories in which the arrival of this ship has been termed a Hindu invasion have been indulged by the local press day after day, in their sensation mongering dailies, while the Empress boat, bringing 650 Chinese, at the same time, was welcome.
As acts of high-handedness, illegality and utter unfaithfulness to their own laws, the immigration authorities pretend that during the ten days that have elapsed since the arrival of the Hindu ship, they have not been able to finish the medical examination of the passengers on board the SS Komagata Maru. It is well known that ships bringing 500 to 1,000 Chinese passengers have been medically examined within twenty-four hours, so it is a mystery why, in more than ten times that period, the authorities have not been able to go through with the medical examination of the smaller list of 375.
All our requests to board the ship as press representatives, and the repeated appeals of the counsel acting for Gurdit Singh and the Hindus of Komagata Maru to be allowed to see his clients on legal matters have been flatly refused on the miserable dodge of the medical examinations not being through.
Even provisions, and it takes quite an amount to feed 400 people on the Komagata Maru daily, were refused to be passed on board until most insistent and impatient demands were made by the Hindu friends of the passengers.
Perhaps the authorities of this country consider the actions of Russian rulers to be worse than theirs, or that treatment of Hindus such as is mentioned in this article, does not equal the grievances with which the people of the United States of America indict the British every Fourth of July in their anniversary of the Declaration of Independence throughout the length and breadth of that vast country, but we are inclined to think that the harassing of Hindustanees is monstrous and that British fair play a huge joke and misrepresentation.
To seek admission to Canada in no sense a crime, and yet the Hindus on board the ship are not given an opportunity of seeing their (legal) counsel, which privilege is not denied the worst of felons or criminals.
Bhai Gurdit Singh is not allowed to unload or sell the cargo of his chartered vessel and this is a serious restraint of trade by the immigration authorities, causing serious pecuniary loss to the Hindu merchant, and of course we consider that the immigration department, in so acting, is incurring enormous liabilities.
The local press has been publishing wild stories in order to frighten the working men to the effect that Gurdit Singh is a rich millionaire, and threatens to bring shiploads of Hindustanees to compete with them, while the fact is that he is nothing of the kind. The ship was arranged to be brought with the cooperation of many men, the majority of whom are farmers seeking to secure, as British subjects, a little of the millions of fertile acres of British Columbian soil now lying wastefully idle, so that they might till them and eke out a living in the same way that hundreds of thousands of white men are making a living in different capacities in India.
This doctrine of Hindu competition with the workers of this country is, we again assert, an utterly false one, put up by fake labourites. The true economic formula is: More men=more work: more work=more wealth in the country.
Sir Wm. Osler, president of the Canadian Club in England is reported to have stated: "There is no trouble as far as China and Japan are concerned; the case is different with the Indians who are our fellow citizens. We ought, if we could say to them, "Come in, you are welcome," but we have to safeguard our country. Therefore, we are bound to say, "We are sorry, we would if we could, but you cannot come in on equal terms with Europeans. We are bound to make the country a white man's country."
Such specious trash. We would if we could! This kind of argument was all right in days gone by. We also would like to say that we would stay out if we could, by we are sorry we cannot stay out—we are bound to come in. We want to point out, in a straightforward manner, that we demand equal terms with Europeans and Britishers. Nothing more, nothing less. It is in accord with the solemn pledges of the British sovereigns and statesmen, and it is high time for Britishers to hasten the fulfilment of these pledges, as honeyed words, duplicity and subterfuges merely add fuel to the fire.
Dr. Sutherland of Moose Jaw, according to a report in a recent issue of the 'valued' (Vancouver) Sun, also talks as though he knew something of the question, and suggests a solution of the problem, by banning Hindus by means of the hookworm bogey. Yes, hookworms are a great danger to Britishers. Then for heavens' sake let the British evacuate India at once, before they become infected with them and endanger Great Britain with the epidemic.
Hindus first transported hookworms into the United States and from thence these noisome pests have travelled over into Canada, a few of which, let loose, were observed crawling around the Dominion House of Commons by one of the honourable members a couple of months ago. Now this Moose Jaw medicine man has perceived them and the journey to British Columbia is not very far.
Though these worms are microscopic, they can, for convenience sake, be magnified to any degree.
We hardly think that the honourable member who had the hookworm hallucination in the Federal House a short time ago would know the difference between an Indian hookworm and a British Columbia crab, if he saw them side by side.
The Hindus have sound legal advice that part of the Immigration Act is unconstitutional and that the Orders-in-Council can be proven untenable and ultra vires. A number of authorities have been found which substantiate the claim of the Hindu passengers of the SS Komagata Maru to enter Canada. The Orders-in-Council are not infallible and have been before proven ultra vires by the judgments of Justice Morrison and Chief Justice Hunter and the additional proof that they are so is shown by the fact that after the Hindus arrived a new Order-in-Council was passed barring Port Alberni and Newport as possible points of landing, according to the News-Ad of May 30.
Hindustanees claim to have legal rights and the Counsels of Hindustanees must seek the protection of the courts of Canada and the law can take its course in the matter of their landing.
We do not know of any representations having been made by the central committee of the Hindus to the office of the secretary of state or the government of India, but whether the appeal is made or not we must say that as far as the Hindustanee immigrants to Canada are concerned the home authorities or Lord Harding's government have this opportunity of justifying their existence by getting the passengers of Komagata Maru landed in Canada by the official treatment of this question with the Dominion authorities.
Hindu Ship Can Not Show Bill of Health
The following article is excerpted from the Vancouver Daily Province May 23, 1914.
—Ottawa is asked to immediately order her back to the Japanese coast
—Leader of big excursion says that all India is watching moves now
—Immigration officers warn off Hindu launches at William Head
—Special Precautions to be taken in Vancouver if the vessel comes here
LONDON, MAY 23. Apropos of the trouble threatened over the arrival of Hindu immigrants at Vancouver, tonight's Pall Mall Gazette remarks that the yellow races are not wanted in Canada and can not be introduced without endangering the livelihood of the white settlers. If Canada has taken forcible measures to defend her shores it must be remembered that she has given ample warning, adds the Gazette.
Awaits Ottawa's Order
There is a strong probability that the three hundred and seventy-six Hindu excursionists who wish to be forerunners of a horde of a few million into Canada may never pass the quarantine station at William Head, where they arrived last night.
When Dr. Nelson, the quarantine officer at the station off Victoria this morning examined the papers of the Komagata Maru, he found that she had no bill of health from Moj i, the last Japanese port from which she had cleared. This omission is clearly a technical reason to refuse to allow the vessel to proceed and it remains with the authorities at Ottawa to say whether the vessel will be allowed to come on to Vancouver even to discharge 1,500 tons of coal which she has in her hold.
At one o'clock this afternoon the Japanese steamer was still tied up at William Head. Later in the afternoon definite instructions are expected from the federal capital, and the officials hope that these will order the vessel back to Japan on the ground of breaking the health regulations. This would obviate even an examination by the immigration officials.
Bills of health are in Captain Yamamoto's possession from Hong Kong and Yokohama and he explained that the British consul at Moji told him that it would not be necessary for him to secure a bill at that port through the fact that he would have to call in at Yokohama. This morning he produced papers to show that his ship had been fumigated at Moji, but Dr. Nelson decided to write Ottawa for instructions and the craft is being held in the meantime.
The eyes of all India are focused on the outcome of the test cases, it is said. The Hindus believe that they will be admitted to Canada because they are British subjects, but if they are ordered deported they are willing to spend both their time and money to force matters in the courts.
On the other hand, the Canadian immigration officials have an order-in-council backing them up, and the order for their deportation seems almost a certainty.
Surprised at Charge
When informed this morning that the order-in-council relative to the exclusion of labourers and artisans had been extended, the Hindus expressed considerable surprise. They were under the impression that the regulations had expired and that their main point to fight on arriving here would be that they had not come direct from the land of their birth.
It was evident that the Hindus felt that the new laws would harass their proposition to no mean extent, but now that they are here they are preparing to make the best fight they are capable of putting up.
The latest information from William Head is that the Komagata Maru, if granted pratique, will proceed directly to Vancouver without calling at Victoria. The Majority of Hindus have served in the British army and they are a tall, broad and handsome lot. They seem superior to the class of Hindus which have heretofore come to this province. The Hindus are under the conviction that as British subjects they are entitled to roam throughout the British Empire. When this privilege is denied them, they intend to appeal to the Imperial Government in London believing that it has authority to enforce their right of entry. They say they will hold the British Government responsible if they are ordered deported. Before leaving Hong Kong, the party had the governor of Hong Kong send telegrams to the British Government and also to the governor general of Canada but the text of the messages is not known.
Hindu Friends Warned Away
Very early this morning Chief Inspector Reid of Vancouver and Dr. Milne of Victoria went out from Victoria to board the Japanese liner. They found that of the 376 immigrants aboard all were men except two women and three children. The decks presented a remarkable sight for many groups of men were squatting about preparing their morning meal and jabbering very excitedly amongst themselves.
The officials had been on hand but a short time when a large launch with Hindus on board came out from Victoria to the quarantine station. Coming quite close, a Hindu with a speaking trumpet endeavoured to talk with the men on the ship apparently trying to instruct them regarding the arrangements for the landing. Chief Inspector Reid immediately ordered this party away out of speaking distance with the ship, and notified the Hindus aboard that he objected very vehemently to their action.
"What is done with this shipload of my people will determine whether we shall have peace in all parts of the British Empire," significantly declared Gurdit Singh to one of the officials this morning. He added:
"The main object of our coming is to let the British Government know how they can maintain their rule in India, as the Indian Government is in danger nowadays," he said: "We can absolutely state how the British Government may be made to last in India forever."
Take Precautions Here
If the ship is given health clearance she will proceed to Vancouver. Arrangements have already been made to have a detachment of police on hand to keep Hindus in the city away from the wharves, and also to secure an adequate marine patrol by launches at night. In all probability, until the immigration officials have concluded their examination, if they are called on to make one, the vessel will be anchored in the stream.
Many score of Hindus paraded out to the outer wharf at Victoria this morning waiting to welcome their compatriots from the other side. Many of the watchful waiters were said to be armed with stout canes and clubs.
Gurdit Singh, the character in charge of the party on the Komagata declared to newspaper correspondents who went out in launches to the vessel that he was going to make a desperate effort to land his passengers. He added that he was out to ascertain once and for all if Canada had any right to keep out British subjects while she allowed aliens to land. He informed the reporters that 160 of his passengers were taken on at Hong Kong and the balance at Shanghai and at Japanese ports. Gurdit Singh is apparently a wealthy man for he announced his intention of fighting the matter in the courts if the immigration authorities prevent the landing of his passengers.
Launch Went to Meet Her
The promised arrival of the Hindu excursion kept the immigration officials on the jump last evening. Quite early yesterday Chief Inspector Reid received advice from Alberni that a small party of Hindus from Vancouver had arrived there on Wednesday afternoon, and after charting a good-sized and fast launch, had proceeded down the canal in the direction of the sea. It was suspected immediately of course, that the object was to overhaul the Komagata Maru on her way to quarantine. The possibility that she might land her 376 Hindus in some infrequented bay on the west coast of the Island caused Inspector Reid a good deal of worry. Two government launches and a fishery protection cruiser were warned to be on the look out and the revenue cutters of the American service off Cape Flattery were also asked to keep an eye out for the Hindu vessel. But no report of her was sent in until just at dusk. Last evening she appeared off the quarantine station proving that she had a rather better turn of speed than she had been given credit for. She made the run across the Pacific in sixteen days which was very good for a tramp vessel.
It was suspected that the launch sent from Alberni might have gone to convey funds to the new arrivals, so that they might have a better chance to be considered as good immigrants under the regulations which provides that each man must have a well-filled purse. It has not yet developed whether or not the Alberni expedition was successful at all, but in view of the early arrival of the Komagata Maru at William Head, it does not appear likely that she was delayed by dropping in anywhere on the west coast.
It is stated that Mr. Edward Bird has been retained as counsel by the Hindus to fight the legal end of their proposed landing.
The Komagata Maru is commanded by Captain Yamamoto and carries a crew of Nippon sailors and firemen. She is consigned to C.Gardner Johnson & Co., Vancouver, by Y.Sato & Co., of Kobe, and she has 1,500 tons of Japanese coal which her owners wish to sell here. A Vancouver pilot left for Victoria at 10 am today to pilot the steamer here.