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A Salute to the Fighters of Komagata Maru

Denied entry to Canada by racist officials 100 years ago, a ship bearing South Asian workers fought back.

By Jesse Donaldson 27 Jan 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Jesse Donaldson is an author, journalist, photographer, and one of the founding members of The Dependent Magazine. His first book, This Day in Vancouver, was recently published by Anvil Press. Find his previous Tyee articles here.

"The people of Canada want to have a white country, and certain of our fellow subjects who are not of the white race want to come to Canada and be admitted to all the rights of Canadian citizenship. These men have been taught by a certain school of politics that they are equals of British subjects; unfortunately they are brought face to face with the hard facts when it's too late." -- Wilfrid Laurier, speaking before the House of Commons, October 1914

On May 23, 1914, the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru made its way into Burrard Inlet. Its 376 South Asian passengers -- all of them British subjects -- were immediately denied entry to Canada because of their race, touching off an intense two-month standoff between passengers and immigration officials.

Refused access to the shore or legal counsel, forced to endure increasingly squalid conditions and repeatedly pushed to the brink of starvation, the passengers' treatment at the hands of white officials would ultimately be remembered as one of the most notorious examples of racial discrimination in provincial history.

Now, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the event, the Vancouver Maritime Museum has unveiled "Komagata Maru: Challenging Injustice," a brand-new exhibit dedicated to its legacy.

Running until June 18, the exhibit was assembled by curator Vicky Tran and designers Ria Kawaguchi and Tom Cummins. It explores everything from the aspirations of passengers to the racism they faced, and includes interviews with their descendants. As Tran explains, the exhibit attempts to forge a strong connection between visitors and those on board.

"You had a group of people who were told that one of the perks of being a British subject is that you can travel freely within the Empire. You can go anywhere," she explains. "And particularly for Sikhs, who had been fiercely loyal to the British and served in the army, and were the favoured sons of sorts among the Indian population, they believed they had the right, like any other subject, to go anywhere they wanted. [But] when they came here, they found out that British citizenship means little in Canadian waters."

Journey of hope

The passengers of the Komagata Maru were predominantly Sikhs, and with the exception of five children and two women, were all men between the ages of 18 and 30. Many had served in the British military. They were also people with means, a necessity given that a regular fare to North America was already exorbitantly expensive at the time, and that passage on the Komagata Maru would have cost nearly double. The journey itself was risky, involving seven weeks at sea, with no guarantee the ship would be allowed to land. They had left their families, their spouses and their country to do hard, physical labour -- work that would have been considered beneath them at home, and at wages far below those of white workers.

But in spite of this, as author and historian Hugh Johnston notes, the potential benefits were worth the trouble. "An equivalent would be going to northern Alberta to work in the tar sands," explains Johnston, who authored The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada's Colour Bar (published in 1979 with a reissuing this year).

"It pays very well, but there's no society at all. Nothing to do. But you think: 'I go up there, I work for two or three years, and I can go home and buy myself a business.' That was the thinking. You're leaving your family behind. There won't be any Punjabi women. You'll have to live in a bunkhouse, or you'll have to stay with a bunch of others. But when you go back, you'll be set up for life. And that's what made people willing to go through with what they did."

"Economically speaking, you could make 10 to 15 times more in B.C. than you could back in India," Tran agrees. "In India, you might scrounge around, and make 10 to 20 cents a day. In Vancouver, you'd make $1.50 to $2."

Unfortunately, the country that held such economic promise also had its pitfalls -- namely, a population and government openly hostile to the passengers' presence. At the time of the Komagata Maru's arrival, there were already a number of restrictions on immigration from "British India" (which includes present-day India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal). These included the stipulation that each new arrival was required to carry $200 (no easy feat when the average wage of these arrivals was $2.25 per month), as well as the Continuous Passage Act, applied exclusively to South Asians, where new arrivals would only be admitted if they had made no stops between Canada and their country of origin.

Throughout the early 1900s, the federal government was actively looking for ways to limit or curb South Asian immigration, including an unsuccessful 1908 attempt to relocate the country's entire Indo-Canadian population to Honduras. These policies were supported at every turn by a number of prominent local politicians, including Vancouver mayor Truman Baxter, who took the ship's arrival as a reason to personally organize an anti-immigration rally in the heart of the city.

"I have no ill-feeling against people coming from Asia personally, but I reaffirm that the national life of Canada will not permit any large degree of immigration from Asia," federal MP Henry Herbert Stevens told the crowd. "I intend to stand up absolutely on all occasions on this one great principle -- of a white country and a white British Columbia."

Facing racism

By the time the ship steamed into Burrard Inlet on the morning of May 23, its existence was already well-known to both locals and government. Its every move was reported to the Governor General and the prime minister, thanks to an extensive network of informants placed within Canada's South Asian community. In fact, the vessel was watched by officials at all levels of government -- not only in Canada, but also in the U.S., Britain and India. The reason for this extended beyond mere xenophobia. Officials were worried that passengers were being indoctrinated by members of the Ghadar Party, a newly-formed North American political organization with only one aim: the liberation of India.

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The HMCS Rainbow in English Bay, after escorting the Komagata Maru from Canadian waters, summer 1914.

"It had become a very political environment," Johnston explains. "And there was a very emotional commitment to military means of getting the British out of India. The immigration authorities were aware that this was in the community, and the Canadian government, all the way to the top, was aware of it."

"A very careful and vigilant guard is being kept of the ship and her human freight," explained the Vancouver Daily World. "Officers of the immigration service are aboard and also are guarding the steamer by launches and keeping watch ashore.... The immigration officials are somewhat reticent, but it is clear that they have no intention of permitting the Hindoos to enter the country, and the first step toward taking the matter to the courts was made this morning."

Despite being refused entry into Canada, the passengers wouldn't budge, and demanded legal representation and a court date to settle the matter. Officials, fearful that passengers might manage to free themselves through legal means (during a similar incident in Victoria, Judge Gordon Hunter had ruled in the passengers' favour), employed a simpler strategy: delay. The passengers were already running dangerously low on food and water, and owing to a clause in their contract, if the Komagata Maru was unable to pay its $15,000 in charter fees by June 11, the ship's agents had the right to immediately return the vessel to Hong Kong.

Gurdit Singh, who had chartered the boat, was also prevented from disembarking and was unable to sell the 1,500 tons of coal intended to finance the journey. Confident in their actions, immigration officers sat back and waited. However, they hadn't counted on the resilience of the local Indo-Canadian community. In the days that followed, a shore committee was formed, and although immigration officer Malcolm Reid's informants assured him it couldn't be done, the group managed to collect more than $18,000 -- paying off the charter fees, plus an additional $3,000 to provision the ship. At the same time, the shore committee hired Edward J. Bird, the lawyer behind the Hunter ruling (and the only man in town who would represent the passengers), though Bird was prevented by officials from setting foot on the ship, despite there being no legal basis for keeping him from his clients.

Meanwhile, the government continued to stall. Reid, in charge of food and water deliveries to the ship, deliberately withheld shipments in an attempt to pressure passengers. Even basic medical examinations and meetings with a Board of Inquiry, a legal right for new arrivals, were drawn out.

"They took their lovely time processing them," Tran says. "Apparently, with European immigrants, they could process 300 to 400 people in an hour or so. But in this case, it took a whole week to do just those 376. And then they began the Boards of Inquiry. At every turn, they would delay. They even went to the trouble of ferrying one of them at a time over on a boat. They could have ferried 10 of them at once to the Immigration Office for the Boards of Inquiry, but instead they did it one at a time."

By July, things were getting desperate. In one instance passengers, denied water for days, seized a barrel brought aboard by Japanese crew members (who were allowed to come and go as they pleased) and took control of ship themselves, demanding provisions.

"We are now in great disappointed and miserable conditions," reads the text of a telegram from an unnamed passenger. "There are five children and two women on board, who are quite unable to move for want of water and food.... Yesterday we asked Mr. Reid to supply us with water and food. He replied that he was thinking the matter, on this we requested him how long will take for consideration? And what would be the use of that, when are going to starve."

Fighting back

Despite the best efforts of Bird, Singh and the shore committee, the passengers' case was unanimously rejected by the B.C. Court of Appeal. However, the ship refused to move until it was adequately provisioned for the return journey, and in the weeks following the mood on both sides turned ugly. Bird received death threats and left Vancouver. Shore committee members Bhag Singh and Balwant Singh were arrested. At one point, Vancouver police attempted to storm the ship. Immigration personnel, along with hundreds of police officers, boarded the largest tug in town in order to assist the Japanese crew in regaining control. Unfortunately, they forgot the fact that many of the passengers were veterans of the British Army, and their attempt to board was met with a flurry of projectiles.

"The Police tied their boat with Maru with a strong rope," reads a note signed by 'A Passenger.' "The Hindoos cut down their rope with a sharp knife. The Police made noises and they fired their guns but useless. Then they sprinkled water by means of water pipe but Hindoos did not care a bit and began to throw upon them coal. Then all Hindoos threw coal and shouted loudly the Police brain did not work and went inside their boat running -- that scene was a nice one. Many of them lost their caps which floated on the sea."

Chastened, the police returned to shore. However, several days later, on July 21, the federal government sent the HMCS Rainbow, a naval warship, to Burrard Inlet, and put three regiments of the Canadian militia on standby.

"A committee of Hindoos has gone out to the Komagata and has been given one hour in which to obtain their promise of surrender," wrote the World. "This hour terminates at 3:15 p.m., when, unless the negotiations are favourably concluded, drastic measures will be at once taken."

"It was agreed that it was an impossibility to fight and win against such fearful odds," Gurdit Singh later explained in his memoirs. "The warship was preparing for action, and on the other hand we were preparing for death. On behalf of the government the commander sent the message: 'Leave our shores, you uninvited Indians, or we fire.' Our reply to this command was that if Canada will allow us to provision the ship we will go, otherwise, 'Fire away. We prefer death here than on the high seas.'"

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The story of the Komagata Maru, on display at the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

After extensive negotiations, the government agreed to provision the ship and consider reimbursing the shore committee for its $25,000 worth of expenses (they were never repaid). On July 23, at 5:00 in the morning, the Komagata Maru turned and steamed out of Burrard Inlet. Locals rejoiced, politicians expressed relief, and for more than three decades, South Asian immigration essentially came to a halt.

In 1907, 2,600 immigrants arrived from British India. After 1908, the number of new arrivals was less than 50. The Komagata Maru incident quickly faded from popular memory, not even warranting a mention in the history books. However, since 1967, when ethnicity was finally removed as a barrier to immigration, the country's South Asian community has grown and flourished. As Johnston notes, it is through that community's diligence and commitment that the story of the ship and its passengers is still remembered today.

Thanks to pressure from the Indo-Canadian community, the federal government issued an apology in 2008, and in 2012 a monument to the ship was placed in Harbour Green Park.

"One thing we can say about this story is that it's a reminder of how this country has changed," Johnston concludes. "Since the late '60s, we've been admitting increasing numbers of people from India and South Asia. And they have built up a very strong community, and they're now a very important part of the country.... There was an apology, and the reason the apology came is because the Punjabi community is now politically strong enough to demand one. We've made some considerable gains since 1914. It's a symbol of the progress we've since made in opening Canada up.

"On the other hand," he notes, "it's also a reminder of what we've still got left to do."  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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