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15 April 2015, The Indian Express

Komagata Maru: mission to Canada

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his April 14-17 visit to Canada, will visit the Komagata Maru Museum & Monument in Vancouver, an important milestone in Canada’s Indian diaspora as well as Asian immigrant history

Bombay History Fellow

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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 the heartland of then British Punjab to a better life in British Columbia (Vancouver).

The unexpected arrival of the run-down 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 (“Hordes of Hungry Hindoos Invade Vancouver City”). [1] Worse than the strident outcry was the two month incarceration of  Komagata Maru’s passengers, on board the ship. [2]

The presence of the ship in Burrard’s Inlet was the first serious challenge to Canada’s newly enacted Continuous Passage (Amendment) Act (1908) that tried to keep out fellow British subjects. Finally, the ship was forcibly turned back on July 23, 1914, to sail for India. [3]

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 on arrival. 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 with water and food running critically low, 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 at Budge Budge. It brought to a tragic end the trials of the immigrants aboard the Komagata Maru.

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 by immigration authorities – right to the bricks which the passengers threw at police and immigration officers when they forcibly tried to board the ship. [4]

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 on the ship were as much British subjects as were the residents of Vancouver. To stem the flow of Asian immigrants to Canada, the Continuous Passage (Amendment) Act (1908) barred any immigrant from entering the country, who had ‘not made a direct continuous journey’ from their country of origin to Canada. Since there was no direct steamship service from British India to British Canada then, this automatically barred all British Asian subjects. [5]

The 19th century witnessed the largest migration of people from the Subcontinent across the length and breadth of the colonial world, with no real entry barriers. Indentured labour (“coolies”) were sent to colonial plantation economies like Mauritius, and petty clerks, administers, policemen, traders and bureaucrats settled in British colonies in East Africa, South Africa, South East Asia, and Hong Kong. Problems began arising at the turn of the 20th century, when they were no longer needed. [6]

Second, and the worst cut of all, 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. Described by Victorian ethnologists as a “martial race”, the Sikh regiments were invaluable to British imperial expansion.

In fact, soon after the Komagata Maru standoff in Vancouver Harbour, the First World War 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 20% of the British Indian Army was made up of Sikhs who formed less than 2% of British India’s population. The exhibition drew attention to the contribution of the Sikh soldiers, as also the fact that Indians made up one of every six soldiers in the Allied Forces. [7]

However, white Canadian paranoia towards Asians in general (Chinese and Japanese too) at the turn of the 20th century, echoed that of its neighbour the United States. Though the number of Indian immigrants was relatively small compared to Europeans, the surge between the years 1906 to 1908, of 5,000 Indians, scared the local population which compared it with just 258 Indians who immigrated in 1904 and 387 in 1905. [8]

Prime Minister 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. [9]

Sifra Lentin is the Bombay History Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai. Her paper, Mumbai’s International Linkages: Then and now, will be released shortly

This article originally appeared on Indian Express, here

You can read more Gateway House content here.

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[2] Kamath, M.V., The United States & India 1776-1996: The Bridge over The River Time. Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), New Delhi (1998)

[2] Museum of Vancouver, Description, <>

[3] Canadian Museum of Immigration at pier 21, Continous Journey Regulation, 1908, <>

[4] ibid (2)

[5] Government of Canada, The 100th Anniversary of the Continuous Passage Act, <>

[6] Migration Policy Institute, Emigration, Immigration, and Diaspora Relations in India, Naujoks Daniel, 15 October 2009, <>

[7] SOAS University of London, Empire Faith and War: The Sikhs and World Was One, <>

[8] ibid (1)

[9] The Tribune, Modi to visit Komagata Maru Museum in Vancouver, Dhaliwal Sarbjit, 7 April 2015, <>


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