Komagata Maru was a Japanese trampsteamer, renamed Guru Nanak Jahaz,
launched from Hong Kong by Baba Gurdit Singh (1860-1954), an adventurous
Sikh businessman, to take a batch of Indian emigrants to Canada. This
was done to circumvent the new Canadian Immigration Ordinances which,
aiming to stop the influx of Indians, prohibited entry into Canada
of all immigrants from Asia except by a "continuous
journey on through tickets from the country of their birth or citizenship."
In view of tightened immigration controls, shipping companies were
loath to issue tickets to Indians seeking passage to Canada and in
Hong Kong, particularly, there was a backlog of Indians, most of whom
were Punjabi Sikhs, hoping to find some way to emigrate to what they
considered the land of opportunity. Their plight captured the attention
of Gurdit Singh who, making Singapore his headquarters, decided to
test the Canadian restrictions. He formed the Guru Nanak Navigation
Company and chartered a Japanese ship, the Komagata Maru, with a view
to making a test voyage to Vancouver and return trip to Calcutta and,
from then on running a regular service between the two ports.
Aboard the Komagata Maru
According to all accounts, when it was announced that the ship
was going to Canada, its full 500 accommodations were booked, but
when Gurdit Singh was arrested by Hong Kong authorities, almost
two-thirds of the prospective passengers decided to cancel out.
Gurdit Singh was released after having been held for three days
and the ship sailed from Hong Kong on 4 April 1914, making intermediate
stops to pick up more passengers at Shanghai, Moji and Yokohoma.
When the Komagata Maru arrived at Vancouver on 23 May 1914, there
were 376 Indians aboard the vessel, of whom all but 30 were Sikhs.
The progress of the Komagata Maru was reported in British Columbian
papers as a "mounting Oriental invasion."
When the ship arrived in Canadian waters, it was cordoned off and
only 22 men who could prove their Canadian domicile were allowed
to land. Pressure was brought to bear upon Gurdit Singh to pay the
charter dues immediately or suffer the ship to be impounded. Gurdit
Singh's protests that he could only pay the money after he had fulfilled
his contract with the passengers by getting them into Canada and
had sold the cargo which he had on board were ignored.
Sikhs in Canada raised $22,000 to pay for the charter. They appealed
to the Canadian people and government for justice, sent telegrams
to the King, the Duke of Connaught, the Viceroy, and Indian leaders
in India and England. There were public meetings in several towns
of the Punjab to express sympathy with the passengers of the Komagata
Maru. The Shore Committee of Vancouver Sikhs ultimately took the
case of the Komagata Maru to court. A full bench of the Supreme
Court decided that the new orders-in-council barred judicial tribunals
from interfering with the decisions of the Immigration department.
The passengers took over control of the ship from the Japanese crew
and refused to disembark. A cruiser threatened to fire oil them.
After having been stalled in the sea for two months - a period of
grave hardship for the passengers, the Komagata Maru slipped out
into the pacific.
The travails of the Komagata Maru were not yet ended. None of her
passengers was allowed to land at Hong Kong or Singapore, where
several had their homes. Sikhs became rebels in the eyes of the
government and when the ship docked at Budge-Budge, near Calcutta,
on 29 September 1914, it was searched by police, but no arms were
found. The passengers were ordered to board a train which was to
take them to the Punjab. The Sikh passengers refused to obey government
orders and forming themselves into a procession with the Guru Granth
Sahib at the head of it, wended their way towards the city of Calcutta.
British troops and police turned out and forced them back to the
railway station where, owing to the high handedness of some European
sergeants who interrupted the evening Sikh prayer the passengers
were reciting on the platform, a clash took place. Nineteen of the
Sikhs and two European officers and two men of the Punjab police
were killed and a score of others wounded. Gurdit Singh and 28 of
his companions escaped. The rest were rounded up and sent to the
Punjab, where over 200 of them were interned under the Ingress Ordinance.
The heroic deeds of the Komagata Maru men and their trials aroused
the admiration and sympathy of the entire Indian nation.
of the Komagata Maru forbidden from landing in Canada