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The voyage of Komagata Maru

In 1914—one hundred years ago—376 British subjects, including 340 Sikhs, were stranded offshore for two months in the Komagata Maru, as they unsuccessfully challenged B.C. immigration policies in Burrard Inlet.

March 01st, 2014

Visiting Vancouver in 1914, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle remarked, “The whole incident seemed to me to be so grotesque—for why should sun-loving Hindoos force themselves upon Canada?”

The ship had been chartered for $66,000 by Gurdit Singh Sarhali, a Sikh entrepreneur, as a direct challenge to a restrictive policy that required all would-be immigrants from India to take direct passage to Canada—when no such direct passage from India existed.

An attempt to board the ship by 150 armed men, in support of a Canadian immigration official, was rebuffed. It took the arrival of the federal navy vessel H.M.C.S. Rainbow on July 23, 1914, to force the Komagata Maru to leave the city and return to Calcutta.


During the impasse, food and water aboard ship diminished and social unrest among the South Asian community of B.C. increased.

The Komagata Maru stand-off has been most extensively documented and examined by Hugh Johnston in The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada’s Colour Bar, first issued in 1979, reprinted in 1989, and soon to re-issued in April in an expanded version.

“This is not just a re-release,” said Johnston, “but virtually a new book. How many people get a chance to do a major overhaul on a book thirty-five years after it first appeared and nearly forty years after they started the research? One might question going back to a subject after so long, but I’ve been asked to do research for a number of projects over the past six or seven years–a projected movie that did not happen, for a museum at the Sikh temple, for a SFU library website, for papers at conferences etc. This has had me digging into the material i collected before 1979 and into what what I have acquired since then. And my perspective has changed over the decades. So has the Sikh community. So this is much more than a light re-write with an introduction.”

Here is the new preface by Hugh Johnston for his fully revised and expanded version of The Voyage of the Komagata Maru (UBC Press $29.95) to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the incident.

Johnston, Hugh 2014

“The country would be very different today if the passengers on the Komagata Maru had made their point successfully and been allowed to land.” – Hugh Johnston, foremost authority on the Komagata Maru Incident

The approaching centenary of the Komagata Maru has been an incentive for an extensive revision of a book that I first published thirty-five years ago.

Over the decades, fresh material – published and unpublished – has come my way. The Internet has become a great time saver in tracking down small points that sometimes make a meaningful difference. And much has happened since I began my research back in 1975. Subtly, and perhaps not so subtly, the march of events has affected my own understanding of the documentary evidence of this history.

Canada has become very different; Indo-Canadians are much more visible and better known and appreciated by other Canadians; and I have had wonderful opportunities over the decades to share time, engage with, and become very close to individual Indo-Canadians, particularly Punjabi Sikhs and their families both in Canada and in India. All of this has affected this revision. The past is something we strive to recapture, but it is always a work in progress.

The events surrounding the Komagata Maru were not acknowledged in mainstream Canadian history until well beyond the 1970s. Even now, they get surprisingly slight attention outside of British Columbia. Thirty or forty years ago, most Canadians were unaware that the country’s Asian-origin population had been kept very small as a matter of policy, and because Asian numbers were so small, Asians were easily left out of the national account. It follows that the older histories of Canada by a generation of well-respected Canadian historians such as Donald Creighton, A.R.M. Lower, J.B. Brebner, H.A. Innis, and W.L. Morton devoted not a line or index entry to the Komagata Maru. Yet, with a little imagination, one can see that the exclusion of people from the entire subcontinent of India was a major defining fact about Canada. The country would be very different today if the passengers on the Komagata Maru had made their point successfully and been allowed to land.

It makes a great difference that Canada now advertises itself as a multicultural country instead of as a European and British country, which was the commonly accepted characterization a century ago. Multiculturalism gives Canadians an inclusive ideal, along with the challenge of trying to live up to it. Earlier generations did not have that inviting national ideal. But the contrasts between now and then are far from absolute. On the questions of individual freedoms, human values, human rights, national identity, race, and ethnicity, Canadians of a century ago had the same range of ideas available to them as do Canadians of today. And like today, those early Canadians could go to the same sources of inspiration – religion, political theory, self-interest, or science – and draw contrary conclusions among themselves. The difference is in the consensus then and today: now the Canadian consensus is more open to the inclusion of difference than it was in the past. When it comes to ethnicity, this greater openness is a positive outcome of a reformed immigration policy that has allowed people into the country from all parts of the world.

Komagata 2The full history of the Komagata Maru affair, from its origins to its long-term consequences, is an immigrant story writ very large. It has all of the elements of such a story, with its most admirable and least wanted extremes. It is about the remarkable desire of immigrants to reach Canada and North America, and their resourcefulness, determination, and persistence in getting here and in staying. It is also about the discouragement and hostility that they encountered at the hands of many Canadians. And it is about the respect, friendship, and help they received from a notable few Canadians. Critically important was the outstanding success of some of them – those who entered Canada years before the Komagata Maru arrived, who witnessed its coming and who were troubled by its going, and who, nonetheless, went on to great personal success. These individuals were adventurous in travelling at their own expense so far across the globe in search of opportunity. They were resourceful in making the most of what they found. And, like the vast majority of immigrants from other nations, they never forgot their homeland even if they stayed away for years. Their political life in the early years centred on what was happening in their home country. Some definitely wanted to have a place in the political life of Canada, but they were all denied full citizenship until they were elderly. They were, however, extraordinarily persistent in winning a place for themselves in this country, and they were an inspiration and a help to compatriots who followed in their path. Their rich legacy is the sizable Indo-Canadian presence that the country now has.

– Hugh Johnston

Alan Dutton, Robert Jarvis, Sohan Sarinder Singh Sangha, Ajmer Rode and Kesar Singh have also written books on the Komagata Maru incident after Sharon Pollock led the way in 1976 with a play about the racist stand-off. In 1990, the Progressive Indo-Canadian Community Services Society also published the proceedings of a Vancouver conference, Beyond the Komagata Maru: Race Relations Today, edited by Alan Dutton.Komagata 3

Kamala Elizabeth Nayar of Surrey first conducted more than one hundred interviews for The Sikh Diaspora in Vancouver: Three Generations Amid Tradition, Modernity and Multiculturalism (UTP 2004) which examines family relations, child-rearing and religion. She has conducted another one hundred interviews for The Punjabis in British Columbia: Location, Labour, First Nations and Multiculturalism (McGill-Queens $32.95) with a particular emphasis on the relocation of Punjabis from the Skeena region to B.C.’s Lower Mainland during the decline of the forestry and fishing industries. Nayar teaches Asian Studies at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

With Tara Singh Bains, Hugh Johnston has also published The Four Quarters of the Night: The Life-Journey of an Emigrant Sikh (1995) and Jewels of the Qila: The Remarkable Story of an Indo-Canadian Family (UBC Press 2012). See ABCBookWorld for more info.

An SFU history professor emeritus and former president of the Vancouver Historical Society, Johnston has co-authored a biography of Captain James Cook with fellow Simon Fraser University historian Robin Fisher with whom he co-edited a book on Captain George Vancouver, and Johnston co-edited The Pacific Province: A History of British Columbia, a production of the SFU History Department.

Johnston was educated at the University of Toronto, the University of Western Ontario and King’s College at the University of London. He arrived to teach at SFU in 1968, three years after it opened in 1965, and taught there for 37 years prior to publishing Radical Campus: Making Simon Fraser University (D&M, 2005) to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the university.

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2 Responses to “The voyage of Komagata Maru”

  1. Library Lover says:

    Bravo on the new venture! You are off to a great start but I have a few comments. First, how are people supposed to write you a congratulatory letter? Are you only going allow stale old letters previously published in BC Bookworld ? Not very hip to the net! And I realize you are in early stages but I hope you will soon get a good library technician to help you organize your data. I am sure all librarians find this website frustrating because the information is so disorganized. There is a search window but–surprise!–it doesn’t search this site, it searches a completely different site, ABC Bookworld. At that, it only searches author names, not book titles. Librarians (and most readers) are keyed to individual books, not authors, but, ironically, you do not seem to care enough about books, to allow people to find them on your site(s). Librarians love your publications, but let me say once and for all, your handling of bibliographic information is and always has been abysmal. Today with all the automated data bases at your disposal, this is inexcusable–all you have to do is link to Biblioshare, Ipage, Book Manager or even Indigo.ca. If you don’t know how to embed a link, go here: http://www.w3schools.com/html/html_links.asp. You have created an absolute gold mine of knowledge in your various publications, online and off, but most of it is hidden away where it can’t be searched. It is my fervent hope that someday you will get it organized into a proper data base so the reading public can enjoy full access to it. In the meantime, keep up the great work. You do more for books in BC than any other single person. Heck, you do more than any ten other people!

  2. sockeye says:

    Something I’ve never understood about this Komagato maru business. A boatload of Sikhs turned up in BC waters without the right papers. They were refused entry. Doesn’t the same thing happen today when boat people show up in rusty hulks without papers? What was so different about the boat people of 1914, and why do they deserve to have so much fuss made about them?

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