Komagata Maru: The voyage that exposed the British Empire for what it was — a glorified profit-seeking operation

Less than two decades after the legendary Battle of Saragarhi, the much-feted soldiers of the British Empire came up against it in the Komagata Maru incident of 1914.

Karthik Venkatesh May 23, 2020 09:35:59 IST
Komagata Maru: The voyage that exposed the British Empire for what it was — a glorified profit-seeking operation

In the last couple of decades, a number of forgotten historical stories have resurfaced, filmed and thus, a whole new generation of people have come face-to-face with these stories. One such story is of the Battle of Saragarhi which took place in 1897. In this stirring tale, a group of 21 Sikh soldiers dug in to make a last stand defending the Saragarhi outpost against hundreds of Orakzai tribesmen in a remote corner of what is today the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It was a gallant effort by the Sikh soldiers who all ended up laying down their lives for the British Empire. The battle was celebrated throughout the Empire and the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers, all subjects of the Empire, was much lauded.

Yet less than two decades after this legendary battle, the much-feted soldiers of the Empire came up against it in a very different incident that exposed the Empire and what it stood for. The incident of the Komagata Maru in Vancouver in Canada in 1914 saw the notion of ‘subjects of the Empire’ being put to the test and the Empire coming up woefully short.

Canada and the Sikhs

The first Sikhs to go to Canada were soldiers from the Indian Army who went there after the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria in London in 1897. To them, Canada, a self-governing British dominion that was part of the British Empire, seemed a land of promise. The Canadian prairies reminded the soldiers of the plains of Punjab and there were opportunities there for employment as farmhands. From 1905 onwards, small numbers of Sikhs began to trickle into Canada. By 1908, close to 4000 Sikhs had settled there, most of them farmers. A few found work in the lumber and saw mills, laying railway tracks and other labour-intensive activities.

The Canadian government viewed the growing numbers of Sikhs with much concern and corresponded with the British government in London on this matter. The British government appreciated Canada’s position and recognised Canada’s right to keep the dominion as 'a white man’s country … not only for economic and social reasons, but highly necessary on political and national grounds.'

In 1908, the Canadian government passed the Continuous Passage regulation, which required immigrants to ‘come from the country of their birth, or citizenship, by a continuous journey’, using tickets ‘purchased before leaving the country of their birth or citizenship’. This meant that if one was born in India, went to China, and then continued on to Canada, it was illegal. In those days, there were no steamships which travelled directly between Calcutta and Vancouver. Even if an Indian managed to make a continuous journey, another law stated that they needed $200 on their person to be welcomed into Canada. The policies were clearly designed to curb the flow of Indian immigrants.

This law was greeted with much outrage from Indians. But most people in Canada had made up their minds on the matter of Sikh immigration and were against allowing further immigration. They even sought to bar the families of the settlers who were already in Canada from entering. A few voices (Reverend Dr Wilkie, a pastor, Robert Clark, a political leader and a few others) spoke up for the Sikhs. Dr Wilkie, who had lived in India for two decades reminded Canadians about the Sikh contribution to defending the Empire, especially in 1857. Clark asserted that as subjects of the Empire, the Sikhs had a right to reside in Canada. But most whites remained unconvinced and unwilling to accept further Indian immigration and it seemed that there was no scope for compromise.

The Komagata Maru

Komagata Maru The voyage that exposed the British Empire for what it was  a glorified profitseeking operation

Sikhs on board the Komogata Maru in Vancouver, Canada. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Into this powder-keg of a situation, stepped in Gurdit Singh (1859 – 1954). A businessman based in Malaya, Singh was enterprising, bold and fearless. On a visit to Hong Kong sometime in 1911, he had met fellow-Punjabis who were trying to get to Canada, but had been refused tickets by shipping companies. He smelt a business opportunity and first went to Calcutta to attempt to charter a ship that would sail directly to Vancouver. He failed. But persisting in his efforts, sometime in late 1913, he found the Komagata Maru in Hong Kong – a ship originally used for coal transport. Singh opined that since Hong Kong too was a British colony, he could still meet the continuous journey clause.

In late 1913 as well as in early 1914, there were mixed signals about attempting a journey to Canada given the legal hurdles. Some like Bhai Bhagwan Singh had been deported twice. But others had mounted legal challenges and there had been some favourable judgments. Also, the Vancouver Khalsa Diwan Society assured Gurdit Singh of help. Singh himself believed that given that the Sikhs had soldiered with valour for the Empire on many different occasions, they would be given some consideration.

Authorities in Hong Kong attempted to stymie the journey by posing various legal hurdles, including arresting Singh on 24 March 1914 for selling tickets for an ‘illegal’ voyage. But Singh was not one to be cowed down. He matched the authorities punch for punch, even going to court against the police, his lawyers contending that the police had no right to stop the Komagata Maru. Ultimately, Singh was given permission by the governor to set sail.

To the shouts of ‘Bole So Nihal Sat Sri Akal’, 165 passengers boarded the ship, now rechristened Guru Nanak Jahaz, on 4 April 1914.

The journey had begun.

A further 111 passengers boarded at Shanghai and 85 passengers from Manila and Nagasaki boarded at Moji in Japan, a total of 376 passengers—340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus, all Punjabis and British subjects. Many of the Sikhs were army veterans and believed that the British would treat them fairly.

On 21 May, the ship arrived at Vancouver and on 23 May, it proceeded to Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet where its journey would come to an end. In their best suits and ties, the passengers eagerly waited to disembark.

The first inklings of trouble came when a police cordon was thrown around the ship. The Immigration Control chief, Malcolm R Reid was determined to prevent the passengers from disembarking. He was backed by Hopkinson, a British spy who kept a watch on the Sikhs in Canada and their seditious activities. The local MP, Harry Stevens was another Reid ally.

Komagata Maru The voyage that exposed the British Empire for what it was  a glorified profitseeking operation

(L-R) Inspector Reid, HH Stevens and Captain Walter J Hose on board the Komagata Maru. Image from Wikimedia Commons

What transpired over the next two months was high drama. Reid vehemently denied entry to all the passengers citing the rulebook. As the days passed, stocks of food and water began to run dangerously low. Desperate, Gurdit Singh despatched telegrams to the King Emperor, Sikh Miaharajas and the Chief Khalsa Diwan in Amritsar. Nothing came of these appeals.

Reid was unrelenting and was not shy of using strong-arm methods to intimidate the passengers. Eventually, 24 passengers who were able to prove that they were already Canadian residents and not new immigrants were given entry. The rest were deemed illegal. The Punjabi community in Vancouver raised funds for instituting legal proceedings and filed a writ petition on behalf of on one passenger as a test case on 25 June. On 7 July, the petition was dismissed.

Turning Back

Eventually, Gurdit Singh was forced to accept that theirs was a hopeless situation. Reid now attempted to seize the ship by tying the Komagata Maru to another ship called Sea Lion and taking it out to sea. Singh and the passengers were determined that they would sail back only after stocking up with sufficient food and water for the return journey. They resisted, showering coals on the police and braving hot water sprays rained on them. Cooler heads soon prevailed and a further show of force was prevented when food and water was provided for the return journey. On 23 July, the ship set out on its return journey.

The ship was disallowed from Hong Kong and directed to proceed to Calcutta, eventually arriving there on 27 September.

The police in Budge Budge near Calcutta now attempted to forcibly get all passengers to board a train to Punjab. Sixty-two passengers did so while others rallied round Gurdit Singh who wanted to stay back in Calcutta. Talks failed and a violent confrontation soon ensued that resulted in the death of 19 passengers in police firing. Amidst the mayhem, Gurdit Singh vanished and would not resurface till 1921 when he offered himself for arrest (responding to an appeal from Mahatma Gandhi) and was sentenced to 5 years rigorous imprisonment.

In January 1915, a commission appointed to probe the Budge Budge incident placed the blame for the firing on Gurdit Singh and the passengers.

A 1974 movie, Jeevan Sangram starring Shashi Kapoor, is based on the Komagata Maru incident and dedicated to Gurdit Singh.

In May 2016, the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau formally apologised for the incident.

The incident of the Komagata Maru was something of a catalyst to the Ghadar movement which was ignited by overseas Indians in the USA in 1915. Their plan, which came up short, was to foment an army mutiny in India and thus overthrow the British.

Clearly, the Battle of Saragarhi notwithstanding, Sikhs and indeed, all Indians, were foster-children of the Empire and many doors and opportunities in its territories were closed to them. The Empire had claimed to be a paternalistic provider to all its subjects. That it clearly was not. It was merely a glorified profit-seeking operation that sought to maximise its returns with minimal benefits to those of its subjects who enabled the Empire to obtain those returns.

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