Komagata Maru centenary sheds light on hidden history of Canada's racist past
Like many Vancouverites of South Asian descent, cultural historian Naveen Girn was deeply troubled by news reports last December about a man urinating on the Komagata Maru memorial.
About two years ago, the monument was unveiled in Harbour Green Park as a tribute to 376 British subjects of South Asian descent who sailed into Burrard Inlet on May 23, 1914.
Led by a wealthy Sikh who chartered the vessel, Gurdit Singh, the passengers were eager to join a growing Indian community in the Lower Mainland.
But the plan fell apart when immigration officials refused to let most of them disembark, leaving them stranded in the harbour for two months before the vessel was forced back to sea.
In the end, more than 350 were deported back to India. There, British authorities killed 19 passengers in a shootout, and many others were jailed.
With Girn’s assistance, the Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society is coordinating a remarkable number of events with seven other organizations to commemorate the centenary of the ship’s arrival in Vancouver.
In a recent phone interview with the Georgia Straight, he said the man who desecrated the memorial last year was mentally unstable. But it was the reaction of others in the region—who were not delusional—that caused him to feel more distressed.
“What really affected me was the comments on the stories that you would find, where people were saying…‘This is not a Canadian story. Why do we have this memorial in the first place?’ ” Girn said.
He was reading these comments while serving as project manager on the Komagata Maru 1914-2014: Generations, Geographies and Echoes Project, which is trying to send precisely the opposite message. The groups and cultural institutions involved want to convey that it is a major Canadian event that has had a long-standing impact on the country.
“These Komagata Maru passengers came because they believed in this idea of Vancouver,” Girn said. “They believed in something aspirational about Canada. It’s a matter of keeping that alive and adding those voices into this larger story of how Canada tells its own history.”
Other events commemorating the Komagata Maru are scheduled in May at Surrey City Hall and at the Khalsa Diwan Society–operated Ross Street Temple. The centenary celebrations also include a public event at Harbour Green Park on May 23—the same day that the SFU library will unveil its Komagata Maru collection. And starting May 21, an exhibit will open at the Museum of Vancouver.
“This is the first time that these groups have come together—this many, and at this scale,” Girn said. “Each institution knew that the Komagata Maru anniversary was coming and instead of competing with one another, they decided to share the story, share resources, and share information and artifacts. Whether it’s the descendants’ voices or physical artifacts or art or reimagining the city, they all had their own facet of the story to share.”
(For more information, visit the Komagata Maru 100 website.)
The deportations were triggered by racist immigration laws that had been created six years earlier following anti-Asian riots in Vancouver’s Chinatown and Japantown. At the time, South Asians were prohibited from moving to Canada if they didn’t have $200 in cash or a continuous-journey ticket purchased before they left the country where they were born.
Singh had hoped that British officials would convince Canadian officials to admit the passengers to avoid an uprising in British-ruled India. It turned out to be a “great miscalculation”, according to SFU professor emeritus Hugh Johnston, author of the just-released The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada’s Colour Bar (UBC Press). It’s a fully revised and updated edition of his 1989 book of the same name.
“The passengers were in the hands of Gurdit Singh…and they should have been doing more thinking for themselves,” Johnston said. “That was my attitude the first time through. The second time through, I think I’m more sympathetic than I was the first time. Still, he led them into a mess. And the only excuse is that he didn’t know enough. He was too supremely confident without enough knowledge.”
The previous year, immigration officials tried to stop 56 South Asians aboard a vessel called the Panama Maru from disembarking in Victoria. The Voyage of the Komagata Maru outlines how a socialist lawyer, Edward Bird, persuaded the chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court that the continuous-journey regulation didn’t apply to these passengers because its wording differed from that in the Immigration Act.
This emboldened Singh to take on South Asian passengers in India, Hong Kong, China, and Japan, even though the Canadian government had already adjusted the language to prevent a similar court ruling in the future.
Johnston explained that British-run India was a police state in 1914, complete with press censorship, which made it highly unlikely that the Indian masses would learn of the fate of the Komagata Maru passengers in Vancouver’s harbour, let alone create an insurrection in India on their behalf.
Johnston maintained that in 1914, Canada wasn’t going to bend to the will of the British Empire if there was too high a political price to be paid. “I think it’s comparable to the relationship Canada has with the United States now,” he said. “The Americans can bring pressure, but if they do it in too overt a way, then they know there will be a reaction.”
His book offers deep insights into the difficult lives of Indian pioneers in Canada and the western United States in the early part of the 20th century. It was a highly politicized, largely male community made up mostly of Punjabis.
Johnston details how the private secretary to Canada’s interior minister took a Sikh and a Hindu to British Honduras in 1908—a year after Vancouver’s race riots—as part of a scheme to encourage other Indians in Canada to relocate to Central America. It backfired when the two men told fellow Indians about the rotten conditions in the land now known as Belize.
The same year that Canadian officials were trying to persuade Indians to relocate to British Honduras, a Bengali nationalist named Taraknath Das moved to New Westminster. There, he opened a school and launched an English-language paper called Free Hindusthan, which railed against the continuous-journey legislation, according to Johnston’s book.
Das was joined by another radical, Guran Ditta Kumar, who created a second paper called Swadesh Sewak. In 1910, another important activist joined the community, Husain Rahim, who spoke English and three other languages. Johnston reports that Rahim published six issues of The Hindustanee in 1914.
“He talked of lobbying the Indian legislature, working within the British imposed framework of government,” Johnston writes. “But he was not timid about saying openly that he thought that Indians would not be protected overseas until they had secured self-government at home.”
In contrast to these three clean-shaven westernized Indians was the Khalsa Diwan Society, which managed the first Sikh gurdwara in North America on West 2nd Avenue in Vancouver. “Only the more broad-minded among them would join the United India League founded by Kumar and Taraknath Das,” Johnston writes.
The translator on that 1908 mission to British Honduras was an Anglo-Indian named William Charles Hopkinson, who had been a police officer in India. He later became an immigration inspector, and because he could speak Hindi fluently and a fair amount of Punjabi, Hopkinson was able to assemble a network of spies to keep tabs on radicals in the community.
Johnston reveals that Hopkinson even spent six months in San Francisco investigating a leading intellectual force behind the Ghadar party, which advocated violent insurrection in India against British rule. Ghadar translates into “mutiny” in English—and the party had many adherents in the Lower Mainland among those Indians feeling betrayed by Great Britain.
“It was seen to be important by the British India authorities,” Johnston said. “But on the other hand, the Ghadar people didn’t get the response in India that they expected.”
Johnston also reports in his book that Hopkinson believed that the passengers on the Komagata Maru were linked to the Ghadarites. It’s an issue that’s also been examined in detail by Gurpreet Singh, a Surrey-based Radio India broadcaster and director of Radical Desi magazine.
Last year, he wrote Why Mewa Singh Killed William Hopkinson: Revisiting the Murder of a Canadian Immigration Inspector (Chetna Parkashan) to shed more light on historical racism and discriminatory immigration policies in Canada.
Hopkinson was shot in the Vancouver provincial courthouse on October 21, 1914, less than three months after the Komagata Maru was forced to leave the harbour. The killing occurred more than a month after one of the ship’s passengers’ greatest supporters in Vancouver, Indian community leader Bhag Singh Bhikhiwind, and another man, Badan Singh Dalel, were gunned down in the Sikh temple by one of Hopkinson’s informants, Bela Singh Jian.
“Hopkinson’s murder was actually the culmination of the Komagata Maru episode,” Gurpreet Singh told the Straight by phone. “The whole episode fascinated me because I feel so connected to the story of Mewa Singh and other Ghadar heroes.”
He emphasized that the attack on Hopkinson was retaliation for the murder of Bhikhiwind—and he blamed these deaths on British imperialism. “I see both people as victims of political events,” he noted. “Hopkinson was serving the interests of the British Empire. Because of that, Mewa Singh became a sufferer, and he avenged all of his suffering by killing Hopkinson.…People need to know Mewa Singh did not kill Hopkinson out of rage. He was not just any trigger-happy kind of person.”
Johnston said that events in 1914 must be seen in the context of the sharp rise in immigration in the early part of the century, culminating in a record number of arrivals in 1913.
When he began researching the history of the Indo-Canadian community as a young academic in the 1970s, nobody else was doing this kind of work. Johnston suggested that the attention being paid to the Komagata Maru voyage on its centenary reflects the great advancement of Sikhs in Canada. When the community was on the fringes, the mainstream wasn’t very interested in what happened to the Komagata Maru passengers. But that has undergone a significant change in the past three or four decades.
“History is about the winners,” he said. “This story sort of proves it.”
Hugh Johnston will speak at the Vancouver Maritime Museum at 6 p.m. next Thursday (May 8).