04 Jul Komagata Maru
Incident At Burrard Inlet
In late May 1914, a ship called the Komagata Maru tried to enter Vancouver harbour. On board were 376 British subjects. Each of them had joined this voyage specifically to fight and make a stand against the current Canadian immigration laws. The passengers consisted of 12 Hindus, 24 Muslims and 340 Sikhs.
The government of British Columbia had passed laws to try and prevent the “brown invasion” of the Indian people. They set expectations for each newcomer to meet such as they must have $200 cash on them and must be direct from India to gain access to Canada. Upon gaining citizenship, they were not even allowed to vote. These racist laws were in part to protect the jobs at factories, mills and lumber yards.
The Komagata Maru was a Japanese freighter chartered by a successful businessman by the name of Gurdit Singh. He had the vessel specifically outfitted as a passenger vessel from its usual transport status of coal. She sailed from Hong Kong to Vancouver in April 1914.
When the Komagata Maru reached the Burrard Inlet, the pre-warned Canadian Authorities were waiting. The people in the Indian community were ready to stand in support of the incoming ship passenger.
Upon arrival, the ship was not allowed to sail into Vancouver Harbour and set anchor near Burrard Inlet. Authorities claimed that the passengers had violated laws of immigration as they had not come directly from India nor did most of the passengers have the needed $200. So the passengers were held on board, caught in the tug of war between the voyage organizers and the local government authorities.
One such vessel hired to keep the passengers from entering Canada was the historic British Columbia tugboat, the Sea Lion. She was hired as an immigration vessel for the purpose of escorting the Indian ship out of Vancouver’s waters.
A two-month battle played out in the courts and media and a physical battle was set to play out in the water as well.
Under the darkness of the early morning on July 19, 1914, the Sea Lion with her 35 armed and deputized officers along with 125 Police officers set out and approached the Komagata Maru with the intention of forcing her out of the harbour. The passengers were awake and ready for the fight.
Under the threat of attack by the passengers, the Sea Lion sided up to the Komagata Maru and tied on. The Indian passengers tried to sever the line and were pushed back by the police and the fire hose on the Sea Lion. But with the Komagata Maru having a 5-meter height advantage, they
quickly took the upper hand. They threw coal, firebricks and scrap metal down onto the officers below. Many of the officers on board the Sea Lion, including her captain were scraped and bruised by the onslaught. She was finally ordered to retreat and the Sea Lion limped away covered in soot and debris.
The government finally ordered the naval ship the HMCS Rainbow to evict the Komagata Maru out of Vancouver Harbour.
On July 23, 1914, the Rainbow and the Sea Lion escorted the Komagata Maru out of the harbour waters. She then set sail to return to her passengers to India. In the end, only 24 of the Indians were granted permission to stay in Canada.
Though this incident is seen as a black mark in Canadian government history, to the Indian people it is seen as a great victory in the fight for equality.
Written by K.E. Heaton