On May 23, 1914, the Komagata Maru reached Vancouver’s harbour via Hong Kong and Japan carrying 376 prospective South Asian immigrants who hoped to settle in Canada. The passengers, however, did not receive a friendly welcome. Their arrival provoked massive opposition from the public, and prevalent ideas of race and exclusion held by the majority of the local population led to an outpouring of racial rhetoric and considerable effort to force the ship’s return to India. In response to this backlash, the local South Asian community came together to fight the deportation of the passengers. While a legal challenge mounted, the community was unsuccessful and the vast majority of the passengers were forced to leave. This collective action was a pivotal event in the community’s early struggle for equal treatment in Canada. Today, the Komagata Maru incident has resonance within Canadian history and public discourse, and has significant iconic value within the South Asian-Canadian community.
In the years prior to the Komagata Maru’s arrival, the Canadian government placed limitations on South Asian immigration through racially restrictive policies. A 1908 order-in-council required “Asiatic” immigrants to possess at least $200 to enter the country. A second order-in-council required all immigrants to come to Canada via “continuous journey,” directly from their country of origin. This policy was aimed at South Asians as nonstop travel from India to Canada was largely unavailable. Sikh businessman Gurdit Singh chartered the Komagata Maru from Hong Kong to confront these restrictions and hoped that he and his passengers, all British citizens, would be able to enter Canada.
This would not be the case. Immigration officials did not allow the ship to dock and the passengers were isolated on board, unable to communicate with the South Asian community on shore. In the weeks that followed, conditions on the ship, including access to food and water, grew desperate. The local South Asian community rose to the defence of the passengers, formed a committee, raised large amounts of money, and hired a lawyer to challenge the restrictive immigration laws. A test case was put before the courts, but lost in its final appeal, and the passengers were issued deportation orders. When they refused to leave until provisions for the return trip were supplied and fought attempts by officials to board their ship, the government sent in the heavily-armed warship HMCS Rainbow. The Komagata Maru passengers stood their ground, singing patriotic songs and reading from Sikh scripture. Finally, thanks in part to efforts by the local South Asian community to negotiate an agreement, the government provided food and water for the ship. On 23 July 1914, the Komagata Maru left Vancouver harbour with the majority of its passengers aboard and returned to India.