Komagata Maru

When the Komagata Maru, a Japanese-owned freighter chartered out of Hong Kong, left for the coast of British Columbia in 1914, many Sikh immigrants climbed aboard, hoping to start a new life in Canada. But when the ship arrived in Vancouver, local authorities prevented them from coming ashore (courtesy "The Province," Vancouver).

Word about the attractiveness of Canada reached India with returning Sikh soldiers who had travelled through Canada after attending Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897. Indians, mostly Sikhs, began coming in 1904 and, like the Chinese, in number enough to alarm Caucasians in Canada. Without regard for what rights Indians had as British subjects, Whites wanted this "brown invasion" turned back. British Columbia acted by requiring Indian arrivals to have in their possession $200—equal to about five years' wages in India. Arriving Europeans had to have only $25. In 1908, the federal government took direct aim at stopping Indian immigration by imposing a requirement that any Indian seeking entry had to have come by direct passage. There was no direct steamship service from India to Canada; all voyages were broken in Singapore or Hong Kong.

In 1913, 38 Sikhs contested the law successfully. The next year, a well-off Sikh in Hong Kong mounted another challenge. He chartered the steamliner Komagata Maru and by the time it arrived in Vancouver, having picked up paying passengers in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and in Moji and Yokohama, Japan, there were 376 Indians on board. For two months, the boat and its passengers sat in Vancouver's harbour as Canadian authorities refused to allow the passengers to land. As well, Canada denied the ship re-supplies of food and water.

In the end, only 24 disembarked, all of whom were returning residents, and Canada sent the HMCS Rainbow cruiser to escort the ship out to sea. With the outbreak of the First World War, Indian authorities were suspicious that the arriving ship in Calcutta had hostile intentions against the ruling British. During disembarkation, local troops opened fire. Estimates of the death toll were as high as 50.

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