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Saga of Indian immigration, and Komagata Maru

Passengers stand aboard the S.S.Komagata Maru at the port of Vancouver.   | Photo Credit: HANDOUT

On May 20, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologised in Parliament for the Komagata Maru incident. “Today, I rise in this House to offer an apology on behalf of the government of Canada for our role in the Komagata Maru incident,” he said. “More than a century ago a great injustice took place.”

This was the second time a Canadian Prime Minister is apologising for the black mark in the history of Indo-Canadian immigration. Over the past many years, the government of Canada had taken steps to right the wrongs committed during the Komagata Maru fiasco.

The ship Komagata Maru landed on the shores of British Columbia (Canada) in 1914. It carried a group of adventurous people who wanted to seek a better life in the New World, halfway across the globe. The story illustrated the trials and tribulations of people who came from Calcutta to Canada’s Pacific coast.

A long voyage

To conform to the Canadian government’s newly enacted Continuous Passage Act, which required all potential immigrants to make a continuous journey to Canada, Gurdit Singh, an Indo-Canadian immigration pioneer, had chartered the Japanese steamship S.S. Komagata Maru to take people from India to Canada. It set sail from Hong Kong on April 4, 1914, with 165 passengers; more passengers joined in Shanghai and Yokohama. The ship continued its journey to the western coast of Canada with 376 passengers. After about 40 days, on May 23, it arrived on the shores of British Columbia.

But the Canadian authorities refused permission to dock and the passengers were detained on board. After a two-month stalemate, negotiations, and political manoeuvring, on July 23 the ship was forced to turn back, minus 20 people who were allowed to stay in Canada. The dreams of the rest of the asylum-seekers were shattered; they were rejected under the laws of the land that excluded East Indians from settling in Canada.

Upon its arrival back in Calcutta on September 27, British gunboats blocked the ship’s entry into the port. The passengers were treated as law-breakers and political agitators. A general riot ensued as the police entered the ship to capture the leaders. In the melee, 19 passengers were shot and killed, and the rest were incarcerated.

Komagata Maru was an incident that shaped Indian emigration. Indian emigration has a long history, going back to over a thousand years. It has been known that Indian emigration of Romani Gypsies started around AD 1100 and continued through the time of Asoka, Samudra Gupta and the Chola emperors. The very first Indian indentured trade started with the French government in 1826.

During British Raj, indentured labourers were sent to many British and French colonies. The first batch to West Indies went on two ships, Whitby and Hesperus, over 175 years ago. Both set sail from Calcutta on January 13, 1838, with 249 labourers. After a 112-day voyage, they arrived in Guyana (then British Guiana) on May 5, 1838. Thus began the Indian indentureship. From 1838 until the practice was abolished in 1917, about a quarter of a million Indian labourers arrived in Guyana to work in sugarcane plantations. Indian labourers were a cheap source of labour for British plantation owners.

In modern days, Indian émigrés started moving in larger numbers to many other countries in search of employment or permanent residency. Many events small, big, and tragic, shaped the flow of immigrants and their survival in distant lands. Their tales of survival in parts unknown, their hardships and agonies, are part of the history of Indian immigration. All such events slowly and steadily reshaped the lives of modern-day Indian immigrants. We should be mindful of the history of early expatriate Indians, and their struggles, suffering and dedication.

Indian emigrants are known by many names, including a few infamous nicknames accorded by others out of ignorance and prejudice. No matter how we are called or known, we all have a common link and are identified by certain innate qualities that came from the motherland. We have come a long way from the days of sugarcane plantations and rubber estates. Today the Indian diaspora is 25-million strong and growing, according to 2013 statistics compiled by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs. Expatriate Indians are doing well and leading the way in many fields: today they even lead nations, giant international conglomerates and educational institutions. Indeed, Indians have much to be proud of.

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 8:02:13 PM |

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