Sikh travellers on the Komagata Maru being turned away from Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet in 1914

While the continuous journey legislation was not applicable only to Indians, it affected them the most as there was no direct passage available from India to Canada. Gurdit Singh decided to beat the Canadian law by following it to the letter. He thought he would charter a ship from Calcutta to Vancouver, paying for its rental through sale of tickets and cargo. Speaking at a ‘Sabha’ in Hong Kong, he proposed that they charter a ship to enable Indians to make a direct voyage from India to Canada. He also proposed that 100,000 dollars be raised and deposited in a Canadian bank as sureties for every Indian intending to land in Canada to preclude the Canadian Government from raising any objections on account of the financial position of Indians. Having obtained the sanction from the community, he set about making preparation for the voyage. On February 13, 1914, he issued advertisements, but nobody really wanted to go all the way to Calcutta only to return again to Hong Kong on their way to Vancouver. Gurdit Singh then started selling tickets from Hong Kong itself and felt that he would deal with the ban after they reached Vancouver. The Hong Kong Colonial Government tried to thwart these plans but the laws proved insufficient. 

Kavita Sharma

Gurdit Singh consulted three leading lawyers in Hong Kong to ascertain the legality of their proposed voyage to Canada. In the opinion of all three, there were “no restrictions upon immigration of Indians from the colony unless” they were “under contract of service (and the intending passengers were under no contract of service).” In spite of this, Gurdit Singh was arrested on 25th March, 1914 on the eve of their departure. One possible motive for such an action, he feels, could have been to scare away the passengers. He was produced before the court on 28th March, 1914. The police withdrew the case but of the five hundred proposed passengers, only a hundred and sixty five remained. 

According to Gurdit Singh, he was willing to refund the fares of those who had changed their plans and proceed but the Government insisted that the ship had to carry its full share of passengers leading to further delay. On 3rd April, Gurdit Singh met Severn, the then Colonial Secretary at Hong Kong and Acting Governor as Mr. May the Governor was on leave. Severn helped him to leave Hong Kong on 4th April. The Ship had to wait for six days at Shanghai and for five at Kobe to take in passengers. Even then the required number of passengers was not available. Some could not pay for their fares on the spot and therefore, hundies worth $ 24,000/- had to be accepted. Finally, the ship had three hundred and sixty seven passengers including two women and three children. Gurdit Singh served notice on the Hong Kong Government for the loss incurred due to delay caused by the detention of the ship even after the case had been withdrawn. 

—The author is Director at the India International Centre, and a former principal of the Hindu College, Delhi. The piece is excerpted from her book, Ongoing Journey—Indian Migration to Canada.
 (To be continued) 

August 2010

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