Riots broke out inside Komagata Maru as thirsty passengers began to fall sick in the absence of water

According to the rules and regulations of the Immigration Act, the responsibility for providing provisions to the passengers was that of the port authorities. They neither did so themselves nor did they allow Gurdit Singh to do so. Lack of water caused a child Fouja Singh, son of Sundar Singh, to faint due to thirst. Gurdit Singh gives a heart rending account of how he rushed with a bottle of beer from the Captain’s cabin.  

A few spoons began to revive the child but the Japanese were very offended at his temerity. The situation, however, had become so desperate that when the Japanese brought their barrel of water as usual in the evening, thirst riots broke out on board.

Kavita Sharma

The Captain of the ship, himself a Japanese, reported the matter to Mr. Hosi, the Japanese Consul at Vancouver, who summoned the Japanese men-of-war. Within two days, Komagata Maru was surrounded by them. Mr. Hosi also took the Canadian authorities to task. They offered the Japanese all the ammunition and help that might be needed for the chastisement of Komagata Maru. However, when Mr. Hosi later came on board and got convinced that injustice had been done to the passengers, he sent back his men-of-war. The incident created a storm of publicity. By June 10, many passengers had fallen sick and one had died. Water was supplied to the passengers on 27th June, 1914 and on 19th July, the ship was ordered to leave the port once again without water or provision. 

Sho Kuwajima has given details of the Japanese attitude to the Komagata Maru incident. The majority of the passengers of Komagata Maru were originally farmers who had joined the armed forces and had left their military services recently. They had been ‘loyal subjecst’ of the British and hence the purpose of their journey to Vancouver was not political but economic. They hoped to get jobs in Vancouver. However, according to Kuwajima, a subtle change of attitude had already taken place in the thought process of Indian soldiers and policemen. They had got imbued with nationalist feelings and become aware of their rights. Kuwajima refers to Shiosaki, an owner and engineer on Komagata Maru, who said that it was the Indian policemen and soldiers serving in Hong Kong who had protested most vociferously against the delay in giving the vessel the certificate of departure. This had forced the Hong Kong Government to permit her sailing as it feared riot of Indian residents including military and policemen. Also, as Emily Brown points out, many ex-soldiers who had got aboard in Hong Kong and Shanghai were those who had been revolted by the idea of killing fellow Asians. They preferred to work on farms in Canada. Yoshida, the biographer Shiosaki, shows that the articles on Komagata Maru that appeared in The Osaka Asahi Shimbun from July 21 to 23, 1914, reproduced opinions of passengers who asserted their rights as British subjects. 

—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) 

November 2010

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