Have you all heard of the 1914 Komagata Maru ‘incident’? A Japanese steamship called Komagata Maru, full of hopeful immigrants from Punjab, India, sailed from Hong Kong to Vancouver, Canada. At the time, India was still under the yoke of the British Empire, and the men were technically British subjects, and so argued they should have the freedom to travel anywhere in the British Empire. However, most of the passengers were not allowed to land in Canada and the ship was forced to turn back to India. Upon its return to Calcutta, the ship was met by a British gunboat. Nineteen of the passengers were shot dead, and many of the rest were imprisoned.
This was not an isolated ‘incident’ of course. It was the result of a deliberate policy by the Canadian government to keep out Asian immigrants and preserve Canada as a “White Man’s Country”. The Continuous Journey Regulation demanded that those who come to Canada do so in a continuous journey from the country of their birth – impossible for Indians. Plus, they each had to have two hundred dollars in their pocket. As if that was not deterrent enough, steamship companies were forbidden to sell passage to Asians.
Gurdit Singh, a Singapore-based businessman, chartered the Komagata Maru in an effort to challenge the Canadian exclusion laws and open the doors of immigration to his Sikh compatriots. After many months of effort (which included a spell of imprisonment for Gurdit Singh for selling tickets for an ‘illegal’ voyage), the ship set sail. But we know what happened, of course. We know the fate of those men when they were forced to turn back to India – shot, killed, jailed, or forced to flee. Gurdit Singh escaped the British and lived in hiding for years, but in 1922 gave himself up at the suggestion of Mahatma Gandhi. He was imprisoned for five years.
On 18 May 2016, over a century after the ‘incident’, the Canadian government finally issued a formal apology. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted “No words can fully erase the suffering of Komagata Maru victims. Today, we apologize and recommit to doing better.”
Thank you, Mr Trudeau.
And Thank YOU, Gurdit Singh, for making a stand, and for inspiring so many with your courage and conviction. There are memorials to you and your passengers in both Canada and India. You are not forgotten. On the contrary, your story continues to inspire us.
Last year, I wrote my own kind of memorial – an alternate history story, in which I changed the ending, closer to my own heart. And perhaps yours as well? That story was published in Clockwork Canada, edited by Dominik Parisien, and released this month. I hope that you will like it, that you will understand why I wrote it, and what I am trying to say. RIP.
ETA: I talk about my motivations for writing Komagata Maru with the Airship Ambassador.