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A tragic and poignant event in the early Indian immigration to Canada. The SS Komagata Maru

Canada remains one of the most sought-after destinations for students from India to pursue higher education. This is not because of the dearth of institutions providing quality education in India, but a desire to be exposed to Western culture and to reap all the benefits that the New World has to offer. There have been umpteen people who moved to the West and became successful, which has impelled the younger generation to follow in their wake. Most of the founding fathers of modern India, such as Gandhi; Nehru; and Ambedkar were educated in the West.

It is within this context that I would like to shed light on a tragic incident involving several Punjabi Sikh immigrants that took place on the eve of the First World War, during the spring and summer of 1914. This incident also had a tremendous impact on the Indian independence struggle.

At the time, immigration to Canada was off-limits for Indians because in 1908 Canada stopped accepting immigrants from India. In the early days of the 20th Century, a few thousand Indians, predominantly Punjabi men had moved to British Columbia. After arriving the men realized that the wages in the country were very high in comparison to what they received in India, and they wrote letters to their kin and friends thereby encouraging their other countrymen to migrate to Canada as well. This alarmed Canadian officials as they feared it would negatively affect the economy, so they created laws to limit the immigration.

The SS Komagata Maru was a Japanese vessel chartered by a Sikh contractor named Gurdit Singh that fateful spring. Hapless immigrants from Punjab boarded the ship in search of a better life, but their dreams would soon be cut short.

At the time there were two immigrations regulations in Canada designed to keep out Indians. One of the stringent laws was that immigration officers could deny entry into Canada to those who did not travel on a continuous trip from their home country. This was all but impossible given the long voyage required stops at various ports to replenish the provisions for the ship. The other stipulation was that those traveling had to possess at least $200, which was an enormous sum for the travellers at that time.

Despite these regulations, what gave the passengers of the Komagata Maru the courage and the confidence to travel to Canada was a ruling by a Canadian judge to refuse an immigration department order to deport 38 Sikhs who had travelled in 1913. However, by the time the Komagata Maru reached Canadian shores the legal situation had changed.

The nearly 3000-ton Komagata Maru, a sturdy and well-equipped ship for its time, set sail from Hong Kong on April 4, 1914, with about 150 passengers onboard. More Punjabi passengers got onboard as the ship sailed via Shanghai and Japan, increasing the total count to 376 passengers. What awaited the eager but weary passengers after more than a month of sailing was not the New World experience they were searching for.

As they entered Vancouver’s harbour on May 23, 1914, The passengers had an inkling that gaining entry to Canada would be fraught with difficulty, but they were unprepared for the uncompromising stance of the Canadian officials who were determined to reject the immigrants onboard the ship. What ensued was a confrontation between the passengers and the immigration officials. After failing to make the passengers leave voluntarily, officials resorted to ruthless measures, such as preventing the passengers from seeking legal recourse; refusing to supply the ship with food and water; and a forcible attempt to seize the ship using police force.

After several days of stand-off, the case was taken to the British Columbia Court of Appeal where a judge ruled in favour of the Canadian government. The passengers reluctantly accepted the decision of the court without appealing because they didn’t have the resources nor the willingness to get entangled in a long legal quagmire.

However, their departure too ran into an impasse as the Canadian government decided whether to provision the ship for the return journey. Eventually, the Canadian government agreed, and after two months, on July 23, the indignant and disheartened passengers commenced their departure from the Great White North.

By this time, the world had plunged into the Great War. On their return journey, the aggrieved passengers established contacts with German diplomats and made friendly communication with the Emden, a German cruiser wreaking havoc on British shipping in the Bay of Bengal. Since the outbreak of the First World War, Indian soldiers had been enlisted to fight alongside the British in Europe and the Middle East. The British in India were suspicious of the loyalty of most of the Indian subjects, and it is in this milieu of hostility that the Komagata Maru arrived on Indian shores.

The passengers disembarked at Budge Budge in Kolkata 20 passengers were killed in a confrontation with the British Indian police and troops who did not want to let the passengers disperse into the city. Instead, they wanted to haul the passengers into a train bound for Punjab. In the aftermath of the violence at Budge Budge, almost all on board were arrested and locked up in a Kolkata prison except for 27 of them who evaded arrest despite an extensive crackdown.

Returning to the present times, Punjabi Sikhs constitute a considerable proportion of the Canadian population and have become an indelible part of the social fabric of Canada with their industriousness and resourcefulness.

After more than a hundred years since the tragedy of the Komagata Maru, it is worth remembering the trials and hardships endured by the early immigrants to Canada.

In May 2008, the government of British Columbia officially apologized for the brutal treatment meted out to the passengers onboard the Komagata Maru. On May 18, 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized for the incident before the House Of Commons: “Today – While knowing that no words can fully erase the pain and suffering experienced by the passengers – I offer a sincere apology on behalf of the government for the laws in force at the time that allowed Canada to be indifferent to the plight of the passengers of the Komagata Maru”.

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