The Komagata Maru surrounded by Canadian warships

When Gurdit Singh and his men could not be persuaded to begin their return journey without food or water, a large steam boat the Sea Lion approached Komagata Maru with a hundred and twenty five police and thirty five ex-military men, all armed. They expected to take over the boat without any difficulty. They tied the Sea Lion to the Komagata Maru. In spite of protests, says Gurdit Singh, they locked him and his infant son in the cabin in order to have a free hand. Some policemen fired at the passengers without warning. Fortunately, they were able to duck and run downstairs to fetch coal with which they gave them a fight. In the face of this unexpected onslaught the police had to retreat.

Kavita Sharma

The Police had a severe beating with the coals thrown at them and retreated to the front of the ship. They were panic stricken and their united weight nearly sank the launch by the head. One of my men saw the plight of the Police and to save them from drowning cut the rope thus setting free of the launch. The presence of mind of this good man saved the police from certain death. The Police had of course to admit a defeat and they steamed off. Here, I must record that I have a never come across an instance in History where Police with guns and pistols could not fight unarmed and defenceless people. 

The news of this confrontation with the Canadian police spread through the world. H.H. Stevens proposed to Prime Minister Borden that the Rainbow of the Canadian navy be send to force Komagata Maru out of Burrard Inlet. England gave permission for the use of force against Komagata Maru. It was ordered that the ship be sent out of Canadian waters escorted by Canadian warships. The Rainbow stood by the side of Komagata Maru with 30,000 military men. Thousands flocked to see the destruction of three hundred and sixty almost starved to death Indians. There were only two alternatives before the people on board the Komagata Maru: to go back without food or water and face death by starvation; or to defy the Canadian orders and be blown to bits by the guns of the Canadian warship at the door of Canada. The two alternatives were freely discussed Gurdit Singh tell us and the latter adopted. In spite of threats, the passengers of Komagata Maru refused to move. A general meeting was called on board the ship. It was decided to give the Canadians a fight, however unequal, with sticks, bars, coal and even pepper. They knew that they would die in this extremely unfair battle but preferred to face the tragedy fighting rather than cave in as cowards. It was agreed that they would attack first and that when they could no longer fight, they would go down to the boilers. They expected to be pursued by the victorious Canadian sailors and resolved to pour oil over the coal and set fire to the steamer as soon as that happened. The Japanese crew, too, prepared to abandon the ship. 

—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) 

December 2010

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