Komagata Maru

A Turning Point

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

The Komagata Maru incident forms the most spectacular episode in the history of early Indo-Canadian migration to Canada. The man behind it was an enterprising Sikh, Gurdit Singh Sarhali, who had done well as a labour contractor in Malaya. He arrived in Hong Kong in January 1914. Realising the plight of Indians wanting to emigrate to Canada he decided to accept the challenge posed by the Canadian Continuous Journey Legislation by following the law to the letter. It led to the tragedy of Komagata Maru that has been well documented in books and periodicals and there is at least one play on the subject.

Kavita Sharma

Gurdit Singh tried to vindicate his position in his book, Voyage of Komagata Maru, or India’s Slavery Abroad. It is his version and if it needs to be read with caution because the Komagata Maru enterprise was a commercial one for him, it has to be remembered that it was the same for all those who chartered ships to bring in immigrants and other passengers to Canada. Also, all interpretations of the Komagata Maru episode are grounded in the points of view of the interpreter shaped by his or her own circumstances. According to Gurdit Singh, his primary motive for undertaking the Komagata Maru enterprise was that he had seen the treatment given to Indian coolies in Malaya and this had moved him enough to make him determined to serve his countrymen. He felt that even horses were treated better than the Indians who worked on the tea and rubber plantations in Malay states. He recounts how he once asked a European:

Why he did not condescend to grant at least such stable like accommodation to his garden coolies to save them from sure death. He told me, as if to chastise my manifest foolishness that a horse would bring him Rs. 1500 whereas a coolie not more than Rs. 40 or Rs. 50. I also learnt on enquiry that the horse cost him Rs. 4 per day for its fodder and upkeep while a coolie was made to live and keep fit and one anna and six pies a day. So one horse cost as much as 42 human beings. This was my first-hand knowledge of the European estimate of the value of the labour of an Indian as compared with that of a lower animal. I also saw this traffic in Indian blood at Penang. The buyers and sellers were both Madrasis. The coolies here were kept in cells and prevented from stirring out. The purchasers had to go to the cells to make the selection and do the rest of the bargaining. I offered to be a purchaser in order to learn the actual secrets of the prison house and when I asked the coolies how they came to be such human chattel actually bought and sold, I was informed that it was the brokers, who held licences from the government for the purpose, who with fake but tempting offers put them into the grip of these human monsters. 

—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) 

July 2010

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