Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Not Our Proudest Moments

I have been writing on the history of Vancouver for a couple of years now and I tend to focus on the positive. I will admit that I do make mention of the negatives in a passing manner or if possible a joking manner. But today while we look at some gorgeous photos of the nature around the city I want to talk about a few things that many Vancouverites would rather forget.
On May 23, 1914 a ship that was ordinarily used for shipping coal arrived in the waters of Burrard Inlet and dropped anchor. Aboard Komagata Maru were 376 Indians: 12 Hindus, 24 Muslims and 340 Sikhs. All were British subjects that had come to Canada to start a new life. Something that happened all the time but this time there was a problem.

The white population of Vancouver, and Canada, were resentful of the non whites. There had been anti-Oriental riots as recently as 1907 and earlier in 1914 the CP steamer Monteagle had brought 901 Sikhs to Vancouver. Fearing the loss of jobs and inability to get more, the whites decided the new immigrants were not coming ashore.

This wasn't the first that the world had come to know about Canada's aversion to non white immigrants. The provincial government had passed laws to discourage these people from coming to our fair shores - they had to have at least $200 on their person to enter and considering that the average Indian wage then was ten cents a day, that would nearly impossible for most. Federally Ottawa also passed laws in 1907 in favor of the white. Indians - I mean those from India - were not allowed to run for office or vote. They were not allowed to become pharmacists or accountants or lawyers. Another thing. The route travelled to Canada had to be directly from India.

The steamer had not sailed directly from India. Instead it had started from Hong Kong with 150 passengers then stopped in Shanghai to pick up 111, on to Moji in Japan for another 86 and finally the last 14 passengers in Yokohama before heading to Canada.

And this was an orchestrated affair. The Komagata Maru had been chartered  by an affluent Hong Kong businessman, Gurdit Singh and the voyage was made in a protest against Canada's exclusion laws. They decided to defy our discriminatory laws and immigrate to Canada.

 People knew the ship was coming. The Province newspaper actually had a headline that stated that 'Boat loads of Hindus on Way To Vancouver' and it was labelled as the 'Hindu Invasion'. So the authorities and opponents were as ready for the arrival as the supporters of these immigrants were. There was no way they were going to be allowed to disembark in Canada. And the people aboard the ship were ready to fight back.

A gunman fired on a tug boat which held passengers and police that were trying to board the ship and force it to leave the waters. The resilient hopeful immigrants stubbornly held out even when there were anti-Asian rallies being held in Vancouver and the good citizens denied the passengers food and water. (Fortunately supporters of the immigrants got food and water to them) When a mob of locals attempted to board the ship they were met with a barrage of bricks thrown at them.

These people from India had taken over the ship and were determined to make Canada their home.

This was a battle but it soon ended. Making its first appearance in Vancouver and on its first official assignment, the Royal Canadian Navy's training vessel HMCS Rainbow entered our waters on July 21 and trained its six inch guns on the controversial steamer. 20 passengers had left the Komagata Maru because they had the right documents to stay in Canada but over 300 passengers set sail and left Canada that day.
However that is not where this story ends. On September 26 the Komagata Maru approached Calcutta where it was stopped by a British gunship and all passengers were taken prisoner. They were taken to a Calcutta suburb named Baj Baj and told that they were all being sent to Punjab on a special trip. Some didn't want to go. They wanted to stay in Calutta and do business there or look for work and some wanted to place something in a holy place in Calcutta but the British officials denied them. The British forced the passengers of the Komagata Maru back to the train.

These passengers had now been through a lot and, not surprisingly, had had enough. Some started on a march to Calcutta to fulfill their mission. But the British soldiers weren't having it and forced them back to Baj Baj and ordered them back on the ship. The man who had started this, Gurdit Singh, led the rebels who refused to get back on the ship. A police officer attacked Singh but when another passenger stopped it, gunfire broke out. Twenty people were killed and nine wounded. And Canada's immigration laws weren't to change for years to come.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

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1 comment:

  1. Wow...a sad...but very interesting story...thanks...Karen!