SS Komagata Maru

Passengers on board SS Komagata Maru in 1914. © Library and Archives Canada / PA-034015

For the Week of Monday May 18, 2020.

On May 23, 1914, SS Komagata Maru reached Vancouver, British Columbia from Hong Kong. Most of the 376 passengers were Sikhs from the Punjab region of India, who were hoping to immigrate to Canada. Instead, they were detained aboard the steamship in Vancouver Harbour for two months and then forced to return to India.

Sikh leader and Malaya businessman Gurdit Singh chartered SS Komagata Maru to transport Sikhs immigrants to Canada. The Japanese steamship left the British-controlled territory of Hong Kong with mostly Punjabi men. Since India was under British rule at the time, they were British subjects. However, they could still be denied entry to Canada.

In 1908, the Canadian government issued Orders-in-Council that severely restricted immigration from India. The first empowered immigration officers to deny entry to any Asians with less than $200 to their name (approximately $ 4,500 in today’s currency). This was a lot of money at the time and made immigration impossible for people seeking entry into Canada as a way of escaping poverty. The second denied entry to those migrants who did not make a continuous journey from their country of origin to Canadian shores. There was no direct steamship service from India because the Canadian government pressured steamship companies to not offer this service, so this rule effectively closed the door to Indian immigrants.

SS Komagata Maru violated the continuous passage act by picking up passengers in Punjab and then stopping in Hong Kong before heading on to Vancouver. The British governor of Hong Kong warned the Canadian government that the ship was heading for the West Coast. On reaching the harbour, armed immigration authorities immediately surrounded the ship. They prevented passengers from disembarking and refused to allow anyone on board, including members of the Sikh community in Vancouver. For two months SS Komagata Maru remained offshore in Vancouver Harbour. 

The passengers faced desperate conditions onboard the ship, many of them near starvation because Canadian authorities prevented the delivery of food, water, and other essential supplies. When efforts to secure legal entry failed, they had no choice but to return to India. On July 23, SS Komagata Maru left Vancouver Harbour under the escort of the heavily-armed HMCS Rainbow, the first Canadian warship on the Pacific Coast. 

It was not until the passage of the Canadian Citizenship Act in 1947 that the federal government lifted restrictions preventing the entry of Indian immigrants to Canada. 

The Komagata Maru Incident of 1914 is a designated national historic event. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic events, which evoke significant moments, episodes, movements, or experiences in the history of Canada. 

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Information on how to participate in this process is available here:

May is Asian Heritage Month. Learn more about the histories, achievements, and contributions of Canadians of Asian descent by exploring articles in our online archives about “Paper Sons”: Chinese Immigration to Canada, SS Komagata Maru, the forcible relocation of Japanese Canadians during and after the Second World War, the Abbotsford Gur Sikh Temple, and The New Canadian: A Voice for Japanese Canadians.