1914

April 4, 1914

Gurdit Singh charters the Komagata Maru and starts to sell tickets to Indians residing temporarily in Hong Kong who want to immigrate to Canada. He sets sail from Hong Kong with 165 passengers, picking up 111 more in Shanghai, 86 in Moji and the final 14 in Yokohama, Japan.                                

 

May,1914

When Canadian Immigration officials become aware that the Komagata Maru has left Japan for British Columbian shores, Vancouver  MP H.H. Stevens comes up with the idea to detain the passengers in port in order to prevent them from being able to seek legal action. He recognizes that they could seek legal redress if they are detained on land. By doing this Stevens prevents a repeat of the case of the Panama Maru.

May 23, 1914

The Komagata Maru arrives in Vancouver at Burrard Inlet. The ship is secured by the militia and forced to stay in the harbour while 22 returning immigrants are allowed to come on shore. The other passengers are forced to stay on board and they mount a legal challenge with support from Indians living in BC. In a letter sent to Immigration agent Malcom Reid, Gurdit Singh writes, “I hereby give notice that if you don’t let me go ashore you will be held responsible for the damage which I have to suffer. You know that I’m a merchant, and that there is no law to prevent the merchants to land. I have to sell my coal and have to arrange for cargo from here. I have to buy necessary provisions for the steamer. You can detain the passengers, not me.“ Singh’s letter spoke the truth but it is ignored when Reid explains to his superiors the dangers of allowing Singh to land. Malcom Reid, Vancouver’s Dominion Immigration Agent does not allow any one including Singh’s lawyer Edward Bird on board. Reid gains the support of everyone including the Prime Minister Robert Borden on his actions. Reid also increases security having the surrounding area patrolled by ex-cops and militias wielding rifles.

 

June 6, 1914

The passengers’ lawyer J.E. Bird argues in front a judge that the immigrants’ civil rights were being denied, as cited in the Magna Carta. Bird also tries to argue that as citizens of the empire leaving from Hong Kong they are also “natives” of Hong Kong thus they had travelled on a continuous journey. This was ultimately denied due to it being over ruled by the BNA act, which gave Canada the right to determine its immigrants. During this time those on the ship are virtually being starved and deprived of water, due to the government manipulating when supplies arrive on board. An account by Gurdit Singh explains how the lack of supplies was resulting in the suffering of the children “One day a child…named Fouja Singh…fainted due to thirst. His mother began to weep. It was a heart-rending scene; I hastened to the cabin of the captain…and brought a bottle of beer. As soon as a few spoons of it were put into his mouth, the child began to regain his senses.”

 

June 9, 1914

Since Singh cannot sell his coal or cargo, Hussain Rahim, head of the shore committee and other members raise $20,000 required to pay the remaining balance on the ship to the Japanese owners. By doing so they prevent the ship from being recalled by its owners, which would have solved the government’s problem of turning away the ship.

 

 

July 19, 1914

Several days after the ruling, the Komagata Maru is seized from the Japanese crew by the immigrants. In response the city sends out the tug boat Sea Lion with 150 policemen on board along with Reid, Hopkinson and Stevens. The policemen face strong opposition from the army trained immigrants and are forced back after sustaining injuries and damage from projectiles thrown at them. In response to this the Prime Minister calls for the HMCS Rainbow to control the situation. When faced with the intimidating confrontation of The Rainbow the passengers of the Komagata Maru are steadfast in their resolve. Gurdit Singh later writes: “It was agreed that it was an impossibility to fight and win against such fearful odds…The warship was preparing for action and on the other hand we were preparing for death. On behalf of the Government the commander sent the message, ‘Leave our shores, you uninvited Indians, or we fire.’ Our reply to this command was that if Canada will allow us to provision the ship we will go, otherwise, Fire away. We prefer death here than on the high seas.”

July 23, 1914

The real threat posed by half of the Canadian Navy against the Komagata Maru, forces Singh to accept the denial of entry into Canada. But before they leave the members of the Shore Committee are finally able to go on board and meet the passengers. They find that the mood on board is defiant.  Vancouver resident G.S Bilga later recounted in an interview “Their point [was] this: “if we do go back, where I am going to? What are we going to do? We have nothing left. If we go back to India, we know the Indian government will not give us any assistance at all. They might arrest us and put us in jail. So why not we die here, instead of going back to die there?” We explained to them that we are not happy that you are going back, but our hands are tied. We don’t have any resources; don’t have any power to fight with. So the best way is for you people to go back.” The Komagata Maru lifts anchor after 2 months in Vancouver and is coerced away from BC shores to the Pacific by the HMCS Rainbow.

September 26, 1914

The Komagata Maru reaches the coast of India, at Budge Budge near Calcutta. British authorities are convinced the ship is carrying Ghadarite nationalists and arrange for the passengers to take a special train back to Punjab, where it would be decided who would be detained or not. The majority of passengers do not agree to get on the train instead choosing to disembark on foot. The procession is intercepted by authorities and a riot ensues. During the riot Gurdit Singh’s son is captured and he is forced to go into hiding until 1921. In the end 22 passengers are killed and nearly 24 passengers are injured with 28 of them escaping. The Budge Budge conflict is one of the most serious to occur in India in several years. The army is found to have fired 177 shots alone. When news of the event reaches Canada it causes wide spread anti-British sentiment. Gurdit Singh’s recollection of the event underlines the shock and chaos the passengers of the Komagata Maru experienced when the conflict broke out, “I understood at once the meaning of this act…and to our horror we felt the police bullets hitting us. No warning of whatever nature was given for this unprovoked attack…three or four of my men lifted me on their shoulders and carried me to safety. I protested…but they replied, ‘Alive, you will tell the world the sad story of the Komagata Maru.”

 

October 21, 1914

Bhai Mewa Singh comes to Canada in 1906, a time when thousands of new Punjabi Sikh immigrants were coming to Canada looking for greener pastures and a better life. Bhai Mewa Singh arrives in Canada at a time when racism against non-Caucasian immigrants is at its peak. Despite these unsavory experiences of racism and hostility, Bhai Mewa Singh decides to stay in Canada. For Bhai Mewa Singh the turning point comes on September 15th, 1914 when he witnesses a man named Bela Singh (who worked as an informant for Hopkinson) enter the Gurdwara on West Second Avenue, and shoot two devout Sikhs: Bhai Bhag Singh and Bhai Battan Singh. Soon after this Bhai Mewa Singh starts receiving threats from Inspector Hopkinson and his South Asian Indian agents. He is threatened that if he doesn’t give testimony in favour of Bela Singh that he will also be murdered just like Bhai Bhag Singh and Bhai Battan Singh. However, Bhai Mewa Singh doesn’t waver; he testifies in court and speaks the truth. After this the threat becomes even more severe: the next time he is seen walking the streets of Vancouver he will be shot dead-this is what he is told.

Hearing this threat infuriates Bhai Mewa Singh. He thinks that not only are his countrymen being severely oppressed in Canada they are now being told that they don’t even have the right to speak the truth. It is then that Bhai Mewa Singh decides to die a death of a martyr rather than to live the life of an oppressed person. Bhai Mewa Singh holds Inspector Hopkinson responsible for the murder of the two Sikhs in the Gurdwara because the killer is working as a mole for him. Mr. Hopkinson is to appear in court on October 21, 1914 to testify in favour of the killer Bela Singh. Bhai Mewa Singh enters court on that same day and shoots and kills Mr. Hopkinson.  After shooting him Bhai Mewa Singh drops his weapons and surrenders to the authorities. Bhai Mewa Singh is put on trial for the murder of Mr. Hopkinson. The presiding judge finds him guilty he is sentenced to death by hanging.