354 THE ADVOCATE
VOL. 77 PART 3 MAY 2019
The ship, as long as a football field,13 had been built in Glasgow in 1890.
It had at one point been operated by the Hamburg-American line (as the
Sicilia) before being purchased by the Japanese company that owned it at
the time of the events at issue.
Gurdit Singh, a fairly well-to-do Sikh in his mid-50s who had lived in
Malaya and Singapore, chartered the ship in Hong Kong. He also modified
the ship, including by installing additional bunks and creating a temple
space in the forward area of the main deck. He proceeded to sell tickets for
passage to Canada. It seems clear from what he told reporters (including
while still in Asia) and officials through the course of events that he wished
to test Canada’s willingness to admit South Asians, but he also had plans to
establish a steamer service if admission was granted. He may have taken
some solace from Chief Justice Hunter’s November 1913 decision and an
opinion (though of arguably limited scope) from a law firm in Hong Kong
about South Asians’ ability to proceed.
The British governor in Hong Kong wired London, then Ottawa, warning
of the Komagata Maru’s pending departure. In his first telegram to Ottawa,
he said: “150 Indian Sikhs have chartered steamer from here to British
Columbia, are not on through ticket from India. Am advised that local
Hong Kong emigration clauses do not apply to other than Chinese emigration.
Please telegraph whether in the circumstances they will be permitted
to land in Canada.” For a time he prevented the ship from departing, waiting
to hear back, but having received no reply he allowed it to depart on April
4, 1914. On April 7, after the governor had already advised Canada of the
ship’s departure, the Canadian government responded that entry would not
The Komagata Maru picked up additional passengers in Shanghai, Moji
and Yokohama. Ultimately it carried 376 passengers (340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims
and 12 Hindus, though “Hindu” seems often to have been used in the B.C.
press as an inaccurate shorthand for all South Asian comers), all of whom
were British subjects of Punjabi origin, as well as a Japanese crew and 1,500
tons of coal as cargo. The male passengers had often waited in East Asian
ports for considerable periods trying to find a way to reach North America,
as ordinary shipping lines were reluctant to sell tickets to them knowing
they could be turned back and need passage home. Though most of the
Komagata Maru’s passengers were men, there were also two women (married
to other passengers) and four children, including Gurdit Singh’s son,
who was about seven years old.
The Komagata Maru left Yokohama on its journey across the Pacific on
May 3, 1914. In Ottawa, a senator noted to his colleagues on May 13: “There