AS soon as news of the Komagata Maru’s departure from Hong Kong reached Vancouver, headlines about the ship began to splash across the pages of local newspapers. These articles are an important indicator of the information, attitudes and opinions about the Komagata Maru and its passengers that Vancouverites were exposed at the time of the episode.
Two main sources of original newspaper articles contemporary to the incident are available on the Komagata Maru: Continuing the Journey website. The first is a collection of clippings in the H.H. Stevens files that were digitized from his fonds at the City of Vancouver Archives. Stevens was a Conservative MP for Vancouver at the time of the incident. He was also a staunch opponent of Asian immigration and collected articles from the local newspapers relating to Asian immigration to Canada and the Komagata Maru episode.
Arjan Singh (Chand) Brar, Secretary of the Khalsa Diwan Society, rescued a selection of local newspapers that his neighbour was throwing out, ranging in date from the early 1900s to the 1930s. Whenever a member of the South Asian community was mentioned, he cut out the article and pasted it into a binder. His collection contains several scrapbooks filled with these newspaper clippings, including one specifically marked “Komagata Maru” relating to the incident and its aftermath.
Several issues of The Hindustanee, published in Vancouver by the United India League under the editorship of Husain Rahim, have also been digitized from both the Stevens and Brar collections.
In his biography of Vancouver journalist Pollough Pogue, Hugh Johnston asserts that “much of the reporting in Vancouver papers [was] unsympathetic to the passengers and wildly derogatory in tone.” Following the ship’s arrival in Burrard Inlet on May 23, 1914, the headline of The Sun newspaper screamed “Hindu Invaders Now in the City Harbor on Komagata Maru,” establishing an image of the men as aggressive intruders, or an ‘enemy’ to be repelled. In subsequent days, the passengers of the Komagata Maru were referred to often in the press as “human freight” or “human cargo,” such as in a May 28, 1914 headline from The Province newspaper reading “Leader of the Komagata Maru’s Human Cargo Appeals Again.”
Also frequently used in media reports of the incident were the word “excursion”, to describe the passengers’ journey, and the concept of the passengers as tourists. For instance, a May 27 article in The Province titled “A Hindu Excursion” reads “The Komagata Maru has come, has been seen, and is likely to go away without having conquered. Her human freight need not be very vexed there at, it is Mr. Gurdit Singh, the promoter of the excursion who should be blamed by the excursionists. He persuaded these men to take part in an adventure which at the outset was foredoomed to failure…the vessel did not pick up her tourists in India but mostly in China.”
In contrast, The Hindustanee stood alone amongst the Vancouver press as an advocate for the passengers. Its June 1, 1914 editorial titled “Welcome to the Komagata Maru,” reported that “the ship was arranged to be brought in with the cooperation of many men, the majority of who are farmers seeking to secure, as British subjects, a little of the millions of fertile acres of British Columbian soil now lying wastefully idle, so that they might till them and eke out a living.”
For two months following its arrival, the passengers remained on board the Komagata Maru in the Vancouver harbour, the newspapers reporting on events as they unfolded. On July 21, the Canadian government sent in the H.M.C.S. Rainbow to intimidate the passengers into leaving. The July 22 issue of The Sun reported extensively on the confrontation and the huge crowds of spectators it attracted: “Nearly 30,000 watched all day from the harbor front for the expected battle between the Hindus and the sailors of the H.M.C.S. Rainbow…Vancouver’s waterfront offers a magnificent grandstand, built to order. It has been used many times by the citizens for spectacles which took place upon the harbor waters, but never before has such a spectacle or crowd been seen in this city. The roofs of the skyscraping structures on Hastings and Granville streets were black with people, and the windows below were crowded. Thousands lined the wharves and piers. Thousands filled the street ends which open onto the harbor. Throughout the day thousands stood upon their spots of vantage and sent boys to nearby cafes for food. On the roof gardens of Spencer’s building, hundreds actually remained throughout the day, buying field glasses from the store below and having their food sent up to them from Spencer’s dining rooms.”
In 1914 such articles helped to ignite and foster anti-Asian immigration sentiments amongst those fortunate enough to call Canada home. Today, however, these articles are able to bring us closer to the experiences of the men on board the Komagata Maru and help to shape a new understanding of the obstacles that they faced in their desire to begin new lives in Canada.
BY MELANIE HARDBATTLE
Melanie Hardbattle is an archivist with Simon Fraser University