Unit 3: Prejudice and Discrimination
Chapter 2: The Komagata Maru Incident, 1914
This really happened
The Komagata Maru was a Japanese steamship that sailed from Punjab, India to Vancouver, British Columbia in 1914, via China and Japan. Upon arrival to Canada, entry was denied for all the ship’s Indian passengers who were hoping to immigrate. A law stated that those hoping to immigrate could only do so by a continuous journey and through tickets purchased before leaving their country of nationality. Because of these exclusionary laws designed to keep out immigrants of Asian origin, the ship was forced to return to India. Upon arrival in India, a riot broke out, killing about 20 passengers who were thought to be lawbreakers and political agitators.
By investigating photographs, reading about voices connected to the incident, exploring a script and discussing whether apologizing is enough, you will consider how the media has an impact on historical events as well as investigate laws connected to immigration that might be discriminatory.
Sikh man talks about the Komagata Maru and discrimination against Sikhs
There are many existing archival photos of the Komagata Maru incident. Many photos featured in newspaper articles give insight into the experiences of the people involved. The two pictures depict a moment on board the ship and on the pier in Burrard Inlet, Vancouver. Together these images convey two different perspectives providing insights into the thoughts and feelings of both groups of people involved.
Indian immigrants on the Komagata Maru
Credit: City of Vancouver Archives
Vancouver Harbour, British Columbia
Credit: Vancouver Public Library
Response to images
A. Work in four large groups to examine these photos. To begin, two groups can examine Photo A, and two groups can work with Photo B. As a group, share your responses to this image by considering the following areas of inquiry. Use a T-chart format to organize your thoughts.
B. As a group, recreate the photo of some of the people in the scene. Each person will need to choose one character’s role to play. What physical position will you take? What gestures and facial expressions will you include?
C. Once each group has prepared the still image, Group A1 can stand opposite a partner Group A1 (i.e. both still images face each other on a count of three.)
The activity is then repeated, with one group being an audience for the other. Those who are watching the image are encouraged to walk around the image to examine it from a variety of angles and to look carefully at the gestures and facial expressions. On a piece of chart paper, with markers, record what comes to mind when you look at the picture: What did these people feel like? What might these people say? What words convey their emotions?
Each group should have the opportunity to present images to their partner group and complete the chart.
As a class, discuss the following:
The Komagata Maru Incident: The Script
Sharon Pollock, Canadian playwright, wrote a play entitled The Komagata Maru Incident. It depicts historical events that invite readers and audiences to ask questions about the real story and the one depicted on stage. The following scene takes place early in the script. T. S., The Master of Ceremonies, who plays many roles, meets with immigration inspector, William Hopkinson.
A. Reading and responding to the script excerpt
B. Interpreting the script
To rehearse this script, actors might play their roles in different ways. Once you have decided upon a role to practice, choose one of these attitudes/emotions to interpret the lines (e.g., T. S. could be calm and Hopkinson could be angry; both characters could be angry, etc.).
C. Rehearsing the script
Writing a new scene
A. As with any historical conflict, there are many sides to the story. Choose one or more of the following roles to write a new scene that features two or three characters. Choose roles from any combination of the following:
B. In pairs, or small groups, prepare a new scripted scene to convey other viewpoints connected to this event. For this scene, consider:
C. Once completed, rehearse the scene with your group to present to others who have worked on a different scene.
Note: The complete Sharon Pollock script of The Komagata Maru Incident is available through Playwrights Canada Press.
*Note: B. Singh was an active member of the Shore Committee members, an Indian community in British Columbia
May 6, 2014 – Komagata Maru Commemorative Postage Stamp
Credit: The Toronto Star
Voices of the Komagata Maru Incident: Entry Denied
Imagine the ship docked in the Vancouver Harbour in the warm summer months of June and July with 376 passengers ready to disembark; ready to begin a new life in Canada only to be told their entry was denied. They would not be able to leave the ship: no food, no water, and no communication with the outside world. Their hopes and dreams of working in Canada, beginning a new life, sending for their loved ones were lost.
On the other side of the dock were government officials, lawmakers, citizens who faced their own struggles. Would these workers take their jobs? Would many more follow? Were they different because they were Indian? Would they change their way of life?
For two months, Canadians, including members of the South Asian community, rallied to give entry to the passengers in the media, in the public eye, and in the courts. They fought racist thinking and values and they fought racist laws designed to keep Asians out of the country.
Other Canadians fought to preserve what they believed their borders guaranteed them. They thought they were fighting for their jobs and way of life.
Is Apologizing Enough?
A. With a partner, discuss what an apology means to you. Remember and share a significant experience where you (or someone you know) apologized to someone or when you received an apology. Consider:
B. In a class discussion, consider the criteria for a strong and meaningful apology. You may volunteer to share personal stories about apologies.
A Country Apologizes
Considering the criteria you generated for a personal apology, does this criteria apply to a country apologizing for an injustice to a group of people?
In May 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a formal apology for the Komagata Maru in the House of Commons: “No words can fully erase the suffering of the Komagata Maru victims. Today we apologize and commit to doing better.” Canadian Sikhs have become a significant political force with Jagmeet Singh being elected the first Sikh and first South Asian leader of a national party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), in October 2017.
Apologies have been made to other groups who have faced injustices in both immigrating and settling in this country (e.g., the Chinese Head Tax, the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II, and others.)
The Memorial to the Komagata Maru in Portal Park, Vancouver (Sally Gray)
Credit: Sally E. Gray, Grayhound Information Services
Ali Kazimi, Undesirables: White Canada and The Komagata Maru. An Illustrated History (Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre, 2012). This book documents the incident using archival photos, personal stories, and historical references to the immigration of the Indo-Canadian community.
Every effort has been made to gain permission from copyright holders to reproduce borrowed material. The publishers apologize for any errors and will be pleased to rectify them in subsequent reprints and website programming
Other chapters on Prejudice and Discrimination: