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The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada’s Colour Bar

By Hugh Johnston

Review By Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra

November 12, 2015

BC Studies no. 190 Summer 2016  | p. 156-157

It was with great anticipation that those of us who study South Asian migration to Canada have awaited the expanded and revised version of Hugh Johnston’s The Voyage of the Komagata Maru. Johnston’s original monograph on the Komagata Maru incident, published by Oxford University Press in 1979, was the first and remains the most detailed exploration of the exclusion from Canada in May 1914 of most of the ship’s 376 passengers, of whom 340 were Sikhs, and the ship’s forced return to Calcutta in September of that year. Johnston’s magisterial analysis of this infamous Canadian race-based infraction against human rights has stood the test of time. His revised edition, published strategically to coincide with the centennial year of the Komagata Maru, exceeded my expectations.

The great value of this revised edition is Johnston’s placing of South Asian migrants within the ever-complicated and often contradictory subject of empire. Johnston provides the larger context of the South Asian role not just in Britain and India but in the Caribbean, Mauritius, Fiji, Singapore, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. Returning from the macro to the micro, Johnston explains how Canadian politicians sought to exclude South Asians from the Port of Vancouver based on their race. Johnston’s placing of South Asians within the Imperial project fits with current diaspora scholarship that considers the impact of Imperialism on specific cultural communities.

Throughout the book, Johnston displays his ability to convey detail and context with precision and fluidity — a skill and asset that any historian or scholar might hope to achieve. And Johnston has added valuable detail to many aspects of his 1979 narrative: for example, in his deeper analysis of the impact of the Ghadar Revolutionary movement in North America (Chapter 3), and with the additional detail on the life of key Ghadarite Bhagwan Singh Jakh, where Johnston adds new information and historical context to the restriction of the passengers on the Komagata Maru in 1914. In addition, Johnston’s key players all become real-life characters during the three-month standoff itself, from Imperial spy William Hopkinson, to Member of Parliament Henry Herbert Stevens, and to Husain Rahim of the shore committee. Johnston unveils other new pieces of information including the little-known fact that the shore committee sent letters of help to the Maharajas of Patiala and Nabha in Punjab in an attempt to gain support for those aboard the ship. Johnston also adds new detail to the “fugitive” years of the ship’s charterer, Gurdit Singh Sarhali, and the nation-wide attention the tragic incident received following Indian Independence in 1947.

For any scholar of Canadian or BC history, colonialism, or empire, Johnston’s revised and extended monograph on the Komagata Maru is a must-read. Based on an incident that many Canadians remain unaware of, Johnston weaves in many larger subjects that speak to a range of vital historical concerns and themes of the twentieth century.

The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada’s Colour Bar
Hugh Johnston
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015. 268 pp. $29.95 paper