The Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver’s harbour on May 23, 1914, filled with passengers from India who had hopes for a new life in Canada, which they believed was their right as British subjects. But in a chapter of history that shows racist attitudes of the time, most of the passengers were denied entry, and the ship was turned back after two months.
Ceremonies will be held on Friday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the incident. This centennial year has exhibitions and events at eight institutions across the Lower Mainland. The 1914-2014 Komagata Maru: Generations, Geographies and Echoes Project is being overseen by Naveen Girn, who curated two of the exhibitions, including Unmoored: Vancouver’s Voyage of the Komagata Maru, which opened this week at the Museum of Vancouver.
The Globe and Mail spoke with Mr. Girn at the MOV show, which includes a handwritten passenger list, and a brick that played a role in the ship’s final hours here.
This brick is iconic
It’s actually been touched by a Komagata Maru passenger. It was thrown by a passenger at a police boat during a midnight raid when the police hired local militia [men] to force the Komagata Maru out of Burrard Inlet. But little did they know that a lot of the passengers on the Komagata Maru were ex-British soldiers, so they knew how to fightand defend themselves. So this brick was thrown by a passenger and it entered into a police evidence locker, because it hit somebody. And then it came to the museum’s archives and the archivist affixed plates on it: “This half brick was used as a missile by Hindoos.” It’s used as a teaching tool here at the museum quite often. They usually pass it around and students can hold it. So to see it behind a case is new for the brick. It’s given a sense of reverence, which is interesting.
What happened to the person who was hit?
Sustained some injuries, I bet. There are police reports. But it was one of those things where [the militia men] were drinking, it was the middle of the night. This is what precipitated the bringing out of the HMCS Rainbow from Esquimalt. Hugh Johnston [author of The Voyage of the Komagata Maru] interviewed a passenger who was on the Komagata Maru and he said when the HMCS Rainbow came out and pointed its gunsat the Komagata Maru, the passengers started singing heroic ballads to raise their courage. In those moments of trauma, they went to music for solace.
Other artifacts in this exhibition are not from the Komagata Maru
It uses [the incident] as a linchpin to tell these other stories – immigration, labour, the growth of the community. It’s called Unmoored – in a sense freeing not just the Komagata Maru, but freeing the story and making it Vancouver’s voyage.
How did you conceive of this program of eight shows?
For any curator of South Asian descent, the Komagata Maru is the story you want to be able to tell. And it’s so diverse. You don’t want to tell it the same way – going to the archive and showing the photographs that are in every collection.
Has this project been emotional for you personally?
When you’re sitting by yourself and researching and reading these stories, you can’t help but get sad and cry about these stories, because they’re so heartfelt. They’re on the boat and they’re being deprived of food and water and they believe in their cause and they’re being turned away. A country that I love, a city that I love, is treating people who look like me this way because they look like me. So yeah, it can be very hurtful. But I think the focus has to switch [from] looking at the trauma [to] looking at the ongoing battles that need to take place. So linking this 1914 story to a 2014 story – whether it’s temporary foreign workers, whether it’s rights for other migrant peoples – it has to be relevant to today. People can look at the Komagata Maru and say it’s a “safe” memorial because it happened so long ago. But I think we have to make it a difficult memorial. We have to make it a time when people have those difficult conversations about racism and discrimination. It’s not a time to rest on our laurels. The exhibition is great but what’s the further goal? The end goal is education and awareness and keeping the dialogue going. Getting this in school systems, having a lasting legacy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.