The Komagata Maru incident involved a number of key players – individuals whose actions played a significant role impacting the lived experience of Komagata Maru passengers. These key players can be viewed within four three main groups:
  • Komagata Maru Passengers
  • Canadian Officials
  • Legal Personnel
  • Shore Committee Members
Each individual’s complete story is not captured here; instead these profiles provide snapshots of each key player, and some context of their lives. For some of these individuals, their profiles have become legacies by the memorialisation efforts of scholars, activists, community members and artists.

For other individuals involved in the Komagata Maru incident, they remain unnamed or their stories are unknown. For example, little is known about many of the passengers. There is not enough information about the hundreds of South Asians already living in the Vancouver area who were passionate about supporting the Komagata Maru passengers. There is scarce documentation of the white allies who attended ing community meetings. For those who died upon their return to British occupied India, there must have been so many unanswered questions for their unnamed friends and families. For the 28 individuals who were unaccounted for after the Budge Budge (Baj Baj) incident, some like Gurdit Singh we know a lot about – but for others, where did their lives take them?

With the intention of this website to invite readers to reflect on the broader impact of the Komagata Maru incident, this section asks you to interrogate how we remember the individual people in communities, how we write (or do not write) their stories.

Komagata Maru Passengers

This is very short list of some passengers who played key roles in the departure of the Komagata Maru from Hong Kong, and its experience once in Canadian waters.

Gurdit Singh
Gurdit Singh was a successful businessman who decided to charter the Komagata Maru from Hong Kong after meeting with and speaking with other Indians there. Singh (sold tickets up until two days before the Komagata Maru’s departure, and was briefly held by officials for selling illegal tickets for what was deemed an illegal trip). Singh was a nationalist, who believed in an Independent India. At the Baj Baj (Budge Budge) incident, he escaped capture. After remaining a fugitive in India for several years, he finally surrendered after prompting by Mahatma Gandhi (whom he respected deeply) and served a five-year jail term in Punjab. It was after Singh’s prompting did the federal government of newly-independent India erect a plaque at Kolkata (then known as Calcutta) memorializing the Komagata Maru.

Munshi Singh
Munshi Singh, one of the 376 passengers aboard the Komagata Maru, was selected as the representative for the test case. He was a Sikh farmer from Punjab, someone who was interested in migrating to Canada for the purposes of buying some property and farming.

Canadian Officials
Government agents very obviously played a heavy role in the Komagata Maru incident. Both Hopkinson and Reid held very strong anti-South Asian views and prior to 1914, both had been actively pushing for exclusionary immigration. For Reid, his daughter felt (in the 1980s) that the way he was remembered was unfair¹ for Hopkinson, an often-staged play by Sharon Pollock fictionalized his mixed-race heritage and his surveillance work, which could be described as internalized racism².

Malcolm Reid
Malcolm Reid was the Chief Immigration Officer of Vancouver during the Komagata Maru incident. Posted to the position with no experience, his proposals of how to expel the Komagata Maru contradicted even those of the federal government. He was explicit in his anti-Asian sentiments, and was motivated to use whatever force necessary to remove the ship and its passengers. For example, on June 24, 1914, Reid wired Ottawa to ask for permission to have the Komagata Maru passengers forced onto the S.S. Empress of India, which was departing the next day. The answer was no – an appearance in court (through a test case) is how the federal government wanted to proceed.

Martin Burrell
Martin Burrell was the federal Minister of Agriculture at the time the Komagata Maru was stationed in Burrard Inlet. He became involved at the very end of the two month period, at the urging of Prime Minister Robert Borden. It was Burrell’s letter to Albert Howard McNeill dated July 21, 1914, that seemed to bring forward a compromise. In it, he refers to the Shore Committee and community members who had provided financial support. Burrell said that he would "urge that full and sympathetic consideration be given to those who deserve generous treatment. I must point out, however, that this is conditional on the passengers now on the Komagata Maru adopting a peaceable attitude, refraining from violence, and conforming to the law by giving to the captain control of his ship immediately, and agreeing to peaceably return to the port when they came."³

William Charles Hopkinson
William Charles (W.C.) Hopkinson was an immigration inspector at the time of the Komagata Maru. Working for the federal government since 1909, mostly based in British Columbia and working in the US as well, his focus was on the surveillance of Indian political activists. He was fully occupied with the Komagata Maru while it was in Burrard Inlet for two months. After the Komagata Maru was sent back, his role became important in the context of war – he provided information to officials in Canada and British India about Indian agitators on the Pacific coast who were supposedly plotting to return to India to "take up arms against the British while they were at war in Europe"4; Hopkinson was mixed-race (Anglo-Indian), which he both used in his work (he could understand Hindi and Punjabi) and denied outright. In 1914, he was killed by Mewa Singh at the Vancouver Court House.

Legal Personnel
In a hostile environment of British Columbia in 1914, two legal professionals took on the case of the Komagata Maru passengers. J. Edward Bird handled the bulk of the case.

J. Edward Bird, solicitor
J. Edward Bird was hired by the passengers of the Komagata Maru to represent the passengers as they lodged a legal challenge to the Orders in Council that were prohibiting them from being able to disembark. The government decided to only have one test case, and Bird was assigned the task of preparing his case very quickly. Bird made the argument on behalf of Munshi Singh (the test case) using constitutional terms, arguing that the passengers of the Komagata Maru were entitled to disembark and settle in Canada as British subjects. Unfortunately, the five judges disagreed with him, and the case was lost. Bird was a socialist, and was opposed to the anti-Asian sentiment around him in British Columbia – proving this by creating a space for Indian socialists to gather.

Albert Howard MacNeill
Partner to J. Edward Bird, he took over the Komagata Maru case in the latter stages after Bird received a threatening letter and opted to travel out of town. He was an established lawyer in Vancouver, with connections to many powerful individuals. He sent a personal cable to Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden (McNeill was a member of the Conservative Party himself) to encourage him to think about the Komagata Maru situation beyond what he was told by immigration officials (like Reid and Stevens).

Shore Committee Members
While the Komagata Maru was forced to stay in Burrard Inlet, South Asian community members in the Vancouver area mobilized to support the passengers. The 15-member group, coming together initially at the Khalsa Diwan Society, was called the Shore Committee. The Shore Committee raised awareness, raised funds, spoke out about the exclusion, and was heavily involved in retaining legal representation for the Komagata Maru passengers.

Hussain Rahim
Hussain Rahim was one of the Shore Committee members, an active member of the Indian community in British Columbia, and the editor of the short-lived English newspaper The Hindustanee. Rahim spoke English, Hindi, Punjabi and Gujrati, and was vocal about his thoughts on the ways the governments of Canada and British Columbia treated Indians. Rahim was instrumental in mobilizing community members to support the passengers of the Komagata Maru.

Bhag Singh
Bhag Singh was one of the Shore Committee members, an active member of the Indian community in British Columbia, and Secretary of the Temple Management Committee at the Khalsa Diwan Society gurdwara. His own experience of challenging Canada’s immigration policy in 1911 meant that he was one of the very few Indians in Canada to have been able to be reunified with his wife and child.

1 - From Malcolm Reid’s profile on the Simon Fraser University Komagata Maru site
2 - By internalized racism, we mean a practice of “taking in” racist ideas and practices that are perpetuated by dominant groups (white people), accepting these and “playing out” these racist notions. Examples of internalized racism include self-hatred of racialized identity or even skin colour, distrust or criticizing of other members of our racialized group, isolation, etc.
3 - page 106 of Eric W. Morse “Some Aspects of the Komagata Maru Affairs, 1914” in Report of the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Historical Association, vol 15, n 1, 1936, 100-108.
4 - page 18 of Hugh Johnston “The Surveillance of Indian Nationalists in North America, 1908-1918” in BG Studies, no 78, Summer 1988. This sentence in yellow needs to be re-worded, not sure what its meaning is.