In late 1914, the British Empire had a new worry on its hands. The Great War had begun a few months earlier and intelligence reports suggested there was a degree of resentment in the Sikh community over the way a group of Indian immigrants on the SS Komagata Maru were denied entry into Canada in May of that year. There was a fear that the resentment may spread wide and boil over. A mutiny over the second-class treatment of Indians across the Empire was not something the colonists could afford, not without it crippling the British war effort.

At the centre of the problem was Canada’s discriminatory policies. One of these kept Indians out by refusing entry to anyone who did not arrive through a continuous journey from their home country. As it happened, at the time, there was no liner that linked Indian and Canadian ports.

But soon this changed, challenging the racist status quo.

“The Secretary of State for India has received through the Colonial Office a report of the inauguration of a steamship service between Vancouver and Bombay, via China and Japan, by the Japanese line the Osaka Yushen Kaisha,” the assistant secretary of the Government of India’s Judicial and Public Department wrote to his counterpart at the Marine Department and Board of Trade. “Hitherto, so far as this office is aware, there has been no direct service between India and Canada, although, there has been a service maintained by the Nippon Yushen Kaisha from Japan to Bombay and also from Japan to the United States.”

The letter warned that the “establishment of a thorough service between India and Canada by a Japanese line would have an important bearing on questions of policy connected with Indian immigration into Canada”.

The entire situation posed a unique geopolitical test, given that Japan, then a rising power, was on the side of the Allied Powers, but was resentful of the racist immigration policies that the United States and Canada had towards “Asiatics”, such as Japanese, Indians and Chinese.

No entry

At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, British Columbia on Canada’s west coast was home to a tiny Indian community, mostly men from Punjab. “The vanguard found work at wages that were very high by Indian standards and they sent home letters encouraging their countrymen to follow,” says the Canadian Encyclopedia, an online resource supported by the Canadian government. Despite its size, the community managed to get an inordinate amount of negative attention “prompted by cultural and racial prejudice and labour fears of economic competition”.

To get an understanding of how the Canadian public largely viewed immigration from India, a good place to look is the newspaper archives. An opinion piece in the B.C. Saturday Sunset in February 1912, for instance, said grizzly bears would assimilate faster in Canadian society than Hindus.

“The smoke-colored Hindu, exotic, unmixable, picturesque, a languid worker and a refuge for fleas, we will always have with us, but we don’t want anymore of him,” the op-ed said. “We don’t want any Hindu women. We don’t want any Hindu children. It’s nonsense to talk about Hindu assimilation.” The op-ed writer had a problem with Indian Muslims and Sikhs as well. “The Sikh may be of Aryan stock; I always thought he was of Jewish extraction. He may be near-white, though he doesn’t look it. But we know him, and don’t want any more of him.”

The writer noted that Vancouver had a number of Hindus from Central India, including someone with a photo of a “she-god” who kept sacrificing chickens to appease her. Everything about Indians seemed to annoy the writer, down to the way they spoke. “The laryngitical phenomena that many of them call English is more difficult to comprehend than any pigeon English spoken by the Chinese or Japanese,” the op-ed said.

Educated Indians were viewed with an equal degree of disgust and envy. “There are no English words competent to express my admiration for the educated Hindu as a profound master of falsehood, intrigue, strategy, subterfuge and finesse,” the writer declared. “The most crafty Anglo-Saxon is an Arcadian infant by comparison.”

By the time this op-ed was published, Indian immigration to Canada had virtually stopped owing to two government regulations meant to achieve that very goal. One of these, the Canadian Encyclopedia notes, allowed immigration officers at ports to refuse entry to anyone who did not come through a continuous journey from their home country. This was the easiest way to keep Indians out since there was no liner at the time that linked Indian and Canadian ports.

In May 1914, Canada used a modified version of this regulation to deny entry to 352 Indian passengers of the SS Komagata Maru who had begun their journey to Canada from Hong Kong. At Vancouver port, the immigration authorities refused to let the passengers disembark.

The other regulation that kept Indians out required every person arriving into the country to have at least 200 Canadian dollars. “These two regulations were deliberately deceptive because, while they were designed solely to exclude immigrants from India, they did not state this as their direct purpose,” says the Canadian Encyclopedia. “That evasiveness was so that British imperial officials in India could deny the existence of any laws in Canada that barred Indian immigration.”

Before the Komagata Maru incident, many Indians had tried their luck by boarding ships from Asian ports for British Columbia and simply approached the Canadian courts if denied entry. In November 1913, for instance, 39 Sikhs, who arrived in Vancouver on the Panama Maru, successfully appealed a deportation order and managed to stay in Canada.

But after the Komagata Maru incident, Indians knew the only way to subvert the discriminatory regulations was to ensure there was a continuous journey from India. The hitch was that the largest operator of steamers in India was the British India Steam Navigation Company, or BISN, which was unlikely to upset the colonial authorities and operate a service from India to Canada.

Japanese help

In the 1910s, BISN faced tough competition in the passenger and cargo transportation industry in India from Japanese companies. Two of the major Japanese operators with regular services from Bombay to Japanese ports via Colombo, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai were Nippon Yusen Kaisha and Osaka Shosen Kaisha. It was Osaka Shosen Kaisha that finally offered the steamship service from Bombay to Vancouver.

On the side of the Allied Powers in the First World War, the Japanese government did not want a confrontation with the British and Canadian authorities over Indian immigrants. In the case of the Komagata Maru, there were indications that the ship would be seized by the Canadians when it reached Vancouver, and so the Japanese consul in British Columbia was told to avoid complications, according to a July 1914 article in the Bombay Chronicle.

The same report said the Japanese viewed the Canadian immigration policy with “strong disfavour”. As for Indians, it said, “They complain that, whereas, there is a special arrangement with Japan that immigrants from that country are to be admitted up to the limit of 400 annually, and whereas Chinese are admitted without any other check than a poll-tax of 500 dollars, the avowed intention is to keep out Indians altogether.”

With the advent of a continuous service from India to Canada, a legal door for immigration was opened for aspiring Punjabis to enter the land of their dreams.

Those travelling on the first journey of the Mexico Maru from Bombay to Vancouver via China and Japan managed to hoodwink the colonial authorities. By the time the British came to know of the service, the steamship was within a day’s distance of Vancouver.

When the colonial authorities in India asked BISN and the Japanese companies in Bombay about the Mexico Maru, the companies said they had no information. Before being deployed on the India-Canada route, the Mexico Maru used to sail from Japanese ports to Tacoma, Washington, in the northwestern United States.

In January 1915, a few months after the Mexico Maru arrived in Vancouver, Ernest Moggridge, an official on the Board of Trade, London, wrote a letter to the Public Department of the Indian government explaining that there was little the authorities were able to find about the steamer.

After repeated enquiries to Osaka Shoshen Kaisha, the board received some response: “The company have no fixed agency in London but the firm who usually arrange their business have stated in reply to inquiries that they have no information of a regular sailing between Bombay and Vancouver, and are of opinion that only occasional sailings will occur between these ports.”

As the First World War intensified, German gunboats began targeting Japanese ships in the Asia-Pacific. The Mexico Maru must have undertaken a few journeys between Bombay and Vancouver, carrying immigration hopefuls with enough money, but it did not become a regular or popular immigration route at the time.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.