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The Voyage Of The Komagata
by Bruce Serafin

RACISM, VIOLENCE, fanaticism, heroism, determination, and above all a kind of cold-blooded insistence on self interest are all a part of the story of the 400 Sikhs on the ship Komagata Maru who in 1914 attempted to disembark in Vancouver harbour and become Canadian citizens. They were eventually turned away after putting up fierce resistance and were forced to go back to India, where in Calcutta troops trying to control the passengers eventually opened fire and killed a number of them. Hugh Johnston has written a detailed description of this epic story in The Voyage of the Komagata Marti: The Sikh Challenge to Canada's Colour Bar (UBC Press, 162 pages, paperback, unpriced). His narrative is meticulously objective and rather colourless -- it is easy to get bogged down in this book -- and it tells us two important things that contradict the legend that has grown up around this sorry tale. One is that the Sikhs were as fiercely determined then to achieve their goals as they are now: they didn't come as pathetic refugees but as a proud, warrior-like people who would surely have been an enormous credit to our country if we had allowed them in. The other is that our racism wasn't a virulent thing touched by screaming hatred, but a sort of complacent, flat, lawabiding (and law-using) insistence that the Sikhs simply turn around and go. It is all very familiar, both the fierceness and occasional fanaticism of the Sikhs and our own complacent racism; and I'm sure that the lesson of this book lies in exactly that air of familiarity.

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