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Komagata Maru’s History in Compton’s “The Outer Harbour”


The Outer Harbour by Compton is an interesting story that illustrates the sufferings of humankind a century ago. The book is a collection of numerous loosely related short stories. The author keenly uses fiction narratives to explore the complex relationships between urban life, history, identity, and various socio-political patterns. The characters in the story are engaged in education, activism, and art, and they long to adapt to Vancouver’s first changing city life.

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Even though the history of Komagata Maru is not an explicit part of Compton’s The Outer Harbour, there are numerous parallels between the actual events that occurred in Vancouver’s Harbour in 1914 and the incidents and themes from Compton’s work. These interconnections can help people understand the key aspects of The Outer Harbour through the lens of the Komagata Maru incident.

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The concept of race, being a prevalent theme in Compton’s The Outer Harbour, lies at the core of Komagata Maru’s story. The incident of Komagata Maru begins when a group of British India, mainly composed of Indian, Arab, Japanese, and Chinese communities, board a Japanese steamship in order to cross the Pacific Ocean to Vancouver, Canada. Upon the ship reaching the Canadian port, only 24 people were admitted, while the rest were sent back to their country of origin (Roy & Sahoo, 2016).

Notably, the majority of people admitted to Canada were white. Thus, this incident explicitly manifests racial discrimination and prejudice against minority populations in Canadian society of the 20th century. Similarly, in The Outer Harbour, the theme of race tackles the issue of discrimination against Asian communities. They are viewed as strangers among the locals and authorities. Even though in the story, Riel befriends Veršajna, the mystery woman, he is still concerned with her race. Additionally, the locals get surprised when Asians speak English, a language considered foreign to them. Therefore, Komagata Maru’s story can help illustrate the theme of race that is demonstrated in The Outer Harbour.

The theme of human self-actualization may be outlined both in the Komagata Maru incident and Compton’s work. The idea of self-actualization is one’s ability to recognize and acknowledge personal talents and limitations. In this case, it stands for the Asian’s community inability to discover the strengths and limitations of their identity due to their whole identity being simplified to their skin color and the country of origin. The Compton’s mystery woman, once found in the container, was only perceived by others on the matter of race and the language she spoke as if nothing else mattered in such a complex and alarming situation. Veršajna’s performance demonstrates how people from Asian communities are deprived of the ability of self-actualization, as their identity is presented as nothing but a limitation.

Hence, Veršajna’s motivation to create such a performance may be better understood when looking at the historical context of Asian immigration and Komagata Maru, in particular. When Asian immigrants reached Vancouver back in 1914, the one and only reason for their deportation back to Hing Kong was nothing but race. There were no attempts to get to know the people who came such a long way to flee their homeland. There were no attempts to define what made them make a conscious choice of becoming illegal aliens far from home. There were no attempts to define whether they were safe in the first place.

Instead, the plain notion of skin color did all the work and encouraged the customs to reach a decision not to admit British Indian residents to Canada. Almost a century later, Riel’s family, along with the whole town of Port Corbus, still feel the same way about immigrants and racial minorities. Thus, the essential question is how people expect racial minorities to become more self-reliable when, for centuries, they continue to limit their options in terms of self-discovery and actualization.

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Additionally, the incident of Komagata Maru illustrates the theme of immigration. In 1914, most people were fleeing the Asian states to pursue a better life in Northern America. As a result, the majority were crossing the Pacific Ocean either legally or illegally to reach Canada and the US (Roy & Sahoo 2016). Some people were almost immediately allowed to the country, and their migration intentions were not questioned. However, some migrants on the US and Canadian borders were deported back to their countries.

This regularity may be found in the history of Komagata Maru when the minor part of the ship crew was given permission to enter Canada (Roy & Sahoo 2016). Similarly, in The Outer Harbor, the mystery woman claims that she willingly got into the shipping container to write a documentary on the plight of how the immigrants were mistreated (Compton, 2014). The significance of this seemingly postmodern art performance becomes evident when assessed through the prism of treatment immigrants received over the past years. Indeed, Asian communities were faced with a choice of trying to enter the country on legal terms and start a new life or sneak into the state and spend the rest of their life in fear of being exposed. In most cases, unfortunately, the choice was already made for them.

The incident at Komagata Maru helps understand The Outer Harbour by showcasing the theme of language. Those who boarded the ship from British Hong Kong were mainly of Asian origin and, thus, they did not know the English language. The ones who knew some of it still struggled in terms of fluency. As a result, they used their native language to communicate with other people. Therefore, a language barrier that ensued at the Vancouver port was one of the main reasons they were detected as foreigners and deported back to their country of origin.

Similarly, the theme of language arises when the mystery woman is captured from the container, as she is presumed to speak a different language (Compton, 2014). As a result, she gets harassed and mistreated up to the moment she starts speaking English. Therefore, the incident at Komagata Maru helps understand the fiction by demonstrating some of the issues that befell those not speaking English.

Most importantly, the Komagata Maru incident helps people understand the story of The Outer Harbour by detailing the theme of laws. After passing the exclusion laws in Canada and the US, few people were allowed to travel to these countries (Roy & Sahoo 2016).

As a result, many people were denied entry, and some were deported back. This particular issue is demonstrated in the example of Komagata Maru. The exclusion laws were designed specifically for the Chinese population, as the local governments were afraid that Chinese immigrants would constitute the majority of the national labor force. However, during the Komagata Maru incident, the minority of the crew were Chinese, as there were many ethnic groups. None of it mattered to the Canadian representatives, as their cultural insensitivity perceived any member of the Asian community as “Chinese.”

In The Outer Harbour, such insensitivity is illustrated even one century later, with terminal workers casually identifying the woman in the container as “Asian” or perhaps “Arab” while having neither evidence to support this claim nor the need to racially profile her in the first place. Thus, the story illustrates that the legal system, while having a profound impact on the world’s development, is flawed by prejudice and insensitivity, as legislation dehumanizes people and separates ethnic affiliation from a human being with feelings and needs.

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In conclusion, the incident of Komagata Maru provides an insight into the tales of The Outer Harbour by Compton. Even though there are some differences in what happened in the Vancouver harbor when the steamship carrying the refugees docked in the harbour and the themes in the story of The Outer Harbour, there are a lot of issues highlighted by the incident that can provide insight into the story.

The theme of race, for its part, is one of the core themes in both stories, enabling people’s understanding of literary work from the perspective of history. Immigration is another theme manifested in the tales of The Outer Harbour, as most people illustrated were either immigrants or were somehow involved with those who had migrated from other countries. In general, numerous themes demonstrated in the incident of Komagata Maru helps readers to understand the story of The Outer Harbour.


Compton, W. (2014). 1,360 ft3 (38.5 m3). In The outer harbour (Arsenal Pulp Press, pp. 16-19).

Roy, A. G., & Sahoo, A. K. (2016). The journey of the Komagata Maru: National, transnational, diasporic. South Asian Diaspora, 8(2), 85-97. Web.

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