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Renisa Mawani’s Across Oceans of Law tells the history of the infamously failed passage of the ship the Komagata Maru and the 376 (mostly Punjabi and mostly adult male) people on it who found themselves denied entry to Canada in 1914. The leader of the expedition, Gurdit Singh, a British subject originally from Punjab, insisted on the right to travel and trade on the “free sea,” “a common place that was beyond national and imperial claims to sovereignty.” (P. 5.) Yet, as Mawani puts it, “Britain’s ascendancy as a maritime empire was achieved through a juridification of the sea, advanced in legislation, treaties, agreements and in legal restrictions imposed on ships, passengers, and cargos.” (P. 5.) These restrictions included the “continuous journey” provision used in this case to deny entry to “Asiatic” immigrants seeking entry into Canada. The idea of the Canadian and imperial government was to force all steamship routes (e.g. from Calcutta to Vancouver) to stop in another port of call (e.g. Hong Kong) and then use the journey’s interruption to deny the ship entry into Canada. The law, while facially race-neutral, was only ever invoked against non-white settlers (primarily from India) and is now widely regarded as a thin veneer on an explicitly racist measure aimed at keeping “white Canada white.”

Audrey Macklin explains that “Britain strenuously discouraged the one colony (Canada) from employing explicitly racist exclusionary measures that would exacerbate agitation against British rule in another part of Empire (India).” Britain “preferred to contain Indian British subjects within India . . . the proliferation of diasporic networks of Indian colonial subjects . . . multiplied potential nodes of resistance” to British rule in India.1

The passengers on the Komagata Maru were left to languish in deplorable conditions in Vancouver Harbour for two months with limited supplies of food and water. After the British Columbia Courts rejected entry to most of the Komagata Maru passengers (only twenty-two were permitted entry) the ship was sent to Calcutta so its passengers could be sent by train to Punjab (rather than returning it to Hong Kong, where it had originated). The result? A massacre at Budge Budge in which the Bengal police killed nineteen passengers and many more were injured and arrested and held without trial or charges after refusing to board the train. (P. 102.) Gurdit Singh, a man who had spent most of his adult life traveling between Malaya and Singapore, became a fugitive for seven years after the battle, which he escaped. In the eyes of imperial authorities, Gurdit Singh was guilty of seditious libel and encouraging disloyalty while on board the Komagata Maru. Mawani explains that authorities lost interest in prosecuting him as Gandhi’s movement grew stronger and the Punjabi independence movement, the Ghadar (Mutiny), grew weaker. Gurdit Singh wrote an account of the racial injustices he experienced in his Voyage of the Komagatamaru, or India’s Slavery Abroad. Mawani describes Gurdit Singh as an anticolonial radical who was out to test the viability of a steamship company he sought to found and to challenge Canada’s immigration restrictions. He is a complicated figure whom Mawani neither glorifies nor vilifies.

This is a powerful tale of Indian anti-colonialism told through what Mawani calls “oceans as method,” an approach that draws on the sea as “both a technique of writing colonial legal history and as a conceptual frame that foregrounds movement and change.” (P. 234.) Part of the idea behind the method is to look at how different conceptions of the sea played out in competing understandings of how the sea (a moving force) and ships (what people are moved in) were transporting individuals from one part of the Empire to another (across oceans of law, as the title puts it). Could Gurdit Singh as a British subject use the ocean to travel to a new corner of the British Empire? Or, because he was Sikh and perceived as a radical by colonial governments, could a facially racially neutral “continuous journey” provision keep him (and most of those he was travelling with) out? Rather than starting with (the complicated character) Gurdit Singh, Mawani focuses on him in the last chapter, while the first two chapters start with competing conceptions of the ocean (free or regulated using racial exclusions and categories) and the ship (as a legal person).

Far from being vacant, open, empty, and free, Mawani describes oceans as “densely woven sites of encounter,” (P. 233) where hierarchies of race played out in intense “colonial laboratories” on ships that Lauren Benton has called “islands of law.” (P. 49.) The “free sea” of Grotius (explored in depth in the first chapter) was only open and free to the travel and trade of white European men. “Oceans as method” highlights the ship itself as a legal person (the topic of the second chapter), documenting its many voyages, names changes, and owners, along with its freight lists which like slave manifests operated to create what Mawani calls a “maritime metaphysics.” (P. 109.) Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called the ship “the most living of inanimate things.” (P. 84.) Mawani describes ships as “living, agentive, and willful beings.” (P. 79).

The third chapter discusses the distinction between a British subject and a British citizen and the role this distinction played in the legal decision denying the Komagata Maru passengers entry into Canada. The (perverse) justification of different treatment was grounded in the argument that Canada’s indigenous people were also denied equality with whites, thereby showing “the variegated inequalities of British subjecthood.” (P. 145). There was, in other words, “an unequal topography of British subjecthood.” (P. 147).

Mawani deals deftly and sensitively in the fourth chapter with the many incongruities born of claims Indians made to be superior to natives of Africa (especially relevant in South Africa) and to native peoples in Canada. In 1914, people wanted to know: “Were Indians, like other ‘coloured races,’ in need of further moral instruction and guidance from their British custodians, or had they now reached a higher stage of civilization and development after hundreds of years of foreign rule? More importantly, could Indians move out of the ‘waiting room of history,’ travel across the supposedly free sea, and make claims to the rights that followed from British subjecthood?” (P. 183). Mawani writes that “[m]any Indians viewed themselves as civilizationally advanced, further along in the forward march of history, and thus ready to be equals in the imperial family.” (P. 186). Yet their claims to be superior to other people subjugated on the basis of their race along “the white-brown axis” did not prevail.

Mawani has written a powerful book, which gives details and new perspectives on a history that is known to some but which is usually thought of as a Canadian story (of shame) rather than a global incident with connections to the wider push for Indian independence and what she calls “new forms and intensities of Indian radicalism.” (P. 5). Mawani’s account successfully internationalizes what happened, so much so that she does not even mention the Canadian government’s apology in 2008 for the Komagata Maru incident. (See Macklin, p. 62 for astute criticism of the apology.) Mawani connects the history in her epilogue to present-day migrants in the Mediterranean and the tens of thousands of deaths of people trying to make the passage from North Africa and the Middle East to Southern Europe. (P. 237.)

Mawani’s “oceans as method” has important and deep implications for ideas about how to write not just colonial legal history but also a wide range of other histories. Could its method also be applied to other nonhuman entities, animals, the environment or objects that become central to a historical inquiry, effectively transformed into a kind of subject by their centrality to the analysis undertaken? Its method calls us to question the invocation of law-free zones like the sea, which are riddled with law, and ships, the legal persons used to move migrants from one space to the next. It might be thought of as part of the “blue turn” in the social sciences and humanities, which focuses on the ocean and its more-than-human dimensions.2

Jane Bennett called for a turn to recognizing the active participation of nonhuman forces in events in her 2009 book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Mawani does not refer to Bennett’s work. Yet arguably Across Oceans of Law can be read as a meditation on Bennett’s theory, as applied to an important racially complicated colonial event of the early twentieth century.

Overall, this book is a compelling and persuasive read. It is also a model for taking on the perspective (or at least using the lens) of entities ordinarily treated as non-agentic (ships and oceans). We might all benefit from thinking about how such an approach might change what we write and how we approach our subject/objects in future legal histories. It is certainly a take away for me, as I work on a legal case about an American ship caught fishing in Canadian waters with a purse seine net (the Frederick Gerring Jr.). Could the net (controversial then and now) also be personified in this historical account? Could the fish be dealt with as subjects rather than property and objects of industry use? What does it mean for the ship to be a criminal in the case and how does its legal personality facilitate depriving its owner of his property? Mawani’s book makes me wonder about these and other possibilities.

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  1. See “Historicizing Narratives of Arrival: The Other Indian Other” in Hester Lessard, Rebecca Johnson & Jeremy Webber, Storied Communities: Narratives of Contact and Arrival in Constituting Political Community (2011).
  2. See Irus Braverman & Elizabeth R. Johnson eds., Blue Legalities: The Life and Laws of the Sea (forthcoming 2020).
Cite as: Angela Fernandez, The Motion of the Ship and the Sea: Oceans as Method in Colonial Legal History, JOTWELL (January 16, 2020) (reviewing Renisa Mawani, Across Oceans of Law: The Komagata Maru and Jurisdiction in the Time of Empire (2018)),