Genealogies of Law Across Land, Peoples & Sea: In Conversation with Renisa Mawani

Hardeep Dhillon

The Voyage of the Komagata Maru Map, Source: Renisa Mawani. This map was drawn by Leopold Lambert

The Voyage of the Komagata Maru Map, Source: Renisa Mawani. This map was drawn by Leopold Lambert

Renisa Mawani is Professor at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, which is located on the unceded territories of the Musqueam Peoples. Her first book, Colonial Proximities (2009), details a set of legal encounters between aboriginal peoples, Chinese migrants, Europeans, and those enumerated as “mixed race” in British Columbia. The book considers how state racisms were produced and mobilized through land, law, and labor in sites of colonial re-settlement. The book also offers a critical engagement with Michel Foucault’s conceptualization of biopolitics and Mary Pratt’s idea of the “contact zone” to simultaneously excavate genealogies of colonialism and migration.

Mawani has most recently published Across Oceans of Law (2018) which traces the currents and counter-currents of colonial law and Indian radicalism through the 1914 journey of the S.S. Komagata Maru. The book reorients the ship’s passage away from the optics of immigration, nationalism, and landfall towards a global and maritime legal history. By following this one ship through time and space, the book explores the entanglements between transatlantic slavery, indigenous dispossession, Indian indenture, and “free” migration. The book foregrounds “oceans as method” to reconsider Edward Said’s claim that the appropriation of land was the cornerstone of imperialism.

In addition to her book manuscripts, Mawani has published numerous articles that call for a greater engagement in considering the role of the sea in relationship to law and settler colonialism and the place of law in formulating and producing the archive. Her scholarship often reads history in a layered fashion through connections between settler colonialism, migration, slavery and imperialism. The result is the coproduction of theoretical insight and historical detail that reposition questions of agency, law, imperialism, and geography.

Hardeep Dhillon is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at Harvard University. Her dissertation, Indians on the Move, explores the movement of Punjabi men across the Pacific to write a larger history of border and boundary making, mobility, race, and law in the early twentieth century. She is also authoring stand-alone pieces on the state of exception during the Great War and the 1919 Punjab Disturbances which include the Amritsar massacre.

Hardeep Dhillon and Renisa Mawani discuss the latter’s past and most recent scholarly projects below.

Hardeep Dhillon: Thank you for taking the time to discuss your work with me. For the sake of time, I’ll get right to it. One of the most powerful things about your work is its ability to think beyond the dialectic of colonizer-colonized. In both Colonial Proximities and Across Oceans of Law–if I am to limit myself to your manuscripts–your engagement is often in multitudes: indigenous-Chinese immigrants under white settler colonialism early on and then slavery-indenture-free migrants under empire most recently. What does reading more broadly with these multitudes offer and what propelled you to engage the study of law in this way?

Renisa Mawani: When I first started my PhD, I knew I wanted to study law, history, and colonialism. The scholarship in this area – if it could be called an area – was quite sparse, but also very limited in its framing and orientation. I was especially struck by the persistent binaries – Indigenous/ European, European/ Chinese, and colonization/ migration. Moreover, I was surprised by how little the historical literatures on colonization, settler colonialism, and studies of migration spoke to each other. There were, of course, notable exceptions. The work of Sherene Razack, for example, was already placing migration, indigeneity, and white settler colonialism into conversation, which was very helpful for me in developing my thinking. Given my own family’s migrations, from Gujarat to Nairobi, and Nairobi to Vancouver, I knew that these binaries of colonizer/ colonized were preventing a fuller account of what colonial power looked like, the multitudes of people it brought together, and the racially unequal and exploitative conditions it produced. Contact zones – as racial sites of land appropriation, labor exploitation, and resource extraction – were and are always polyglot, and I really wanted to study this multiplicity so that I could have a better understanding of how colonial power operated and continues to operate in the contemporary moment.

In addition to colonial history, I also wanted to study law. As I began working on my dissertation, which eventually became Colonial Proximities, I was struck by just how central British law was to colonial and settler colonial projects in Canada and beyond. Often when people wrote on law and colonialism, both – law and colonialism – appeared as monolithic rather than layered multi-dimensional. I was trying to problematize both. Which laws governed land, labor, and mobility? How did they work together and in tension? And how did these various legalities produce and regulate colonial contact zones? For example, the overlapping projects of land, labor, and resource exploitation brought different people into the same space, as fishers and cannery workers. But these bodies needed to be taxonomized and organized through conceptions of race, time, and history. These legal categories would prove vital to governing the movements of bodies in space and their segregation and containment. What I have come to realize since Colonial Proximities is that legal practices in the British Empire were also highly mobile. Laws were not confined to the nation state. Rather, they traveled to different places with the movements of people: colonial administrators, settlers, Indigenous peoples, and colonial subjects of various kinds. It has been especially interesting to see how racial categorizations were marshaled in different regions across the empire and to what effect. Studying the multitudes, layers, and sedimentations of law, colonialism, and empire, which are all in motion, has now become an integral part of my method. 


HD: What is fascinating about your account is something I have been thinking through in my own work and it speaks to your point about how categories are marshaled in different places and across empire or even empires. It is that projects of settler-colonialism and colonialism, imperialism writ large, involve taxonomies that not only shift but put various kinds of subjects in conversation with one another. In this way, they not only create various hierarchies of race and ethnicity but also build different sorts of boundaries of who has access to labor, capital, and various sorts of rights. The law is used by settlers, colonists, and subjects in these projects to negotiate and contest for/against rights. In this way, we can read taxonomies and laws as highly versatile and can account for exclusions and inclusions, mobilities and immobilities, and so on across time. Yet, there is something to say about how power structures can be retained even with change across time—given that change is not a linear thing. It seems to me your conversation about law and race is ultimately about power then—how it resides across land and oceans, colonists and subjects, settlers and those who are detained or deported, and how it moves across time. Untangling dichotomies, unraveling contact zones, and unhinging space are clearly part and parcel of this project related to power.

RM: Yes, that's absolutely right. The time-space of empire was and is always shifting. Indigenous peoples, African captives, indentured laborers, and colonial subjects mobilized laws to fight for their own freedoms. Sometimes these strategies were successful, other times, they were not. But what is interesting to think through is how these were absorbed into regimes of colonial power. I think this is one of the reasons why I’ve been so drawn to oceans; this is one terrain in which these changes are dramatically visible, thus requiring us to develop other analytic methods and frameworks to track the expanse of colonial power, including its resilience.

Three Ships in Vancouver Harbour, Source: Renisa Mawani

Three Ships in Vancouver Harbour, Source: Renisa Mawani

HD: Yes, I could not agree more. If I were to map an argument of your first book onto the second, I would say that what underrides even the second book is imperial longevity, perhaps not the longevity of the settler population in the context of British Columbia as with the first book but the longevity of controlling movement and humans of color at land, sea, the site of the ship, etc., particularly in an era where indenture is nearing a close and Indians are invoking the language of rights as British imperial subjects to migrate within the empire. Yet, in writing about power or imperial durability and longevity, one must balance state practice and the agency of imperial, immigrant, or indigenous subjects. This is a difficult task in practice. How have you managed this in your own work?

RM: Each book started with a different set of questions. Colonial Proximities was concerned with the laws and policies of an emerging settler state, the imposition of racial categorizations, and the ways in which these bodily orders produced racial knowledges and spaces, including the reserve, the cannery, and the settler colonial city. In short, I was really interested in tracking the co-production of race and space through law.


These themes are still resonant in my second book. However, Across Oceans of Law begins with a group of Indian men who were engaged in struggles over the “free sea” and their rights to cross it. I was especially interested in foregrounding the contests waged by Gurdit Singh and Husain Rahim, how they envisioned the globe and fought the British Empire through their anticolonial re-imaginings of land/sea and space/time. I am still very concerned with imperial and state policies, but I really wanted these men to be in the center of it all.


Notwithstanding these different starting points, in both books I have struggled with how to write about colonial subjects, how they lived, survived, and challenged the oppressive conditions of colonial and imperial rule.


HD: I truly believe this is something that so many scholars have struggled with and so many of us budding as scholars are still struggling with.


RM: It's a real problem, one of balance and proportionality. In both books, I’ve tried very hard to foreground racial and colonial violence while also remaining aware and attentive to the overt and subtle responses made by historical actors. In many ways, Across Oceans of Law is more attuned to historical actors than Colonial Proximities. Given the many critiques of “resistance” and “agency” in history and beyond, it has been extremely challenging to think through willfulness, agency, and insurgency, and how we might read for these in and across archives, without ascribing intention, in the archival traces that remain.


HD: Indeed, the notion of ascribing intention is astute. It is interesting how the project to give ‘voice’ to subjects somehow conforms to literally giving them voice without substantive engagements regarding such voices are being produced through the archive or where they reside in the archive.


RM: One set of literatures that I have found to be enormously helpful in thinking through racial violence and the resilience of racial subjects is that of transatlantic slavery. Scholars including Saidiya Hartman, NourbeSe Philip, and Christina Sharpe have given us useful tools to problematize and read archives for presence/absence and for the ways in which people disrupted patterns and practices of power, even under the most unspeakable and horrific conditions of racial and colonial violence.


HD: I cannot agree more. I have also relied on Antoinette Burton, Gaiutra Bahadur, Sara Ahmed and Anjali Arondekar among a series of social historians who work on slavery. Yet, even these scholars are often not read together with the exception perhaps of gender historians or those investigated in critical projects around race. Geographies of the world seem to divide what scholars we read on these questions.


RM: Yes, of course. I think one problem is that we read geographically and also temporally, through specific historical in different ways, Burton, Bahadur, Ahmed, and Arondekar have raised bigger questions – beyond region and time period – which have been so helpful in thinking about archives, methods, and in problematizing the boundaries between history and fiction.  


HD: I’m going to shift away from methods of reading to sites of reading. In the current political landscape—not simply in the United States or Canada where we both live—but on a global scale, the question of space has re-surfaced with intense political fervor. I believe the scope of our research would lead us to argue it has always been there but perhaps we can agree that the issues have garnered greater attention as of late? And, I’m referring specifically to the space of borders, the ship, the sea, territories, settler colonial spaces, and even indigenous spaces. More recently, Across Oceans of Law and your articles, which includes a piece that re-reads Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, call for an examination of the sea as a site of legality that figured centrally in settler colonialism and colonialism. In this regard, you even challenge Edward Said’s claim that the appropriation of land was the cornerstone of imperialism. What propelled your investigation of maritime worlds and the impetus to read land and sea not separately but together, and as integral to settler colonial and colonial projects?


The Komagata Maru in Vancouver Harbour, 1914. Source: Vancouver Public Library

The Komagata Maru in Vancouver Harbour, 1914. Source: Vancouver Public Library

RM: When I began my research on the Komagata Maru, I was struck by how little attention scholars and artists paid to the ship and to the oceans it crossed. Yet, only 20 of the 376 Punjabi passengers were allowed to disembark in Vancouver. The rest were confined to the ship for 6 months. The one notable exception in this regard is Phinder Dulais’s wonderful book of poetry, Dream/Arteries. But beyond that, the ship and the sea have been largely absent in historical accounts of the Komagata Maru.

To address this gap, I started reading historical and contemporary work on shipping and maritime navigation. This became transformative to my thinking and writing. Turning to the sea and to maritime worlds made me realize the significance of global time, which emerged from shipping and navigation and by the nineteenth century became a way of integrating and governing the globe. As I worked on this book, I became increasingly aware that time and space remain potent legacies of European Empires. Space – as borders, nations, and regions - has been vehemently challenged by Indigenous peoples, the crossings of migrants, and by states. But the absence of the sea in our thinking has often meant that space, and certain conceptions of space, are privileged over time. In the worlds of shipping and navigation, time and space are not easily separated. I have taken this to be an important analytic orientation.   

As I’ve been working on Across Oceans of Law and smaller projects, including the one on Conrad, the Torrens land registry, and the Torrens ship, I’ve come to appreciate that time needs to figure more prominently in our analyses of race and colonialism. But our conceptions of space also need some reworking. Edward Said emphasized the appropriation of land as a foundation of colonial power, but we need to rethink space, not only in terms of land but also as sea, not merely as surface but also as subterranean and aerial, not only as fixed but as fluid and interconnected. Scholars and activists have been doing this important excavating work in the academy and beyond. More recently, Indigenous struggles around #NODAPL have taught us some important lessons on the inseparability of the elements - earth, water, air, and fire – how these figure in Indigenous cosmologies and how they must animate our critical analyses.

This has implications for politics. Today, the world’s oceans are sites of key global struggles: over economic and legal jurisdiction, extraterritoriality, migration, racism, colonialism, state violence, and climate change. Yet, oceans - and the ships that cross them - remain hidden in plain sight. They are not often present in studies of law, migration, and empire. What would it mean to think of land and sea as interconnected sites of history and legality? How might that reshape our thinking of race, colonialism, and imperialism? Even today, despite tens of thousands of migrant deaths on the Mediterranean, oceans and ships are not often viewed as subjects worthy of analysis. This absence is only exacerbated in the fields of law and legal studies, where maritime law is a separate domain and not often what we think of when we think about “law.”


HD: Your note of Phinder Dulais reminds me of how most of the work I know about land and sea has also emerged more robustly not in history or legal studies but other fields like comparative literature where epics and myths like those related to Europa, the woman abducted by Zeus, have been used to reorient connections between the Mediterranean Sea and parts of Europe. Yet, more recent analyses in legal studies and history remind me how our present analyses of materials that have been before us in the archive are being re-examined and re-presented in relationship to geographic spaces that are being read together and concerns that have become prevalent in our times. Yet, as your reference to #NODAPL and various literature indicates they have not just been before us in writing but they have even lived among us—archived in the memories and bodies of people including indigenous communities or First Nations.


RM: I have found literature very useful in thinking about the sea. As I worked on Across Oceans of Law, I read and reread Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies several times. Here, more so than the other two books in the Ibis trilogy, Ghosh gives us a vivid glimpse into ships as spaces of encounter and camaraderie. But he also pushes us to rethink connections across time and space and to decenter Europe as the origin of history.


HD: I could not agree more. Toni Morrison and Colson Whitehead—the way they imagine and craft narrative have more than moved me—one more recently, one for some time. In fact, as we speak of these powerful writers and historians of slavery, I must admit that one of the methodological and conceptual interventions that most moved me in Across Oceans of Law was your integration of histories of the Atlantic and slavery. This is even visible in Ghosh’s writings in some moments. Scholarship related to the Atlantic world, particularly the movement of African captives across the Middle Passage, enabled you to read the Komagata Maru’s voyage as constituent of histories of slavery, indenture, and ‘free’ migration. In fact, it even underpins your analytical development of Gurdit Singh’s escape as “fugitive” by drawing on histories of slavery especially Jim Crow. If I were to put it simply, we can say that the Komagata Maru sails in the long shadow of slavery which includes legal emancipation, and indenture. This intervention clearly reflects a shift from most histories of South Asia and South Asians related to the maritime world which is heavily focused on the Indian Ocean. What propelled you to read in this way?


RM: As I was working on Across Oceans of Law, and thinking about the sea as a juridical domain I came to the realization that one cannot tell a legal history of the sea or of shipping without engaging with transatlantic slavery. As someone who works in the fields of Critical Race Theory and Postcolonial Studies, I was familiar with the vibrant scholarship on slavery and Atlantic Studies, but I began immersing myself in it. Many of the laws around navigation and shipping emerged in the same historical period as the transatlantic slave trade. The development of maritime law was concomitant and constituent with the laws of slavery. To give one example, I argue in the book that the body of the slave and the body of the ship are deeply entangled through the emergence of legal personhood. Reading in the field of transatlantic slavery also pushed me to think differently about law, and to reposition maritime regulations as central not only to the sea but also to what was happening on land.

Placing the Komagata Maru in the “long shadow of slavery,” as you so beautifully put it, does other important work. To begin, it disrupts dominant periodizations of history and challenges the idea that history unfolds in a linear and progressive arc. As I was doing my research, I was amazed by how often the passengers aboard the ship, especially Gurdit Singh but also others, challenged the temporal lines that ostensibly separate slavery, indenture, and “free” migration. Centering Gurdit Singh in the book and offering a close reading of his anticolonial writings, while reading widely around slavery and indenture helped me to think through the overlaps between these colonial and imperial projects. The British Empire constantly and violently moved people around to some places and not others – as slaves, indentures, Sepoys, and as exploitable labor. Yet we write histories of slavery, indenture, and so-called free migration as though they are discrete, separated by time and space, and in ways that assume we can easily distinguish between the freedom and unfreedom of movement. What I call “oceans as method” is intended in part to challenge area studies and the dominant historical periodizations that separate slavery, indenture, and migration.


The Komagata Maru and Leisure Boats in Vancouver Harbour, 1914. Source: Vancouver Public Library

The Komagata Maru and Leisure Boats in Vancouver Harbour, 1914. Source: Vancouver Public Library

HD: What sorts of future work would you like “oceans as method” to propel, inspire or open?


RM: My hope is that “oceans as method” may encourage scholars to follow unexpected connections and juxtapositions that shed light on how colonial power operated historically and continues to operate today through the lines of maps, the assumed forward march of time, and the categories we use in our thinking and writing.


HD: I hope it does too and taking your reminder about the assumed forward march of time very seriously, I hope this method also pushes us to think specifically and concretely about the forms of power embedded in various connections across space. On that note, may I ask what you are working on now? I recall your self-diagnosed “obsession” with Gurdit Singh and I am sort of relieved to see figures of so-called “failed” trials and tribulations, movements and protests, come to light particularly when they help to rescript more orthodox histories of big men and nationalist histories.


RM: My next monograph will be a kind of sequel to Across Oceans of Law, tentatively titled Enemies of Empire: A Socio-Legal History of Piracy. The project focuses on piracy and decolonization as twinned projects in the early to mid-twentieth century. I am particularly interested in why piracy falls out of historical interest during this period and how struggles over the sea featured in movements for decolonization. Of course, Gurdit Singh reappears in this book, but this time with Marcus Garvey. Both of these men started shipping lines – the Guru Nanak Steamship Company and the Black Star Line, respectively – with limited degrees of success, and largely due to efforts by the British and U.S. empires to thwart their entrepreneurial aspirations. Like Across Oceans of Law, Enemies of Empire is also a multi-sited archival project that brings the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans into focus through two troublesome regions of the British Empire: India and Jamaica. I still have so much to learn and to say about maritime worlds. Following Singh and Garvey will allow me to keep reading and thinking about the sea, as a site of anticoloniality and imperial governance, but also in the emergence of an enduring racial capitalism. I find it fascinating that so many scholars position anticoloniality and anti-capitalism together. Here, we see two men who are committed in different ways to anticolonial visions but seek to produce these through commercial activities and by reclaiming the sea.

Three Ships in Burrard Inlet. Source: Renisa Mawani

Three Ships in Burrard Inlet. Source: Renisa Mawani

HD: This sounds superb. I enjoy how you are still crossing different racial grounds and moving across issues of mobility, agency, and freedom that have impacted different communities. The connections between the Caribbean and South Asia also seem particularly useful at a time when studies of the US have begun to look more towards the global, Caribbean, and Americas more largely. This project also seems creative in that you seem to be taking the moment of legal emancipation and placing it in conversation with that of imperial critiques around mobility and rights. It has me thinking already about the conceptual overlaps in relationship to the concerns about freedom and unfreedom of movement you referenced earlier in this conversation as well.


RM: This is a big project and yes, hopefully a more creative one, especially in terms of how I write it. I would like there to be a website or installation that operates as a companion to the book, and which reaches a wider audience.


I also have two collaborations in process. The first is a co-edited volume with my dear friend, Antoinette Burton. Titled, Animalia: An Anti-Imperial Bestiary and its Anti-Imperial Histories, this book focuses on the disruptive role of animals in the British Empire. We have been working with 22 contributors, using archival illustrations and a bestiary format, which has been wonderfully creative and theoretically generative. The second collaboration is with medieval historian and Islamic legal scholar, Anver Emon. “Between the Straits: From Gibraltar to Malacca,” is at a much earlier stage than Animalia. It also tries to disrupt genres by bringing scholars in the social sciences and humanities together to unearth the rich and diverse histories of commerce, capitalism, and economic thought from the earliest days of Islamic expansion in the Arabian Peninsula to contemporary movements of trade, money and people across the Mediterranean and the eastern and western Indian Ocean arenas. Both of these projects speak to my wider interests in law, mobility, oceans, empire, and more-than-human life worlds but cut across them in interesting ways. I feel so fortunate to be working with such remarkable and generous scholars!


HD: I am certain they feel the same. In fact, it is very encouraging to see scholars come together in a way that harnesses their strong suits to build projects that are larger than what they may have managed individually. Both projects already seem like they will be much-welcomed additions to the fields of animal studies and oceanic studies among other fields you note. Thank you for sharing and taking the time to discuss your work.



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