Panel 2, Legal Histories

Renisa Mawani

Professor of Sociology

University of British Columbia

“Across Oceans of Law: The Komagata Maru and Jurisdiction in the Time of Empire”

Across Oceans of Law follows the journey of the S.S. Komagata Maru, a British-built and Japanese-owned steamship. The steamer rose to prominence in 1914, when Gurdit Singh, a railway contractor and rubber planter, transported 376 Punjabi migrants and travelers from Hong Kong to Vancouver. To date, the voyage has typically been narrated through the coordinates of landfall, territoriality, and national sovereignty and is an oft-cited example of immigration exclusions and legalized racism. Engaging “oceans as method,” a mode of thinking and writing that repositions land and sea, the book asks what is at stake, historically and conceptually, when histories of Indian migration are situated within maritime worlds. Specifically, the book considers how immigration prohibitions and Indian anticolonialism take on distinct contours and valences when the ship and the sea are analyzed as key juridical forms. Inspired by maritime studies yet expanding beyond its area-studies focus, the book traces the currents and counter-currents of British law, colonial policies, and Indian radicalism through multiple ocean arenas. Placing the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans into necessary conversation, the book analyzes the circulating and shared legalities that connected the Dominions, colonies, and territories; the shifting intensities of racial, colonial, and legal violence which joined indigenous dispossession, transatlantic slavery, Indian indenture, and so-called “free” migration; and the transoceanic repertoires of anticolonial critique that challenged the empire’s underlying racial, spatial, and temporal divides, including east/ west, land/ sea, citizen/ subject. By following the movements of a single ship and bringing oceans into sharper view, Across Oceans of Law places motion at the heart of colonial legal history.

Marina Martin

Research Fellow

Sonderforschungsbereich/Collaborative Research Centre, University of Frankfurt

“Subjects or Alieis? The Making and Unmaking of Subjecthood. Indian South Africans through the Prism of ‘Settler Colonialism’”

This paper studies how a complex landscape of settler colonialism within South Africa shifted the primary identity of Indian migrants from ‘British subject’ to ‘Asiatic’. A picture of the colonial government’s commercial and political design, and economic interactions and tensions between the white settler communities and Indians emerges. These dynamics motivated the creation of new immigration policies, the restriction of land entitlements and defined membership through categories of racial difference, and the construction of racial hierarchies. Restrictive laws such as these provide an insight into the social and political impact of Indian migrants on South Africa and consequently their volatile status.

At the same time, the identity of Indian migrants was framed by the political and legal discourses on membership that circulated between Britain, South Africa and India from the late 1800s to 1960. As these respective countries underwent various political transitions during this period, the status of Indian South Africans was shaped by diplomatic relations, rising nationalisms and the breakdown of the British Empire.  The political dialogues stimulated an inflected form of settler colonialism which was symptomatic of the changing dynamics between the “metropole” and the colonial peripheries.

Relevant to resurgent debates in Europe on migration and identity, this research underscores the implications of legislative interventions to shifting identities and discourses around legitimacy, citizenship, exclusion and alienation. It examines the various kinds of enforcement that were implemented, and their impact on drawing territorial lines between Indians, Africans and Europeans.

Victor V. Ramraj
Professor of Law, CAPI Law Chair, CAPI Director

Victor V. Ramraj