Across Oceans of Law

The Komagata Maru and Jurisdiction in the Time of Empire

Across Oceans of Law

Global and Insurgent Legalities

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Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: 23 illustrations Published: August 2018

Author: Renisa Mawani

History > World History, Law > Legal Theory, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

In 1914 the British-built and Japanese-owned steamship Komagata Maru left Hong Kong for Vancouver carrying 376 Punjabi migrants. Chartered by railway contractor and purported rubber planter Gurdit Singh, the ship and its passengers were denied entry into Canada and two months later were deported to Calcutta. In Across Oceans of Law Renisa Mawani retells this well-known story of the Komagata Maru. Drawing on "oceans as method"—a mode of thinking and writing that repositions land and sea—Mawani examines the historical and conceptual stakes of situating histories of Indian migration within maritime worlds. Through close readings of the ship, the manifest, the trial, and the anticolonial writings of Singh and others, Mawani argues that the Komagata Maru's landing raised urgent questions regarding the jurisdictional tensions between the common law and admiralty law, and, ultimately, the legal status of the sea. By following the movements of a single ship and bringing oceans into sharper view, Mawani traces British imperial power through racial, temporal, and legal contests and offers a novel method of writing colonial legal history.


"Across Oceans of Law is complex, comprehensively researched, and engagingly presented. . . . Each of the four chapters presents a unique perspective on thinking about the diverse and significant themes found in the examination of the changing development of maritime jurisprudence and evolving interpretation of the freedom of the sea, changing definitions of the legal nature of a ship, the status of colonial subjects, anticolonial restrictions on immigration, and the career of Gurdit Singh. . . . Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty." — P. D. Thomas, Choice

"Renisa Mawani has written a beautifully conceived, deeply researched, and elegantly argued book that all of us should read." — Fahad Bishara, H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews

"Across Oceans of Law is much more than an account of yet another dark chapter in Canadian and British imperial history. . . . Fresh and compelling. . . . Straightforward in its ingenuity and genuinely convincing in its execution. Indeed, there is here an elegance in the delivery of the core idea." — Jen Hendry, LSE Review of Books

"Across Oceans of Law follows a breathtaking scalar approach attentive to the hierarchies of race, time, and jurisdiction, while narrating a microhistorical story of Komagata Maru’s transoceanic travel to recover oceans as 'vibrant spaces of law, politics and poetics' (236). It is a beautifully written, richly documented, and theoretically sophisticated study that connects the dense imperial, legal, and maritime histories with global histories of time from the perspective of a ship steered by a colonial subject during the heyday of anticolonialism." — Debjani Bhattacharyya, Law and History Review

"This impressively researched and theoretically sophisticated book will profoundly transform the ways in which scholars of migration, empire, and anticolonialism approach their work." — Seema Sohi, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"What makes the book particularly valuable are the questions that it raises about freedom and movement, questions that are timely, especially given the manifold migration crises taking place around the globe today. Thus, for scholars who wish to better understand contemporary concerns around migration and race, Mawani's book is certainly a good resource." — Alia Somani, The Historian

"[Across Oceans of Law] reinvigorates centuries-old legal and historical debates relating to land/sea, time/space, and subjects/citizens.… We are treated to a sophisticated disentangling of a set of intertwining global historical processes that undergirded this episode, issues which remain alive and in the contemporary world." — Alastair McClure, ReOrient

"It is…impossible not to appreciate the urgent contemporary relevance and resonance of the 'ocean as method' from the outset of Mawani's text." — Honni Van Rijswik and Anthea Vogl, Law and Critique

"By requiring scholars to think thematically, narratively, connectedly, vertically, temporally, and non-foundationally, Across Oceans of Law provides stimulating conceptual tools for applications in contexts beyond the voyage of the Komagata Maru, and beyond the seas." — Jennifer Hendry, Journal of Law and Society

"The polivocality of time(s) is a crucial aspect for reading done by Mawani while foregrounding its legacy that continues to haunt our present.… In this view, migration and oceans as spaces become fluid and constantly moving matrixes that embody political possibilities by disrupting the locked and solid legal structures operating on land and extending onto free seas." — Ankit Sharma, Asian Journal of Law and Society

“Charting the 1914 voyage of the SS Komagata Maru and focusing on the sea, the ship, the manifest, the indigenous, and the fugitive, Renisa Mawani makes a compelling case against the European myth of the ‘free sea.’ Arguing for a new ‘ocean as method’ and foregrounding the co-emergence of maritime law and the policing of immigration, this book will rightly be seen as a legal and historical tour de force.” — Gaurav Desai, author of Commerce with the Universe: Africa, India, and the Afrasian Imagination

“This beautifully written and richly illustrated book provides a new global and oceanic history perspective on the journey of the Komagata Maru. Ranging across theories of law, time, and space, Renisa Mawani places an event limited in time and scale into some of the large questions and themes of history: migration, mobility, maritime jurisdiction, race, legal rights, and anticolonial radicalism.” — Clare Anderson, author of Subaltern Lives: Biographies of Colonialism in the Indian Ocean World, 1790–1920


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Renisa Mawani is Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia and author of Colonial Proximities: Crossracial Encounters and Juridical Truths in British Columbia, 1871–1921.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations  ix
Acknowledgments  xi
Introduction. Currents and Countercurrents of Law and Radicalism  1
1. The Free Sea: A Juridical Space  35
2. The Ship as Legal Person  73
3. Land, Sea, and Subjecthood  115
4. Anticolonial Vernaculars of Indigeneity  152
5. The Fugitive Sojourns of Gurdit Singh  188
Epilogue. Race, Jurisdiction, and the Free Sea Reconsidered  231
Notes  241
Bibliography  293
Index  319
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Finalist, Socio-Legal Theory and History Prize, presented by the Socio-Legal Studies Association (SLSA)

Winner of the 2020 Association for Asian American Studies Book Award for Outstanding Achievement in History

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