- Across Oceans of Law: The Komagata Maru and Jurisdiction in the Time of Empire by Renisa Mawani
Across Oceans of Law is an innovative, prescient, and global approach to the infamous events of 1914 when the Komagata Maru, with hundreds of passengers from India on board, was prevented from landing in Vancouver, Canada. The five chapters of this important study are bookended by an introduction and epilogue. The author states that this study is an attempt to overcome the limits of nationalist and territorial studies; even the transnational and global turn, as important and positive as it is, “inadvertently centers land and territoriality” (13). Focusing on the sea, Renisa Mawani suggests, allows us to better perceive the interconnections of land and sea and offers an alternative history of race, using “oceans as method” (7). The author sets out on an ambitious path, hoping to provide not only a new and critical view of the Komagata Maru story but also a new paradigm for critical race and transnational studies. Readers will have to judge for themselves whether Mawani’s work actually constitutes the alternative that she suggests, but, by any measure, Across Oceans of Law sets a higher bar for critical race and global migration studies. A broad frame of reference and insightful analysis of the events surrounding the Komagata Maru and its aftermath make this book essential reading for the study of empire and anti-colonialism.
The author provides a sweeping panorama of the politics of the ocean, from Grotius’ theories about a “free sea” to the rise of British domination over the oceans, symbolized by the establishment of longitude as a scientific instrument coupled with the central role of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. As a counterpoint, however, Mawani invokes India’s own seafaring tradition and the role of Lascars, Indian labourers who worked on Portuguese and other vessels for hundreds of years, neatly disrupting the narrative of European maritime supremacy. She also suggests that, for both Husain Rahim, who arrived in Canada in 1910 and continuously challenged Canadian civil and immigration laws, as well as for Gurdit Singh, who would charter the Komagata Maru in 1914, the sea offered a space to challenge British imperial rule (62–3).
The chapter on the legalities of the ship is fascinating. Tracing the provenance of the Komagata Maru as a vessel for transporting indentured Chinese labourers and its subsequent incarnations, Mawani draws attention to the ironies of ships being given legal status while their passengers were often denied any status at all – that is, until they became legal cargo on board a ship where they were kept in holds that resounded with echoes of the slave trade (79). In [End Page 147] that context, Gurdit Singh’s chartering of the Komagata Maru gave him command of the ship, including its captain, but only as long as he fulfilled the terms of his charter. Therein lay the rub. British officials constantly interfered with paying passengers, forcing Gurdit Singh into some creative ticketing, and required that he obtain unsecured loans (107).
Mawani’s research unveils how a ship’s manifest, including information on the ship and its passengers, became an administrative tool and extended immigration laws onto the seas and those that tried to cross them. Detailing the case of Munshi Singh, the passenger chosen as a test case at the Immigration Department’s Board of Inquiry and at the British Columbia Court of Appeal, lays bare the insidious distinction between “subject” and “citizen” in defining who was actually “British” (138). In the final chapters, the author explores the politics of indigeneity as it appeared in the vernacular press coverage of the Komagata Maru incident in South Africa and India and the terrible tribulations of Gurdit Singh upon his forced return to India where he, and many other Komagata Maru passengers, were met with colonial violence based on the 1914 Ingress into India Ordinance, which allowed India to regulate, police, and restrict the movement of people entering its borders who might...