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Oceans as Method

excerpted from Across Oceans of Law: The Komagata Maru and Jurisdiction in the Time of Empire (Duke University Press, 2018), 17-26.

In 1850, in a short comment published in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung Revue, Marx and Engels remarked on how colonial and capitalist expansion to North America was changing the economic and political significance of the world’s ocean regions. “A coastline which stretches across thirty degrees of latitude, one of the most beautiful and fertile in the world and hitherto more or less unpopulated,” they observed, “is now being visibly transformed into a rich, civilized land thickly populated by men of all races, from the Yankee to the Chinese, from the Negro to the Indian and Malay, from the Creole and Mestizo to the European.” Gold from California “is pouring in torrents over America and the Asiatic coast of the Pacific and is drawing the reluctant barbarian peoples into world trade, into the civilized world,” they wrote.73  For Marx and Engels, gold was to dramatically alter the place of the Pacific, both in terms of global markets and world history. Nineteenth-century maritime travel, they predicted, would unleash a civilizing force on “the reluctant barbarian peoples,” particularly Asiatics who crossed oceans in search of new riches and opportunities for trade. “The Pacific Ocean will then play the role the Atlantic Ocean is playing now, and the role that the Mediterranean played in the days of classical antiquity and in the middle ages,” they anticipated. If the Pacific was to become “the great water highway of world communications,” the Atlantic Ocean would eventually “sink to the level of a great lake such as the Mediterranean is to-day.”74 The observations made by Marx and Engels may have been prescient in some respects, but they were off the mark in others. By the early twentieth century, maritime travel along the Pacific became the locus of imperial surveillance and control, as evidenced by the Komagata Maru’s unsuccessful voyage and the demise of Gurdit Singh’s steamship company.

The maritime cartography of world regions as Marx and Engels narrated it, was premised on a double erasure. They say nothing of Indigenous peoples or of the Indian Ocean arena. Just as Europeans never arrived on empty lands, they also did not sail on vacant seas. European mariners and empires inserted themselves into existing social, religious, and trade networks that were established through Indigenous, Asian, and Muslim seafaring technologies, including knowledges of monsoon winds.75 Their portrayal of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Mediterranean expresses a Eurocentric and developmentalist teleology that characterizes their work writ large.76 Yet, the problems of maritime periodization and division are not specific to them alone. Rather, Marx and Engels’s observations are symptomatic of broader methodological shortcomings that prevail and persist in historical accounts of European expansion.77 In 1872, the famous Scottish scientist James Croll criticized the imposition of maritime boundaries as follows. We often “speak of parts, or geographical divisions, of one great ocean, such as the Atlantic and Pacific as if they were separate oceans.”78 Little has changed. Borders remain as persistent today in ocean studies and in maritime history as they were in the nineteenth century when Marx, Engels, and Croll were writing.79 Let me briefly explain.

In his magisterial study, The Black Atlantic, Paul Gilroy deploys the Atlantic Ocean as analytic ballast through which to overcome what he terms the “narrow nationalism” of English historiography.80 For Gilroy, the Atlantic is not solely an empirical site or a geographical designation but an analytic concept that foregrounds “a system of cultural exchanges” that centers slavery as foundational to European modernity.81 The Black Atlantic extends and elaborates the earlier work of historians Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh. In their account, the Atlantic features as a continuous historical network of institutional confinement and conviviality, one that engendered flourishing ideas of freedom, liberty, and equality.82 The Atlantic, in Gilroy’s formulation, is “one single, complex unit of analysis” that triangulates West Africa, Europe, and the Americas through the capture, transport, and enslavement of Africans, producing “an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective.”83 In his analysis, the Atlantic features as an exceptional site of racial subjection and black subjectivity. By privileging this aqueous region, Gilroy distinguishes it from other oceans and their attendant histories of imperial, colonial, and racial violence.84 Though many have remarked critically on the limitations of Gilroy’s analytic framework, few have pushed beyond his geographical frame. In The Red Atlantic, Jace Weaver extends Gilroy’s arguments to account for the transoceanic mobilities of Indigenous peoples. In his chronology of the modern world, the Atlantic was as red as it was black.85 Even in Weaver’s compelling account, the Atlantic remains a distinct maritime space, one that is divisible from the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions.

Though conspicuously absent in Marx and Engel’s maritime cartography, the Indian Ocean has also been a site of considerable scholarship. As many scholars have demonstrated, the eastern and western arenas have long histories of trade, commerce, and interethnic encounters among Arabs, Africans, Indians, and Chinese, and between Muslim and non-Muslim worlds.86 These are rich and densely connected regions that predate European contact by centuries. Prior to the age of steam, Indian Ocean travelers sailed on vessels that were highly dependent on the weather. The directional currents of the seas, which were produced by changing seasons and monsoon winds, carried ships between and across continental divides. By the nineteenth century, the rise of steam accelerated the frequency and speed of travel, and inaugurated different human rela- tionships with land and sea.87 Curiously, these technological shifts and changes have drawn little attention in Indian Ocean studies. Much of the existing scholarship, as Sugata Bose explains, focuses on premodern and early modern crossings via sail. Yet, the movements of people, ideas, commodities, and legalities have continued throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and well into the present day.88 “The Indian Ocean was global long before the Atlantic,” Sunil Amrith observes.89 Though nestled between the Atlantic and Pacific, it is rarely connected to these oceans, either historically or analytically.

More recently, scholars have shifted their attention to the long-neglected Pacific. Influenced by Atlantic studies, while emphasizing the Pacific’s own particularity, many have echoed the enthusiasm of Marx and Engels, describing this region as a newly prominent arena of global movement, circulation, and exchange.90 Notwithstanding characterizations of its presumed newness, the Pacific has been the site of Indigenous mobilities for millennia. Pacific peoples developed seafaring technologies to navigate, cross, and map the seas long before Europeans left their shores.91 In his groundbreaking essay “Our Sea of Islands,” Epeli Hau‘ofa describes the Pacific of his ancestors as “a large world in which peoples and cultures moved and mingled, unhindered by boundaries of the kind erected much later by imperial powers.”92 The vast Pacific opened pathways of migration that connected Asia to the Americas and invited new itineraries and possibilities for self-determination. Given these layered narratives of Indigenous and Asian mobilities, the Pacific is often described in terms of overlapping, intersecting, and plural histories. There are “multicoloured Pacifics— brown, black, white, and yellow,” David Armitage and Alison Bashford argue.93 The Pacific is thought to designate “a whole globe in a way that other oceans do not.”94

Despite the vitality and vibrancy of ocean and maritime studies, the field’s analytic potential is limited and even constrained by the geographical divides of the cartographer’s map. Indigenous and nonindigenous scholars have long criticized the prevailing historical periodizations and spatial divisions imposed onto ocean arenas. The land/sea distinction that was brought into being through the movement of ships, and which became foundational to European maps and to international law, did not register in the same way, if at all, in Indigenous and non-European cosmologies. These are part of a European modernism that continues to hold significant consequences for contemporary geopolitics.


“Nineteenth-century imperialism,” Hau‘ofa argues, “erected boundaries that led to the contraction of Oceania, transforming a once boundless world into the Pacific Island states and territories that we know today.”95 Damon Salesa insists, “all seas are connected, and there are no neat limits.”96 For Karen Wigen, a “colossal fragment like the Pacific Ocean is not big enough to contain most ocean themes.” Rather, “the skeins of maritime connections—whether in the realm of idiom and ideas, diasporic dispersals, imperial projections, scientific linkages, or strategies of resistance,” she contends, “quickly transcend the confines of a single ocean.”97 Colonial authorities and Indian travelers in the British imperial world did not see oceans as divided or detached either spatially or temporally. By the early twentieth century, Canadian, British, and Indian authorities expressed apprehensions about the increased transoceanic traffic that connected East and West via the Pacific and Indian Oceans.98 Importantly, Indigenous peoples and colonial subjects did not abide by the lines of imperial maps. Sojourners and migrants—including Gurdit Singh and Husain Rahim—looked out to the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans as overlapping and intersecting in a number of ways: in the physical contiguities of riverine and oceanic waterways, through shared colonial histories, and as sites of racial and imperial control. Remember, it was Singh’s own turn, from land and rail to sea and ships that inspired his anticolonial agenda and his struggles against British rule.

To trace the circulations of colonial law and Indian radicalism and to draw connections between the seemingly discrepant histories and geographies of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, this book draws on oceans and currents as its guiding methodology.99 “Ocean currents exercise a very important influence not only on climate but also on commerce,” wrote one source in 1893. “The seas join the nations they divide.”100 Though movement is constantly occurring but not often visible on land, oceans bear the ocular, audible, and palpable marks of motion and change.101 Currents, as oceanographers and others argue, are made up of vertical, horizontal, and circuitous movements that mark the surface of the sea and also its subterranean depths. Currents are not singular or unidirectional but heterogeneous and plural. They connect the ocean regions that have long been divided in European thought. Surface currents, crosscurrents, undercurrents, and rip currents move in multiple directions, with changing velocities and intensities depending on season, temperature, and climate.102 Precisely because of their active and powerful force, “the sea never stops moving.”103 Historically, currents were as influential in determining the sea routes of sailing vessels, as they were in directing the passage of steamships. The “sailing-ship navigator’s principal aim when remote from the land,” one source explained, “is to proceed along that much desired track where a fair wind and favorable current will probably be experienced.”104 Recast and reworked in analytic terms, currents foreground mobility and change as central features in colonial legal history. Currents do not have a readily identifiable beginning, a fixed or static center, or a clear end. Animated by multiple movements and countermovements, they join distant coordinates, in both space and time. Through their lively physical properties, currents speak compellingly to the limitations of other transnational and imperial frames, including webs. Currents exist in several registers at once. They follow multiple trajectories, exhibit changing dimensions, and thus offer alternative metaphors and additional ways to chart the discrepant mobilities of colonial and imperial worlds.

Across Oceans of Law draws on oceans as both metaphor and materiality to trace the legal overlaps between ocean arenas and the movements of colonial law and Indian radicalism that connected them.105 For some readers, my turn to the “free sea” and to multiple oceans might appear too broad, potentially obscuring the rich and particular histories of world regions. That is a fair charge. To temper these risks, the book traces the figurative and literal passage of a single ship. If the Pacific and Indian Oceans formed the actual sites of the Komagata Maru’s crossing, the Atlantic appeared with a patterned regularity in its 1914 voyage, echoing other times and places, and profoundly shaping struggles over the ship, its passengers, and their futures. Much like currents, the movements of law and radicalism were not uniform, linear, or straightforward as the case of Gurdit Singh suggests. Legal prohibitions and anticolonial formations zig- zagged, crisscrossed, and joined ocean regions along diverse routes, in multiple directions, and in shifting conceptions of past, present, and future. Tracing the itinerary of one ship, through the materiality and metaphoricity of oceans, helps to reposition the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans as overlapping and indivisible, despite their geographical locations and their presumed shifts in historical prominence and global significance.


Ocean currents are intimately connected to ships through technology and legality.106 The “breadth, depth, length and velocity” of currents have always been central to the design, construction, and direction of seagoing vessels, observed one source in the Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts.107 Depending on the time of year, currents carried ships more easily across some seas than others. By the sixteenth century, with advances in shipbuilding and navigation, seagoing vessels were no longer confined to single ocean regions.108 Their movements and itineraries became transoceanic, joining continents, changing the earth’s contours, and opening new possibilities for movement, expropriation, and resettlement. In 1850, just as steamships were making their debut on the world stage, transforming and eventually routinizing the movements of people and commodities, Marx and Engels commented on the tightly braided histories of oceans, ships, and imperial expansion: “It may be said that the world has only become round since the necessity has arisen for this global steam shipping.”109 Irrespective of “how many companies go bankrupt, the steamships—which are doubling the Atlantic traffic, opening up the Pacific, connecting up Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and China with America and are reducing the journey around the world to four months—the steamships will remain.”110 If ships were vital to colonial, capitalist, and territorial expansion, we must remember that they were equally significant to expanding regimes of colonial law and global time.


For some European thinkers, as I have noted above, oceans were seen as empty voids that were situated beyond conviviality, legality, and authority.111 As Carl Schmitt declared from his bird’s-eye view of the nomos of the earth: “On the waves, there is nothing but waves.”112 Yet the shipbound lives of Indian lascars who traveled on European vessels from the eighteenth century onward suggest a very different account of the sea. The ships that crisscrossed the world’s oceans engendered vibrant conditions for intimacy, solidarity, and racial and political contest. From the decks of the ship, maritime worlds appear as concentrated sites of sociality that were highly structured through law and time. As ships lost view of land, they became vulnerable to disorder, instability, and even mutiny. For that reason, captains kept order on their ships by means of rigid timetables that organized day and night and through the law of the sea, which they enforced with impunity. The “laws of the land have no hold on the water,” declared Captain Chillingworth of the Ibis in Amitav Ghosh’s novel, Sea of Poppies. “There is another law, and you should know that on this vessel, I am its sole maker.”113 To retain sovereign command over their ships, captains organized their crews through regional, religious, and caste distinctions that preceded and animated modern forms of racial governance.114 Ships were colonial-legal laboratories where racial labor hierarchies, rules of order, and regimes of violence were projected, implemented, disputed, and eventually extended to land.115 Viewed from the ship, oceans appear as socially vibrant though highly regulated spaces. These maritime activities disrupt Schmitt’s characterization of vacant and empty seas.


In the domain of early maritime law, oceans and ships were often inseparable. Before European contact, the Maritime Code of Melaka was the most comprehensive maritime legal regime in the Eastern Indian Ocean arena. This was not a law of the sea, as commentators have noted, but a law that governed the sea through rules of navigation, the safety of vessels, and the transport of goods.116 Oceans and ships as legal forms became further entangled through European expansion. Though the seas were beyond the claims of imperial sovereigns, as Grotius made clear, moving ships were regarded as pieces “of quasi-territory” that enabled sovereigns to advance jurisdictional claims to sea lanes and ocean regions.117 By displaying the flags and colors of their sponsors, vessels represented the authority of the powers that financed them.118 Moreover, flags conveyed messages of law, order, and authority in the instability and uncertainty of aqueous worlds. But ships were never only representations of law. They were vital to the actual movements of law and legality across the seas and in ways that connected imperial territories. “The physical circulation of legal papers, case notes and correspondence via shipping and transportation,” Kerry Ward explains, “was essential in the implementation of imperial law.”119 Ships were crucial to the transoceanic expansion of colonialism and capitalism as Marx and Engels noted, but featured just as prominently in Britannia’s efforts to rule the waves.

Despite being powerful symbols of law and sources of legality, moving ships proved to be difficult targets of imperial and legal control. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as I discuss briefly in the opening pages above, imperial authorities expressed heightened concerns regarding Indian travelers, traders, and migrants who many alleged were voyaging in greater numbers across the Pacific.120 Contra Marx, the shortened geographical and temporal distances facilitated by steam only augmented and intensified these fears. As Indian radicalism and anticolonialism were reputed to be flourishing within port cities, officials were increasingly troubled by the lengthy periods that passengers spent at sea. The middle passage, as scholars of the Black Atlantic have argued, unfolded between territories and temporalities and was therefore not only a site of extreme violence but also a dangerous space-time of mutiny and revolt.121 Concerns of Indian men traveling by ship echoed these fears and produced others. By the time the Komagata Maru commenced its 1914 voyage, imperial authorities alleged that seditious materials including pamphlets and periodicals were circulating on steamers that journeyed from India to Hong Kong, China, Japan, and eventually North America. Radical ideas and anti- British sentiments were believed to be in ferment aboard the Komagata Maru as it journeyed to Vancouver Harbour and especially on the ship’s voyage to India. Gurdit Singh and his associates allegedly gave talks and lectures to incite passengers to revolt against British rule. Thus, for colonial and imperial authorities, the transoceanic passage was a perilous transition zone where Indian passengers were transformed from “migrants” to “revolutionaries” that escaped law’s reach. Escalating fears of maritime radicalism only bolstered ongoing initiatives to prohibit Indian migration from India to Canada.


Oceans invite novel insights and perspectives through which to rethink the global movements and effects of British and colonial law. In European thought, the free sea was an international space that was situated beyond national, territorial, and sovereign control. Yet it was governed by multiple, competing, and overlapping sources of legal authority, though not always successfully. To high- light the plurality and “patchwork” of legalities on land, some scholars have shifted their attention from sovereignty to jurisdiction.122 In its broadest sense, jurisdiction refers to the inauguration and enunciation of law, “that there is law,” and that law speaks on its own behalf, authorizing itself through competing and overlapping legal forms.123 Unlike sovereignty, which assumes a coherent and homogeneous unity of legal and political authority, jurisdiction points to the multiplicity and heterogeneity of law. The British common law, as some have noted, was polyvocal from the very start. It was composed of multiple and overlapping legalities, most notably ecclesiastic, criminal, and admiralty law.124 It was in the colonies, as Shaunnagh Dorsett and Shaun McVeigh argue, that fragmented legal jurisdictions were especially pronounced. “It is through jurisdiction that the authority of the common and imperial laws have been asserted,” they explain, and “through questions of jurisdiction that the settlement of the colonies has been effected.”125


The “free sea” assists in foregrounding the plurality and polycentricity of European juridical orders. Between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, “mapping, navigation, and astronomy,” which were vital to imperial expansion, transoceanic navigation, and the world of the ship produced overlapping jurisdictions and divided authorities.126 Contests over where laws intersected, which ones were most applicable, and which were to prevail featured prominently in maritime disputes and disagreements. Grotius’s Mare Liberum, for instance, was a formal response to a maritime contest between the Dutch and the Portuguese in the Straits of Singapore.127 Though oceans could not be legally occupied, Grotius readily agreed that sovereign and imperial polities did make overlapping and opposing claims to strategic waterways, thereby extending their territorial control from land to sea and vice versa.128 As these few examples suggest, and as I elaborate throughout the book, oceans were by no means empty spaces. Rather, they were key sites of racial, colonial, and legal struggle to which the movements of ships proved crucial.


To be sure, jurisdiction is much more than a territorial concept. In the British Empire, questions of jurisdiction often centered on the racial and legal status of people, populations, and territories, dividing Dominion/colony, native/ foreigner, citizen/subject, and slave/free.129 Regimes of racial superiority and inferiority were not only terrestrial, as the maritime orders of transatlantic slavery remind us. It was aboard ships—on deck and in the hold—that distinctions between human/inhuman and slave/free were produced, debated, and violently enacted.130 Rethinking jurisdiction through maritime worlds emphasizes the spatial and temporal force of racial power. If race has a geography that is in- scribed “into continental divides, national localities, and geographic regions,” oceans point to its expansive and alternative histories by emphasizing the polyvocality, mobility, and mutability of racial orders.131 Modern conceptions of race emerged in part from maritime worlds, through regional, religious, and racial hierarchies that were mobilized by captains to govern crews and (human) cargos, and expanded through the circuitous routes of moving ships. Race operated jurisdictionally as a structuring element of the British Empire, one that demarcated the status and hierarchy of oceans, territories, and colonial populations. But racial power, however potent in force, was always open to fierce struggle, including opposition and appropriation. As colonial authorities and Indian migrants traveled across the seas, they borrowed, deployed, and disputed conceptions of racial superiority and inferiority in innovative ways. Regimes of race acquired their legibility and potency through seaborne hierarchies of slavery, forced labor, and caste that circulated and collided with other racial orders.132 The Komagata Maru’s passengers and supporters drew from alternative geographies and histories to mobilize racial and temporal grammars of globality, indigeneity, and “imperial citizenship” through which to demand inclusion within the wider imperial polity.133 The contiguity of oceans that I propose in this book draws these multiple geographies, histories, and temporalities of race into a broader and more capacious analytic frame, while currents reveal their changing intensity, velocity, and mutability.

When situated in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, and read through the force of currents and countercurrents, the Komagata Maru’s journey brings into sharper focus the imperial circulations through which the British Empire aspired to rule land, sea, and littoral, and how these mobile legalities were disputed by the counter-movements and anticolonial imaginaries of Indian travelers. Ocean currents, as I envision them, offer a productive method through which to explore the plurality, globality, and connectivity of colonial, legal, and racial histories that continue to be written as differentiated and divided.134 But prioritizing maritime worlds offers even more. Repositioning the sea in colonial legal history directs necessary attention from land and territoriality to time and temporality. Britain’s status as a maritime empire, as I explain in the following section, was achieved not only through a projected mastery over space but also in the inauguration of a global and universal time. Greenwich Mean Time introduced the formation of new registers of imperial power and additional repertoires of anticolonial contest that arose from the sea and from shipping.

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