Between Personhood and Property: The Legal Lives of the Ship

Nov 18, 2015

Abstract:This talk draws from my current book, Across Oceans of Law, which follows the 1914 journey of the Komagata Maru, a British-built and Japanese-owned steamship that carried 376 Punjabi migrants from Hong Kong to Vancouver and Vancouver to Calcutta, with numerous stops in between. Rather than focus on questions of law and immigration, as many scholars have done, and done well, I consider the legal lives of the ship, the jurisdictional struggles in which it was embedded, and the histories of racial and colonial violence its journey concatenated. The talk is organized in two parts. The first steps away from the Komagata Maru’s voyage and enters the conflictual and unlikely worlds of the common law, admiralty law, and transatlantic slavery. Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the legal status of ships became a subject of debate among British and especially American jurists. The legal personhood of vessels, I contend, emerged out of maritime custom and admiralty law, had precedents in the common law, and became increasingly animated through the transatlantic slave trade. The positive personhood ascribed to the ship was inextricably linked to the negative personhood imposed on the slave. Part two turns to several key moments in the Komagata Maru’s journey as it crossed the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In disputes over jurisdiction, in passenger accounts of the middle passage, and in critiques of the inhumanity of British colonial rule, the ship’s voyage recalled transatlantic slavery, not as the past but as a recurring presence, one that called into question the presumed “freedom” of Indian mobility across the seas. 
Speaker:Renisa Mawani is an Associate Professor of Sociology. She works in the fields of critical theory and colonial legal history and has published widely on law, colonialism, and legal geography.
Reception to follow. This event is free and open to all. Please register online here.Peter Wall Institute, Seminar Room 307, University Centre, UBC, 6331 Crescent Road, Vancouver