Oceans as Method: Law, Violence, and Climate Catastrophe

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In her book Across Oceans of Law, Renisa Mawani offers to look at oceans as method. In this text that could well serve as the whole issue’s introduction, she articulates the principles of this method, its focus on the legal, political and environmental impacts of ships, as well as its key thinkers, such as Edouard Glissant and Epeli Hau’ofa.

Featured Image 2
Painting of a Portuguese carrack off a rocky coast by Flemish painter Joachim Patinir (circa 1540).

In 1603, a Dutch fleet led by Jakob van Heemskerk seized the Santa Catarina, a Portuguese carrack, in the Straits of Singapore. In response, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) commissioned a young jurist, Hugo Grotius, to advise on the lawfulness of van Heemskerk’s actions: was this an act of piracy or profiteering, was it legal or illegal? In his reply, published anonymously in 1609 as Mare Liberum (Free Sea), Grotius argued that the sea was to be held in common to all. The world’s oceans, he insisted, were open to European trade and commerce. Certain trade routes might be controlled through the movement of ships, Grotius reasoned, but the sea could not be owned or possessed. The Dutch capture of the Santa Catarina initiated a protracted set of deliberations which continue into the present day. Grotius’s arguments are vividly apparent in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982), most explicitly in section 87.1 “Freedom of the High Seas.”

For some readers of The Funambulist, Grotius and Mare Liberum may be familiar. Both are commonly referenced in discussions of international law, particularly in the law of the sea. But what falls out of focus is that imperial disputes over the sea, to which Grotius was responding, emerged from the capture of a vessel that was traveling along the Indian Ocean from the Portuguese-controlled territories of Macau to Goa. Although a ship and the Indian Ocean sit at the center of a European international legal order, their significance is obscured by a terracentric and Eurocentric bias. In chapter 12 of the Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty, which was to become Mare Liberum, Grotius wrote: “a ship sailing over the sea no more leaves behind itself a legal right than it leaves a permanent track.” What do we see when we follow the ship?

In my recent book, Across Oceans of Law: The Komagata Maru and Jurisdiction in the Time of Empire (2018), I argue that international law did not emerge in European cities or along colonial frontiers, but rather on the decks of ships, in imperial and anticolonial struggles over the sea. In an analytic approach that I term “oceans as method” — a mode of reading, writing, and thinking with the sea as metaphor and materiality — I visualize ships as forms of transport, technological innovations that were central to European man’s aspirations to conquer nature and control the planet’s lands, seas, and resources, and as juridical forms that have been vital to contests over an international legal order. Despite their erasure and invisibility, moving ships have noticeably shaped the world as we know it, inscribing juridical lines across ocean regions, distinguishing land/sea and time/space, inspiring grids of longitude and latitude, and opening maritime trade routes for the sanctioned transport of people and commodities. By crisscrossing oceans, ships have altered the seas and are deeply implicated in planetary destruction. Yet, ships often go unremarked in discussions of climate catastrophe, except in the case of oil spills and marine accidents. At the surface, oceans may appear to erase the legal and environmental tracks of moving ships but the sea continues to bear witness to imperial, colonial, and racial violence as archives and sources of historical memory.

Despite their erasure and invisibility, moving ships have noticeably shaped the world as we know it, inscribing juridical lines across ocean regions, distinguishing land/sea and time/space, inspiring grids of longitude and latitude, and opening maritime trade routes for the sanctioned transport of people and commodities.