Oceans as Method: Law, Violence, and Climate Catastrophe



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.

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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.

When viewed through a changing climate, ships do leave a trace, but one that is not visible to the naked eye and may not be legible through conventional timescales. The elemental and material distinctions between land and sea that were so foundational to Grotius’s legal thinking have today been radically transformed. Under the auspices of free trade and a free sea, European empires have left their mark on the world’s oceans through imperial expansion, colonial extraction, and racial exploitation. Alongside plastics and industrial pollution, moving ships have changed the composition of the sea as evidenced in ocean acidification, depleting oxygen levels, and warming waters. In the contemporary moment, when 90% of the world’s goods continue to be transported by sea, what sorts of methods do we need to join the violences of the past to the violences of the present without losing sight of the uneven vulnerabilities and unequal responsibilities of climate catastrophe? What would it mean to foreground the role of European ships as agents and expressions of international law implicated in the genocide of Indigenous peoples and in ongoing struggles over land, waterways, and sovereignty; in the theft and forced transport of 12.5 million captive Africans and the (after)lives of transatlantic slavery; in Chinese and Indian indentured labor, forced migration, and in ongoing migrant deaths at sea? Oceans as method, as I speculate here, invites ways to address these questions by opening alternative views of climate catastrophe and historical responsibility.


In Across Oceans of Law, I draw on the rhythmic movements of oceans as a technique of writing colonial legal history. I approach the seas as overlapping and entangled spaces joined through the movements of ships, the circulation of colonial laws, and by the challenges posed by early 20th century Indian radicals. Instead of conceiving of oceans only as sites and surfaces of study, I view them as aqueous modes of thinking and as interconnected archives. Drawing inspiration from Indigenous, Black, and Caribbean artists, poets, and scholars and from the maritime expertise of subaltern seafarers, oceans as method reorients planetary views from land to sea, joining seemingly distant geographies, discrepant temporalities, and histories. The motivation for my thinking came from following a single ship: the British-built Komagata Maru, which in 1914 was chartered by railway contractor and Malayan planter Gurdit Singh. In an unprecedented voyage, Singh transported 376 Punjabi migrants from Hong Kong to Vancouver. By tracing the steamer’s multiple lives as the Stubbenhuk (1890-1894), Sicilia (1894-1913), and Komagata Maru (1913-1924) and tracking its many transoceanic voyages across the Mediterranean, Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, this one ship vividly illuminates how moving vessels connected ocean regions. If European ships that are deeply implicated in colonial and racial violence and in the expansion of global capitalism supposedly do not leave a trace, as Grotius claims, a migrant vessel carrying Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim men (save for two women and three children), on a journey intended to inaugurate a Punjabi shipping company, defy the British empire and a European international legal order became hyper visible, providing further evidence that Grotius’s conception of the free sea did not extend beyond Europe and did not include the maritime pursuits of colonial subjects.

Oceans as method challenges the European myth of the free sea that Grotius laid out in Mare Liberum. Drawing from a rich body of scholarship on the Indian Ocean that characterizes the region as a legally plural, polyglot, and contested domain, I join others in questioning Grotius’s claims that the free sea was a European invention. His assertion that European international law was imposed on the Indian Ocean as an ostensibly empty and lawless space, has erased the presence of Indigenous seafarers, Asian traders, merchants, and revolutionaries, including Gurdit Singh, figures who carried alternative concepts, customs, and traditions of law. A view from the decks of the Komagata Maru, and more recently, from the unseaworthy vessels commanded by Black and Brown captains in the Mediterranean, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, remain powerful reminders that the sea is not free.

The maritime borders inscribed by Dutch-Portuguese imperial contests in the early 17th century and which have become a foundation for global capitalism and a contemporary international legal order, continue to be marked by colonial and racial violence and struggle as migrants are turned back, turned away, and left to die at sea.

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Gurdit Singh and other passengers aboard the Komagata Maru in 1914. / Vancouver Public Library, VPL Accession number 136, Canadian Photo Company.

Oceans as method draws guidance from Indigenous, Black, and Caribbean thinkers for whom oceans have always been vital to think with, for whom the world’s oceans are a life force, a source of nourishment, a way of inhabiting the world, and a record of history. In Poetics of Relation (1990), Edouard Glissant describes oceans as an infinite and indivisible force that carries the memories of transatlantic slavery beyond the Atlantic and in ways that flow through the modern world: “the entire ocean, the entire sea gently collapsing in the end into the pleasures of sand, make one vast beginning, but a beginning whose time is marked by these balls and chains gone green.” Drawing inspiration from Derek Walcott’s (1978) “The Sea is History,” Glissant describes oceans as an aqueous time-space, a vast and undulating force with no beginning or end, holding traces of forgotten pasts, including the remains of captive Africans who were thrown overboard for insurance purposes and who jumped to escape the horrors of the Middle Passage. In “Our Sea of Islands,” Tongan anthropologist Epeli Hau’ofa (1994) underscores the significance of oceans for Indigenous peoples in the Pacific. Oceania, he writes, nurtured the life ways of Pacific peoples and provided stability to “the global environment.” By reading Glissant and Hau’ofa together as part of a wider oceanic method, the sea becomes history in a double sense. It was (and is) the site of colonial and racial violence sanctioned by moving ships as expressions of a European international legal order. But the sea is also a product of history. The movement of sail ships, steamships, freighters, container ships, hundreds of thousands of ships continue to endanger marine species, maritime ecologies, and human/ non-human futures.

…Glissant describes oceans as an aqueous time-space, a vast and undulating force with no beginning or end, holding traces of forgotten pasts, including the remains of captive Africans who were thrown overboard for insurance purposes and who jumped to escape the horrors of the Middle Passage.


The world’s oceans, scientists tell us, are under threat. They absorb heat and protect the planet. Because of human activity, oceans are changing. Ocean acidification, depleting oxygen levels, warming waters, rising seas, and species extinction threaten planetary life as we know it. But the oceanic effects of climate catastrophe are not evenly dispersed. The regions of the world most significantly at risk include islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans (the Maldives, the Seychelles, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu), the Caribbean Sea, and the Atlantic littoral, particularly along the Southern U.S. It is not a coincidence that some of these areas featured historically in imperial contests over the so-called freedom of the sea and the freedom of European trade. These are spaces of Indigenous dispossession, they are former slave ports, sites of nuclear testing, resource extraction, and racial exploitation. The ongoing violences of the past (European conquest, free trade, and the free sea) haunt the present and the future through rising sea levels, disappearing coastlines and a changed ocean chemistry. Moving ships have left a trace. In “Underwater” (2020), Daniel B. Domingues da Silva recasts transatlantic slavery as an ongoing threat to the planet:

The transatlantic slave trade played a central role in that process of global warming. It involved the transportation of some 12.5 million Africans on ships departed from Europe and the Americas over a period of almost four centuries. It spread contagious diseases that contributed to the near annihilation of indigenous populations in the Americas. It destroyed forests, cleared lands, opened mines, changed the course of rivers, and built entire new cities where previously none existed. It created new financial institutions that underpinned the traffic and fostered industrialization in Europe and North America, where many of the crops enslaved Africans produced were processed for sale and consumption throughout the world, including sugar, rice, tobacco, and cotton. The slave trade thus contributed not only to global inequality, but to increased temperatures worldwide as well.

The transatlantic slave trade, and the moving ships that made it possible, connected ocean regions with violent effects that have endured across historical periods in ways that continue to shape the contemporary moment. As Glissant reminds us, the Atlantic is part of “the entire ocean.” The financial institutions born of slavery (Lloyd’s of London, the Bank of England, and many others) funded and insured hundreds of thousands of ships that crossed the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian Oceans. Some were implicated in the theft and sale of human beings, others in the extraction of resources, all in the destruction of communities, lifeways, and planetary ecologies. The free sea and an international legal order are at the center of it all.

By thinking with oceans and visualizing the role of moving ships, oceans as method draws attention to the insatiable desire and the violent effects of European man’s aspirations to conquer nature. But oceans also point to the fallibility of these imperial projects. The world making visions that Grotius initiated in Mare Liberum have long been contested by Indigenous, enslaved, and colonized peoples. Today, the elemental and juridical lines inscribed by European imperial powers are challenged and undermined by warming waters and rising sea levels, suggesting that European man’s aspirations to control and subdue nature have never been fully successful. For those at sea, oceans have always been an animate force. The ocean’s temperament directed and determined the routes of slave ships, merchant ships, and migrant vessels. Oceans have always spoken back through gale-force winds, waves, currents, and storms that opened possibilities for insurgency and mutiny. Oceans carry the sedimentations of pasts that continue to shape the present and future. Histories of imperial conquest and colonization emerge and re-emerge in ocean regions through the force of winds, waves, and extreme weather events, as enduring memories with rippling effects. Through rising sea levels and warming waters, the world’s oceans are replying to anthropogenic climate change.

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Motu trading ship in 1904 Papua.

Oceans as method centers the world’s oceans as a rich, though often neglected site of colonial legal history and as a stage for the emergence of an European international legal order. This orientation, as I have discussed thus far, foregrounds ships as juridical forms and highlights their role in racial exploitation, colonial extraction, and planetary destruction.

Thinking with oceans as interconnected and entangled parts of a planetary whole, invites different imaginaries, as Indigenous, Black, Caribbean thinkers and Asian and subaltern seafarers have taught us.

But oceans as method also points to alternative ethics and entanglements. Whereas the international law of the sea divides the world’s oceans horizontally and vertically into territorial waters, contiguous zones, exclusive economic zones, continental shelves, and the high seas, creating additional spaces for imperial expansion and capitalist extraction, oceans as method excavates forgotten histories, alternative timescales, and other registers to work with. Thinking with oceans as interconnected and entangled parts of a planetary whole, invites different imaginaries, as Indigenous, Black, Caribbean thinkers and Asian and subaltern seafarers have taught us. These include other views of the sea as entangled histories and futurities guided by overlapping currents, rhythmic movements, and human/non-human interrelations that flow over and cannot be contained in the horizontal and vertical lines of a legal grid. With their own temporalities, oceans invite additional ways of disrupting linear chronologies of historical time that have been imposed by moving ships. Following the circularity of currents, the force of winds and waves, oceans as method remains attentive to uneven temperatures, oceanic sedimentations, and to the unequal effects and uneven responsibilities of human changes to the planet. ■