Amphibious Spaces: Colonial Legal Engagements with Watery Environments

AHA Session 180
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 5
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Blue Room Prefunction (Omni Shoreham, East Lobby)
Renisa Mawani, University of British Columbia
Renisa Mawani, University of British Columbia

Session Abstract

Law and water has a multifaceted relation. Water has been demarcated as oceanic and riverine spaces and as sites to delegate legal authority differently. Therefore, the geography of these liquid domains has increasingly become important in understanding law’s relation to spaces, politics and localities. Legal engagements with oceans and rivers have also been a site to investigate politics, sovereignty and state-making. The study of oceans have also opened up possibilities to understand a world of people, commodities, ideas and legal theories on the move offering new concepts and methods to study histories of colonialism and imperialism. While water, as rivers and oceans has occupied an important space within legal scholarship, these studies have offered primarily land-centric views on watery spaces maintaining rather than interrupting the strict legal boundaries between land and river or continents and oceans. Yet, as we all know there is a gap between the geographical space of a sea, river, swamp and muddy spaces and the legally conceptualized and demarcated space of the river and the ocean. Recent studies have turned to the materiality of these liquid domains to rethink the limits and possibilities of scholarly engagements with law, territory and politics. Oceanic spaces have been fruitfully studied as a site to reveal the limited nature of sovereign control, raise critical questions about the nature of law and environment. This panel moves in the same line to disaggregate both our commonsensical understandings of these watery domains and how they might open up new questions about law, commerce and colonialism. By turning not just to amphibious spaces, but making those legally undefined territories as a ground from which to ask new questions the papers in the panel ask why and how various historical actors used law as a way to respond to environmental, commercial and cultural difference in the Indian ocean. Yahaya’s paper turns to the mangrove swamps of the Straits of Malacca to ask read how competing English and Malay genealogies of kinship jostled in the East India Company courts during the early years of the eighteenth century. Machado explores the site of the pearl fisheries of Mergui archipelago to explore the translocal connections between Chinese commercial networks, Burmese pearl divers and Tamil capital to show the overlapping commercial worlds of marine extraction. Wood explores the gendered dimensions of global imperial economic cultures that produced flexible, but durable informal economies in the wake of disasters in the Indian Ocean. Finally, Bhattacharyya turns to the amphibious zones of the lower Bengal delta to argue how the legal demarcation of land and water defined the colonial legal architecture of ownership under the British in India.
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