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Indefinite transits: mobility and confinement in the age of steam*

  • G. Balachandran (a1)

Abstract

The increased regulation of mobility that accompanied its late nineteenth-century expansion and acceleration is widely recognized. Regulatory practices reached out to distant shores and on board ships, heightening uncertainties and reshaping meanings of voyage and transit, especially for non-white passengers and crews. Travel and mobility are common themes in historical and other literatures. But less is known about experiences of uncertain or thwarted arrivals, involuntary departures, and indefinite transit resulting from practices governing steam-age mobility. People in transit illuminate the conditional openings and closures in such tropes as mobility, transit, and destination. Few spaces embodied and actualized ‘transit’ better than ships, and this article focuses on the role of ships as vessels of confinement. In equal parts about passengers and crews, it explores experiences of nominally free persons uncertainly afloat in a world marked otherwise by assured or accelerated oceanic mobility in three contexts that illustrate physical, political, and cultural constraints on maritime mobility in the age of steam. They are the 1914 voyage of the Komagata-maru, British merchant vessels employing Indian crews, and wartime subjection and resistance of Chinese crews on British and Dutch vessels.

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*

Research for this article was partly supported by a Swiss National Science Foundation grant (1214-066652). I wish to thank the organizers of the ‘Being in Transit’ symposium at Heidelberg in April 2013 for an opportunity to air some of these ideas, and Martin Dusinberre and Roland Wenzlhuemer for coordinating this special number. My thanks also to Frances Steel and the journal’s editors and referees for many helpful comments and suggestions.

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1 Bashford, Alison, ‘Immigration restriction: rethinking period and place from settler colonies to postcolonial nations’, Journal of Global History, 9, 1, 2014, pp. 2648.

2 Ngai, Mae M., Impossible subjects: illegal aliens and the making of modern America, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004; Yi Lui, Mary Ting, The Chinatown trunk mystery: murder, miscegenation, and other dangerous encounters in turn-of-the-century New York City, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

3 Ghosh, Devleena, ‘Under the radar of empire: unregulated travel in the Indian Ocean’, Journal of Social History, 45, 2, 2011, p. 498.

4 Balachandran, G., ‘Atlantic paradigms and aberrant histories’, Atlantic Studies: Global Currents, 11, 1, 2014, pp. 5359; Green, Nile, Bombay Islam: the religious economy of the west Indian Ocean, 1840–1915, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011; , Ghosh, ‘Under the radar’; Clare Anderson, ‘Subaltern lives: history, identity and memory in the Indian Ocean world’, History Compass, 11, 7, 2013, pp. 503507.

5 Takai, Yukari, ‘Asian migrants, exclusionary laws, and transborder migration in North America, 1880–1940’, OAH Magazine of History, 23, 4, 2009, p. 35; Chang, Kornel, Pacific connections: the making of the US–Canadian borderlands, Berkeley, CA: California University Press, 2012; Bald, Vivek, Bengali Harlem and the lost histories of South Asian America, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013; Sohi, Seema, Echoes of mutiny: race, surveillance, and Indian anticolonialism in North America, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

6 Kramer, Paul A., ‘Power and connection: imperial histories of the United States in the world’, American Historical Review, 116, 5, 2011, p. 135.

7 The quote is from the Vancouver politician H. H. Stevens’s speech to the Canadian House of Commons: British Library, Oriental and India Office (henceforth OIOC), L/PJ/6/1325, F. 3601.

8 Mongia, Radhika Viyas, ‘Race, nationality, mobility: a history of the passport’, Public Culture, 11, 3, 1999, pp. 540541.

9 OIOC, L/PJ/6/1395, F. 3277, ‘India Office memorandum on Indian immigration into Canada’, 26 August 1915 (henceforth ‘India Office memorandum’), para. 5; Johnston, Hugh, The voyage of the Komagata Maru: the Sikh challenge to Canada’s colour bar, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1979, pp. 46.

10 India, Government of, Report of the Komagata Maru committee of inquiry, vol. 1, Calcutta: Government Printing Press, vol. 1, 1914, paras. 4 and 7.

11 Ibid., paras. 6 and 10; Singh, Baba Gurdit, Voyage of Komagata Maru or India’s slavery abroad, ed. and with an introduction by Darshan S. Tatla, Chandigarh: Unistar Press, 2007, pp. 7374.

12 On boundaries between business and politics in colonial shipping, see Balachandran, G., ‘Sovereignties, subjectivities, and narrations: nations and other stories from the sea’, International Journal of Maritime History, 21, 2, 2009, pp. 58.

13 OIOC, L/PJ/6/1325, F. 3601, Gurdit Singh’s announcement, enclosed with letter from Colonial Office to India Office, 12 May 1914.

14 Government of India, Committee of inquiry, para. 10; Singh, Voyage of Komagata Maru, p. 11.

15 OIOC, L/PJ/6/1325, F. 3601, note by the immigration official B.B. Robertson, 1 August 1914.

16 OIOC, L/PJ/6/1325, F. 3601, Hong Kong government to Colonial Office, 25 July 1914.

17 OIOC, L/PJ/6/1338, F. 5028, exhibit 49, ‘An account in English of the tyranny over “Komagata Maru” passengers in Kobe’; Government of India, Committee of inquiry, para. 24; Josh, Sohan Singh, The tragedy of Komagata Maru, New Delhi: Peoples’ Publishing House, 1975, p. 69.

18 National Archives of India, Home-Political (henceforth NAI, HP), September 1914, 211–224A, memo by H. Wheeler, 15 August 1914; letter, 11 September 1914; cable to Kobe, 31 August 1914; HP, November 1914, 97–177A, Viceroy’s telegram, 2 October 1914.

19 OIOC, L/PJ/6/1338, F. 5028, Komagata Maru inquiry committee, vol. 2, F. Slocock’s evidence, 9 November 1914.

20 Josh, Tragedy of Komagata Maru, appendix 7, pp. 117–18, lists twenty-nine killed and two missing.

21 NAI, HP, 97–177A, Bengal government’s report to the Government of India, 12 October 1914; ‘Note on the Budge-Budge riot’ by D. Petrie, 8 October 1914; Johnston, Voyage of the Komagata Maru; Johnston, Hugh, ‘The Komagata Maru and the Ghadr Party: past and present aspects of a historic challenge to Canada’s exclusion of immigrants from India’, BC Studies, 178, 2013, pp. 913.

22 Johnston, ‘Komagata Maru and the Ghadr Party’; centenary accounts in the Globe and Mail, 24 May 2014, and Vancouver Sun, 23 May 2014; Macklin, Audrey, ‘Historicizing narratives of arrival: the other Indian other’, in Hester F. Lessard, R. Johnson, and J. Webber, eds., Storied communities: narratives of contact and arrival in constituting the political, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010, pp. 4344.

23 NAI, HP, 211–224A, W. C. Hopkinson to W. W. Cory, 30 June 1914; HP, 97–177A, W. H. Vincent to H. Wheeler, 16 November 1914. The conspiracy theory became dominant once war broke out: OIOC, L/PJ/6/1325, F. 3601.

24 Chang, Pacific connections, ch. 5; Sohi, Echoes of mutiny; Ramnath, Maia, Haj to utopia: how the Ghadar movement charted global radicalism and attempted to overthrow the British empire, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011; Johnston, ‘Komagata Maru and the Ghadr Party’.

25 Sohi, Echoes of mutiny, ch. 3.

26 Ibid., pp. 196–7; Mongia, Radhika, ‘Historicizing state sovereignty: inequality and the form of equivalence’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 49, 2, 2007, pp. 384411; OIOC, L/PJ/6/1395, F. 3277, ‘India Office memorandum’, para. 1.

27 Lake, Marilyn and Reynolds, Henry, Drawing the global colour line: white men’s countries and the international challenge of racial equality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 3941; Ogilvie, Sarah A. and Miller, Scott, Refuge denied: the St. Louis passengers and the Holocaust, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010.

28 A recent exception is Johnston, ‘Komagata Maru and the Ghadr Party’.

29 NAI, HP, 97–177A, ‘Note on the Budge-Budge riot’.

30 Johnston, ‘Komagata Maru and the Ghadr party’.

31 Johnston, Voyage of the Komagata Maru, p. 82; NAI, HP, 97–177A, p. 116; W.S. Hoskyns’s inquest report; Bengal government’s report to the Government of India, 12 October 1914; ‘Note on the Budge-Budge riot’.

32 OIOC, L/PJ/6/1338, F. 5028, exhibit 42, extract from Gurdit Singh’s diary.

33 OIOC, L/PJ/6/1325, F. 3601, Canadian government telegram to Colonial Secretary, 18 July 1914 (quote); see also the passengers’ statements in OIOC, L/PJ/6/1338, F. 5028.

34 Johnston, Voyage of the Komagata Maru, pp. 42–3, 45, 52, 56, 61, 68–73, 80.

35 Ibid., pp. 44, 69–71, 84–5.

36 NAI, HP, 97–177A, appendix M, statements of T. Yamamoto, captain of the Komagata Maru; OIOC, L/PJ/6/1325, F. 3601, Hopkinson’s memo on ‘meeting of the committee appointed by the passengers on board S.S. Komagata Maru: who have taken the matter out of Gurdit Singh’s hands’, 9 July 1914.

37 Johnston, Voyage of the Komagata Maru, pp. 65, 71, 72–3.

38 NAI, HP, 97–177A, ‘Note on the Budge-Budge riot’.

39 Dhan Singh, a member, described it as a ‘rations committee’: OIOC, L/PJ/6/1338, F. 5028, Komagata Maru inquiry committee, vol. 2, 28 October 1914. Josh, Tragedy of Komagata Maru, p. 71, refers to a ‘managing committee’: Tragedy of Komagata Maru.

40 OIOC, L/PJ/6/1395, F. 3277, ‘India Office memorandum’, para. 12; L/PJ/6/1338, F. 5028, exhibit 54.

41 OIOC, L/PJ/6/1325, F. 3601, Hopkinson to Cory, 10 July 1914.

42 Notably, the title of Hopkinson’s note of 9 July describes the committee as having ‘taken the matter out of Gurdit Singh’s hands’: OIOC, L/PJ/6/1325, F. 3601.

43 Josh, Tragedy of Komagata Maru, pp. iv–v, 54, 67; Johnston, ‘Komagata Maru and the Ghadr Party’.

44 NAI, HP, 97–177A, ‘Note on the Budge-Budge riot’.

45 OIOC, L/PJ/6/1338, F. 5028, Komagata Maru inquiry committee, vol. 2, F. Slocock’s evidence, 9 November 1914.

46 NAI, HP, 97–177A, Bengal government’s report to the Government of India, 12 October 1914; ‘Note on the Budge-Budge riot’. OIOC, L/PJ/6/1338, F. 5028, exhibits 42 and 54.

47 OIOC, L/PJ/6/1395, F. 3277, ‘India Office memorandum’, para. 1. This mirrored US strategies to isolate radical activists: see Chang, Pacific connections, ch. 5.

48 NAI, HP, 97–177A, ‘Note on the Budge-Budge riot’; appendix M.

49 OIOC, L/PJ/6/1338, F. 5028, Komagata Maru inquiry committee, vol. 2, evidence of Jawahar Mal (28 October 1914), Kirpa Singh, Chanda Singh, Bishen Singh, Inder Singh, and Dan Singh (18 November 1914).

50 Tabili, Laura, ‘We ask for British justice’: workers and racial difference in late-imperial Britain, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994; Lawless, Richard I., From Ta’izz to Tyneside: Arab community in the north-east of England in the early twentieth century, Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1995; Frost, Diane, Work and community among West African migrant workers since the nineteenth century, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999; Steel, Frances, Oceania under steam: sea transport and the cultures of colonialism, c. 1870–1914, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011; Balachandran, G., Globalizing labour? Indian seafarers and world shipping, c. 1870–1945, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012.

51 Balachandran, G., ‘Subaltern cosmopolitanism, racial governance and multiculturalism: Britain, c. 1900–45’, Social History, 39, 4, 2014, pp. 528546; Tabili, ‘We ask for British justice’; Lawless, From Ta’izz to Tyneside; Frost, Work and community; see also Visram, Rozina, Asians in Britain: 400 years of history, London: Pluto Press, 2002.

52 The National Archives, UK (henceforth TNA), MT 9/127 T 7332/1876, Indian government despatch, 21 October 1875.

53 NAI, Finance and Commerce, Separate Revenue (henceforth FC, SR), October 1883, 1219–41A, note by J. O’Conor, 17 May 1883; also January 1884, 54–56A; Legislative Department (henceforth LD), January 1893, proceedings 51–153. See also Ballantyne, Tony, Between colonialism and diaspora: Sikh cultural formations in an imperial world, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006, p. ix.

54 NAI, FC, SR, April 1902, 109–11B, India Office to Colonial Office, 18 Feb. 1902; HP, 211–224A, H. Wheeler’s minute, 29 August 1914.

55 International Labour Organization, Geneva, C 1903/129, news summary of a wire service report from Washington, August 1939.

56 Wainwright, A. Martin, ‘The better class’ of Indians: social rank, imperial identity, and South Asians in Britain, 1858–1914, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008, p. 87.

57 TNA, HO 213/308, summary of British social hygiene council report on ports, 1934.

58 As Roland Wenzlhuemer notes in ‘The ship, the media and the world: conceptualizing connections in global history’, pp. 163–86 in this issue; TNA, HO 213/308, summary of British social hygiene council report on ports, 1934.

59 Balachandran, Globalizing labour, pp. 177–84.

60 National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, P&O 7/8, Group Asian crew manual, pp. 46.

61 NAI, Statistics and Commerce (henceforth SC), March 1901, 135–42A, letter from Bombay shipping master, 8 October 1900.

62 NAI, SC, 135–42A, note by J.E. O’Conor, 12 January 1901. For an earlier period and more generally, see also SC, Commerce and Trade, Merchant Shipping, December 1894, 907–913A, note by J.E. O’Conor, 27 November 1894; LD, January 1893, proceedings 51–153; OIOC, L/E/9/970, letter to India Office, 24 June 1937, enclosure; NAI, Commerce and Industry, Merchant Shipping, December 1907, 18–29A, letter to India Office, 12 December 1906; Balachandran, Globalizing labour, pp. 39, 126–7.

63 OIOC, L/E/7/1152, report by T.G. Segrave, 1 December 1922.

64 Tabili, ‘We ask for British justice’, p. 64.

65 NAI, LD, October 1895, proceedings 235–94, appendix 78, memorial of 18 January 1895; also proceeding 267, appendix 81.

66 Balachandran, Globalizing labour, pp. 120–1.

67 NAI, LD, 235–94, appendix A33, letter from Bombay shipping master, 15 July 1895; Gabor Korvin, ed., Memoirs of Khawajah Muhammad Bux, Australian businessman, trans. from Urdu by Syed Haider Hassan, unpublished mimeo, Rawalpindi, 2006, pp. 23–4, 30, 58.

68 NAI, LD, 235–94, appendix A33, letter from Bombay shipping master, 15 July 1895; SC, CT, MS, August 1892, 494–531A, letter from Finlay, Muir, and Co., 18 December 1891, emphasis added.

69 OIOC, L/E/7/940, ‘Report on the outbreak of beriberi on the steam ship “Sutlej”’; von Hübner, Baron, Through the British Empire, 2 vols., London: John Murray, 1886, vol. 1, p. 357. Chinese crews traded rice, silk prints, tea, etc. and slept on deck; customary practices allowed gambling and cards in crew spaces: Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 6 February 1927.

70 OIOC, L/E/9/970, letter to India Office, 24 June 1937.

71 Korvin, Memoirs of Khawajah Muhammad Bux, p. 58.

72 Wainwright, ‘Better class’ of Indians, p. 87.

73 Ibid., p. 85; Small, George, Extracts from the journal of the scripture reader and missionary in Hindustani and other Oriental languages to the Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders in England, from June to December 1876, London: Simmons and Botten, 1877, entries for 2 July and 26 August 1876.

74 Salter, J., The East in the West, or, work among the Asiatics and Africans in London, London: Partridge and Co., c.1896, ch. 10.

75 Balachandran, , Globalizing labour, pp. 235259.

76 OIOC, L/E/9/977, letter from Secretary, Shipping Federation, 27 December 1939; telegrams from Government of India, 6 February and 31 July 1940.

77 TNA, MT 9/4370; see also Lane, Tony, The merchant seamen’s war, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990, p. 167.

78 Bald, Bengali Harlem.

79 Balachandran, , Globalizing labour, pp. 160161.

80 Feys, Torsten, The battle for the migrants: the introduction of steamshipping on the North Atlantic and its impact on the European exodus, St John’s, Newfoundland: International Maritime Economic History Association, 2013, p. 304.

81 OIOC, L/E/7/1142 F. 4817, UK consular despatch, 25 July 1923; letter from UK ambassador, 8 August 1923. See also Gardezi, Hassan N., ed., Chains to lose: life and struggles of a revolutionary – memoirs of Dada Amir Haider Khan, New Delhi: Patriot Publishers, 1989.

82 OIOC, L/E/7/1142 F. 4817, letter from UK ambassador, 8 August 1923.

83 OIOC, L/E/7/1142 F. 4817, letter from Indian government and note by C.E. Baines, 5 December 1922; ‘lascar’ was a generic colonial term for Indian seamen.

84 OIOC, L/E/7/1142 F. 4817, Indian government telegram, 5 December 1922; L/E/9/974, Ellermans to Foreign Office, 11 October 1935.

85 Balachandran, , Globalizing labour, p. 162.

86 OIOC, L/E/7/1458 F. 4454, British embassy to Foreign Office, 23 February 1927.

87 TNA, ADM 1/22978, reply to Admiralty inquiry, 19 July 1934. See, in general, OIOC, L/E/7/1458 F. 4454; Balachandran, , Globalizing labour, pp. 165166.

88 Modern Records Centre, Warwick (henceforth MRC), MSS 175/3/14/2, National Transport Workers’ Federation, ‘Chinese invasion of Great Britain: a national danger – call to arms’, July 1914; TNA, MT 9/4370, ‘Note of a meeting at the Ministry of War Transport on “Chinese crew problems” held on 15 January 1943’ (henceforth ‘Note on “Chinese crew problems”’).

89 Lane, Merchant seamen’s war, pp. 164–166; TNA, MT 9/4370, ‘Note on “Chinese crew problems”’.

90 These figures are reported in TNA, MT 9/4370.

91 TNA, MT 9/4370, ‘Survey of the Chinese seamen situation in the United States’, 26 May 1943, para. 13; advertisement in the China Daily News, 22 May 1943. As Frances Steel notes in ‘Anglo-worlds in transit: connections and frictions across the Pacific’, pp. 251–70 in this issue, desertions by white seafarers were an established habit at US ports.

92 TNA, MT 9/4370, ‘Survey of the Chinese seamen situation’, para. 10.

93 TNA, MT9/4370, ‘Note on “Chinese crew problems”’; MT 9/3754 M. 14578, letter from Aden field security officer, 22 October 1942.

94 TNA, MT 9/4370, ‘Survey of the Chinese seamen situation’, paras. 4–7; press cuttings in the file from the Pilot and P.M.; memorandum by Dimock, 31 March 1943; note by W.S. Johnston, 9 June 1943.

95 TNA, MT 9/3754 M. 14578, letter from Aden field security officer, 22 October 1942.

96 TNA, MT 9/4370, ‘Note on “Chinese crew problems”’.

97 TNA, MT 9/4370, letter from the Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang to P.M., 16 May 1943.

98 TNA, MT 9/3754 M. 14578, letter from Aden field security officer, 22 October 1942.

99 McKeown, Adam, ‘Conceptualizing Chinese diasporas, 1842–1949’, Journal of Asian Studies, 58, 2, 1999, pp. 322326.

100 Lane, Merchant seamen’s war, p. 165; TNA, MT 9/3657 F. 7724, record of a meeting between the International Transport-workers’ Federation and the Ministry of War Transport, May 1942; MT 9/4370, ‘Note on “Chinese crew problems”’.

101 TNA, MT 9/4370, copy of Lin Yutang’s letter to P.M., 16 May 1943.

102 See TNA, MT 9/4370 for some graphic descriptions of these raids.

103 TNA, MT 9/4370.

104 Kotef, Hagar, Movement and the ordering of freedom: on liberal governance of mobility, Durham: Duke University Press, 2015, p. 88.

105 OIOC, L/E/9/458, telegram, 19 May 1944; ‘ISU – Aftab Ali’, 30 June 1944.

106 On the latter, see Mawani, Renisa, ‘Specters of indigeneity in British-Indian migration, 1914’, Law and Society Review, 46, 2, 2012, pp. 369403.

107 As other articles in this special number note: Dusinberre, Martin, ‘Writing the on-board: Meiji Japan in transit and transition’, pp. 271294; Pietsch, Tamson, ‘Bodies at sea: travelling to Australia in the age of sail’, pp. 209228.

108 Green, Leila, ‘Bordering on the inconceivable: the Pacific solution, migration zone, and “Australia’s 9/11”’, Australian Journal of Communication, 30, 1, 2004, pp. 1936.

* Research for this article was partly supported by a Swiss National Science Foundation grant (1214-066652). I wish to thank the organizers of the ‘Being in Transit’ symposium at Heidelberg in April 2013 for an opportunity to air some of these ideas, and Martin Dusinberre and Roland Wenzlhuemer for coordinating this special number. My thanks also to Frances Steel and the journal’s editors and referees for many helpful comments and suggestions.

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