“The Fugitive Sojourns of Gurdit Singh, 1914-1922” – Dr. Renisa Mawani

Social Justice Institute
Noted Scholars Lecture Series

Dr. Renisa Mawani
The Fugitive Sojourns of Gurdit Singh, 1914-1922

Jan 27, 12-1pm
Jack Bell Building
Room 028, 2080 West Mall


This event is free and open to the public. RSVP’s are not required to attend, only encouraged.
Lunch will be provided!

In 1914, Baba Gurdit Singh, a railway contractor, rose to prominence in India and across the British Empire. In March that year, Singh successfully chartered the S.S. Komagata Maru, a British-built and Japanese-owned steamship. The vessel, which transported 376 Punjabi migrants from Hong Kong to Vancouver, has now become iconic. Though the ship’s journey has attracted considerable scholarly and artistic attention, Gurdit Singh remains an elusive, enigmatic, and largely unknown figure.

Drawing from my forthcoming book, Across Oceans of Law, this paper centers on the fugitive sojourns of Gurdit Singh. Specifically, I follow his arrival at Budge Budge (West Bengal) in September 1914, to his surrender at Sheikhupura (Punjab) in 1922. In so doing, I trace a double and even opposing set of movements. First, I consider the criminal accusations mobilized against Gurdit Singh by authorities in Hong Kong, the Dominion of Canada, and the Indian colonial state. Second, I read Singh’s anticolonial writings as a rejoinder to these allegations of criminality and lawlessness. Gurdit Singh’s fugitivity, I argue, spawned alternative vernaculars of anticoloniality to which oceans, commerce, and British/ colonial legality featured prominently.

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. Her first book, Colonial Proximities (2009) details the legal encounters between indigenous peoples, Chinese migrants, “mixed-race” populations, and Europeans in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century British Columbia. Her second book, Across Oceans of Law (under contract with Duke University Press), is a global and maritime legal history of the Japanese ship, Komagata Maru. The book draws on oceans as method to trace the ship’s 1914 route across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, to advance the argument that legal forms of colonial and racial violence are deeply entangled, and to consider time as a critical register of empire. With Iza Hussin, she is co-editor of “The Travels of Law: Indian Ocean Itineraries” published in Law and History Review (2014). In 2015, she received the Killam Prize for Graduate Instruction, a Dean of Arts Faculty Research Award, and was named a Wall Scholar at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies.