tracking books from ship to shore


A few years ago I wrote a delivered on Mahatma Gandhi’s work as a printer and publisher in South Africa from 1893 to 1914. The man who would become the great anti-colonial figure had arrived in Durban as a nervous young lawyer and was quickly drawn into the defense of Indian rights. To this end, he set up a printing press and a newspaper. A minor theme of the book was his steadfast opposition to copyright, which he said hampered the free flow of ideas. After I finished the book, I wanted to dig deeper into this thread.

Was Gandhi’s position unusual or not? What was the situation with colonial copyright?

Surprisingly enough, this research led me – figuratively speaking – to the wharf and customs. As I discovered, it was the Custom House which, since the mid-19th century, had overseen copyright in most British settler colonies. Printed matter from outside these settlements had to be sent to port cities, where customs officials checked that the material was not pirated, seditious or obscene. Customs became the part of the colonial state that oversaw both copyright and censorship.

My exploration of this system produced another book, Quayside reading: hydrocolonialism and customs, which will be released in 2022. It takes place along the ocean, in the colonial port cities of southern Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with glimpses of other parts of the empire British.

Book search

I searched the customs records in South Africa with some trepidation, expecting dry and tedious reports on taxation and tariffs. Instead, I found a fascinating archive full of artifacts, in some real cases like tissue samples, labels of canned condensed milk, and packets of seeds.

The documents themselves were filled with arguments about what these articles really were: was a substance butter or margarine? Was there a difference between tea and herbal remedies? Was a young sardine the same as a sardine? The Custom House was much more intriguing than I had imagined.

If I had done this project 10 or 15 years ago, I undoubtedly would have written a “drier” book, focusing only on the cultural implications of print copyright and censorship in the world. the Custom House regardless of its location – the shore.

Although the first book, Gandhi’s printing press, was in the field of Indian Ocean studies, there was not much actual sea involved. Like much maritime scholarship, the ocean served as the backdrop for human movement. But over the past decade, climate change has had a powerful impact on ocean studies, which now grapple with the physical and biological reality of the marine world as well as its history.

Reading at the dock is an attempt to integrate the culture of print into the realm of ocean studies, to bring water and paper together. This movement immerses print culture within the ecological framework of the port city and extends our way of thinking about print and reading beyond the predictable contexts of the library, classroom, home and offices. religious organizations.

Paper tracks from ship to shore

The book follows prints from ship to shore and through the regulatory regimes of colonial customs in southern Africa.

It traces how dockside protocols shaped the understanding of copyright and censorship. Rather than an institution associated with copyright, copyright has been confused with trademarks for wares and merchandise, in particular the origin mark (such as “made in Australia”). British copyright became a pledge that a book had been made in Britain and was implicitly “white” and safe to admit. Colonial copyright was then interpreted as a racial mark and a logistical inscription (a sign that aided the movement of an object).

Customs officials judged books based on their cover and language.
Getty Images

Regarding censorship, the material was not read so much as it was treated like other forms of cargo, scanned for markings, and sampled for traces of offensive material. Collectors at heart, customs officers were not great readers. Instead, when dealing with a suspicious book, they applied the same techniques as with other suspicious cargoes: they sampled, counted, measured and touched.

Rather than reading them, they inspected books like objects. Books were judged on their covers, their language or their handwriting (French was suspect, non-Romance handwriting dangerous). Inspectors focused on external information such as title, copyright and publisher rather than content. Like other suspicious shipments, objectionable books have become potential vectors of contamination.

The Custom House’s “reading” methods were to feed the apartheid censorship practices in South Africa.

The literary consequences of the Custom House spilled outward from the dock – sometimes over and underwater. Customs inspectors dumped unclaimed, smuggled or banned items into the ocean, as did passengers approaching ports where pirated reprints of copyrighted works were not permitted.


The term I use to encompass these dockside protocols is “hydrocolonialism,” a concept that links sea and land, empire and environment. This concept could be used to talk about a wide range of ideas. They include water colonization (maritime imperialism), water colonization (occupation of land with water resources, political and military control of waters), a colony on (or in) water (the ship as a miniature colony, or island), colonization by water (flooding of occupied land) and colonization of the idea of ​​water (as a private resource).

This story is part of Oceans 21

Our series on the global ocean opened with five in-depth profiles. Look for new articles on the state of our oceans in the run-up to the next United Nations climate conference, COP26. The series is brought to you by The Conversation’s international network.

The concept of hydrocolonialism is useful for thinking about all forms of water in relation to colonization and empire. It questions how colonization shaped what is considered important knowledge. It also examines the knowledge created by peoples prior to their colonization and sheds light on the rich pre-colonial understanding of water as a sacred resource, often inhabited by spirits, ancestors and deities.

Customs provide a useful vantage point from which to trace the colonization of water. We tend to think of things like air, water, and ice as incolonizable because they cannot be installed or occupied. But these elements are colonized as resources to be extracted, or as dumping grounds for waste.

The long-term effectiveness of these strategies is evident today if we look to the ocean. From its seabed to its surface, it has been prospected, militarized, mined and claimed.

In southern Africa, the coastal waters around port cities have been colonized, most obviously by extending land into the sea through salvage and underwater infrastructure. Another ocean claiming strategy was to extend land-based methods of governance over the ocean: claiming sovereignty, regulating the intertidal zone, declaring quarantine stations on areas around ships.

Garbage pollution on a beach.
The ocean colonized by human waste.
Herianus Herianus / GettyImages

The practice of dumping goods into the ocean has served to define the ocean as a dumping ground, a space to be colonized by human waste. We could describe the Custom House as a “hydrocracy,” ruling by and from the water’s edge rather than from the bureaucratic office.

Reading at the dock demonstrates a site in which hydrocolonialism can be used to illuminate cultural and literary histories. The term, and others like it, is explored in different fields. Examples include a special issue of the journal English language notes at “Hydro-criticalAnd the work of graduate students on the Oceanic Humanities for the Global South project, which explores pre-colonial and Creolized ideas of water, and how black intellectual traditions engage with the ocean.


About Opal Jones

Check Also

Scripps Oceanography’s Port Point Loma continues the tradition of being at the forefront of research at sea

For decades, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego in La Jolla has …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.