Kalyani RamnathAug 27, 2023
Boats in a Storm
Law, Migration, and Decolonization in South and Southeast Asia, 1942-1962
Stanford University Press 2023
For more than a century before World War II, traders, merchants, financiers, and laborers steadily moved between places on the Indian Ocean, trading goods, supplying credit, and seeking work. This all changed with the war and as India, Burma, Ceylon, and Malaya wrested independence from the British Empire. Set against the tumult of the postwar period, Boats in a Storm: Law, Migration, and Decolonization in South and Southeast Asia, 1942-1962 (Stanford UP, 2023) centers on the legal struggles of migrants to retain their traditional rhythms and patterns of life, illustrating how they experienced citizenship and decolonization. Even as nascent citizenship regimes and divergent political trajectories of decolonization papered over migrations between South and Southeast Asia, migrants continued to recount cross-border histories in encounters with the law. These accounts, often obscured by national and international political developments, unsettle the notion that static national identities and loyalties had emerged, fully formed and unblemished by migrant pasts, in the aftermath of empires.
Drawing on archival materials from India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, London, and Singapore, Kalyani Ramnath narrates how former migrants battled legal requirements to revive prewar circulations of credit, capital, and labor, in a postwar context of rising ethno-nationalisms that accused migrants of stealing jobs and hoarding land. Ultimately, Ramnath shows how decolonization was marked not only by shipwrecked empires and nation-states assembled and ordered from the debris of imperial collapse, but also by these forgotten stories of wartime displacements, their unintended consequences, and long afterlives.
Kalyani Ramnath is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Georgia, with research and teaching interests in legal history, histories of migration and displacement, transnational history, and questions of archival method.
Kelvin Ng is a PhD candidate at the Department of History at Yale University. His research work brings together the social history of migration and the intellectual history of internationalism in four linked Indian Ocean spaces: British India, Republican China, British Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies. His dissertation examines three intertwined strands of anti-imperial thought—communist internationalism, pan-Islamism, and anti-caste radicalism—in relation to an oceanic political economy of unfree labor and uneven development.
Ahmed Yaqoub AlMaazmi is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University. His research focuses on the intersection of law, the occult sciences, and the environment across the Western Indian Ocean. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Ahmed_Yaqoub. Listeners’ feedback, questions, and book suggestions are most welcome.