Provisional Notes on Hydrocolonialism, an essay by Isabel Hofmeyr

This essay was originally published in English Language Notes
Volume 57, issue 1, in April 2019 (DOI 10.1215/00138282-7309644)
Edited by Laura Winkiel.
© 2019 Regents of the University of Colorado

Its format has been adapted to our website, you can consult the article it in its original layout here.

Many thanks to Penny Siopis for bringing this text to our attention and for taking the time to share inspiring scholarly sources on the Global South and water in the field of literary oceanic studies.

Abstract: This article discusses the meanings and applications of the rubric hydrocolonialism. Starting with a South African poem as an example, the piece sets out a definition of the term before outlining the existing literary scholarship that could fall under its umbrella. The article then turns to discuss hydrocolonial book history and what we might learn by tracing books on their oceanic journeys. One important node in these journeys was the port city, where customs and excise officials examined texts to see whether they were pirated, seditious, or obscene. These inspectors in effect functioned as censors and adjudicators of copyright. The article examines how these protocols worked in practice and concludes by discussing this dockside mode of reading as a hydrocolonial literary formation.

Keywords hydrocolonialism, Koleka Putuma, oceanic book history, colonial copyright, customs and excise 

Koleka Putuma is a South African performance artist, poet, and theater director. One of her best-known performance pieces, Water, recently made its way into her debut poetry volume, Collective Amnesia. [1] The poem refracts a history of South Africa through the seashore. It opens with memories of rare and anxious visits to the beach, with fretting adults forbidding children from going in too deep, “as if the ocean had food poisoning.” The speaker recalls “this joke / about Black people not being able to swim, / or being scared of water” and wonders why, every time she sees the sea, she feels as if she is drowning.

After this opening, set in the present, the poem swivels to the past, outlining a repressed history of slavery and colonization that returns via the sea itself:

every time our skin goes under,
it’s as if the reeds remember that they were once chains,
and the water, restless, wishes it could spew all of the slaves
and ships onto shore,
whole as they had boarded, sailed and sunk.
Their tears are what has turned the ocean salty.

The remainder of the poem toggles between past and present, providing a series of histories configured from the shoreline. The present-day beach constitutes a zone of whiteness and consumerism: “For you, the ocean is for surf boards boats and tans / and all the cool stuff you do under there in your bathing suits and goggles.” At the same time, Putuma reminds us that this practice of leisure is underwritten by earlier histories of dispossession launched from the littoral, the bridgehead of maritime imperialism and land invasion.

Cognizant of such histories, a new generation of black beachgoers shares a more somber sense of purpose. No longer plagued by anxiety, this generation visits the beach conceptualized now as a site of pilgrimage:

We have come to be baptized here.
We have come to stir the other world here.
We have come to cleanse ourselves here.
Our respect for water is what you have termed fear.
The audacity to trade and murder us over water
Then mock us for being scared of it.

The poem concludes in the time of postapartheid South Africa and its galling orthodoxies of reconciliation that require black South Africans “to dine with the oppressors / and serve them forgiveness,” after which everyone can “wash this bitter meal with amnesia.” The final lines read: “And go for a swim after that. / Just for fun. / Just for fun.”

Putuma herself was born in 1993, on the eve of South Africa’s political transition to democracy, and forms part of a generation of “born frees” who have had to take on the task of confronting the omnipresent aftermaths of apartheid and racial- ized inequality. This generation also led the recent student movement known as Rhodes Must Fall (in Cape Town) and Fees Must Fall (in Johannesburg), which included demands for the pervasive structures of white privilege to be dismantled. In this climate, the heroic antiapartheid narrative that posited the rainbow nation as its end point has grown brittle.

One feature of this nationalist antiapartheid discourse was a turning away from the ocean, the site of imperial incursion, toward the land, the locus of the desired nation. More recently, a group of postapartheid black feminist scholars (of which Putuma forms a part) has sought to shift this balance, by reclaiming the ocean from a decolonizing perspective, foregrounding the histories of slavery that it brought, but also examining how one might unseat and reimagine these genealogies. [2] The Indian Ocean in particular has become an important postapartheid matrix that has allowed scholars to explore archives of connections that exceed the nation-state through tracing histories of slavery and indenture. [3]

Putuma’s poem can usefully be read as part of this oceanic turn, her text an attempt to decolonize the ocean, refracting the different levels of colonial control exerted by means of, over, and through water while reflecting on how black communities and ancestors have dealt with the ocean. An apposite term for this endeavor might be hydrocolonialism, a neologism whose meanings I have set out elsewhere.

These meanings could include (1) colonization by way of water (various forms of maritime imperialism), (2) colonization of water (occupation of land with water resources, the declaration of territorial waters, the militarization and geopoliticiza- tion of oceans), and (3) a colony on (or in) water (the ship as a miniature colony or a penal island). While the word hydrocolonialism is an invention, there are two related uses that I have encountered on the web. The first is hydrocolony, a Canadian term for a housing estate for workers on a hydroelectric plant [5] The second is a grammat- ically incorrect synonym for hydrocolonic, that is, colonic irrigation that at times appears as hydrocolonial irrigation. Both of these raise pertinent themes: the first points to the “fundamental connection between water, its management, and the colonial or neocolonial relations in the modern era,” as Sarah Pritchard argues in her account of hydroimperialism [6] Designating the workers’ housing estate as a colony speaks of an imperial imaginary in the management of water and the labor associated with it. Hydroelectric dams are showpieces of modernity, displacing communities and affecting aquatic ecologies and river flows. The hydrocolony con- sequently speaks to themes of colonial control and environmental degradation. The term hydrocolonial/hydrocolonic irrigation resonates with these themes by suggest- ing accelerated processes of waste making. However erroneous the term, it does cap- ture metaphorically the waste-making systems of colonial rule, where certain peo- ple were rendered as waste, whether through the slave trade, indenture, or penal transportation. Imperial border regimes fed off these imaginaries of waste as con- tamination, constituting themselves as quarantine ramparts against disease and “undesirable aliens.” As this article argues, such hydrocolonial formations had far- reaching effects not only in terms of sustaining racialized ideologies but also in terms of how books and printed matter that had to pass through port-city regimes came to be defined.

Across these definitions, the term signals an affinity with postcolonialism while declaring an intention to shift the intellectual center of gravity away from a purely land-focused one. Just as the term postcolonial aims to understand a world shaped by European empires and their aftermaths, so hydrocolonialism signals a commitment to understanding a world indelibly shaped by imperial uses of water [7] As global warming and climate change take hold, and as sea levels rise, we are reminded that we all live in the aftermath of the hydropolitics of imperialism. Another objective of postcolonial theory is to unmask imperial modes of power. So too, hydrocolonialism makes visible relations of power that have been shaped around water and its colonial appropriations, as Putuma’s poem aptly demonstrates. Allied to this objective, postcolonial theory has always sought to decolonize knowl- edge by exposing the colonial contours that shape existing curricula and canons. Likewise hydrocolonialism seeks to lay bare colonial constructions and representa- tions of water and to undo these. The title of the article has a further postcolonial entailment, since it invokes AchilleMbembe’s “Provisional Notes on the Postcolony” (the earliest English iteration of what became On the Postcolony). This work stressed the complexities of a postslavery and postcolonial world and what he termed the cha- otic plurality of the postcolony [8] The term hydrocolonialism could be construed in a cognate way, namely, that we live with the aftermaths of post-hydro-imperialism, which has produced and will continue to produce a chaotic plurality of ecological disorders. 

What work might this term hydrocolonialism do and how might it be deployed?

There is of course a growing body of literary scholarship (of which this volume provides one example) that addresses hydrocolonial concerns. Literary scholars have begun pioneering a range of methods and ways of reading to comprehend the oceans and water more generally from a nonhuman perspective. This work has produced a rich array of ideas, like amphibious aesthetics, littoral form, mon- soon assemblages, heavy waters, hydropoetics, submarine aesthetics, transcorporeality, and sea ontologies—all concepts that push us closer to a material engage- ment with water. [9] Caribbean theorists have long furnished us with a tradition of thinking about the imperial ocean hydropoetically. Whether through notions of tidalectics, the haunted ocean, or the sovereignty of the drowned, these thinkers have offered a rich range of ideas for thinking with and through water. Elizabeth DeLoughrey discusses the “heavy waters of [Atlantic] ocean modernity” and the waste that they produce both in the form of drowned slave lives and in the current militarized pollution of the Atlantic, on whose seabed rest several nuclear reactors and warships. [10] More recently, scholars of the Indian Ocean have started to explore more material approaches: Lindsay Bremner’s idea of “monsoon assemblages” investigates the interlinked environmental, oceanic, and infrastructural histories of Indian Ocean cities; Charne Lavery’s work analyzes how the depths of the Indian Ocean have been encountered, imagined, and represented. [11] Much ocean-related literary criticism manifests a deepening engagement with the materiality of water, going below the waterline to explore historical and aesthetic submarine themes, be these the underwater sculptures of Jason deCaires Taylor or the history of sharks and slave ships. [12]

One way in which to extend these literary critical frameworks is to think about both the book and the ocean in material idioms. If we trace the hydrocolonial pas- sage of books, would this make visible new forms of reading? In part, this question has been answered by the considerable body of scholarship on the ship as a configuration of reading and writing. Ships were documentary machines that generated logbooks, sailors’ journals, and passengers’ handwritten newspapers. [13] Royal navy vessels were “floating secretariats” undertaking scientific work and marine explo- ration. [14] Books traveled as cargo, in ship’s libraries, with sailors and passengers. [15] Whether Margaret Cohen’s analysis of shipboard writing and its trajectories into the adventure novel, or Hester Blum’s account of what and how sailors in the Atlantic read on board, such scholarship has directed our attention to the ship as a rich textual space.

Shipping tempos and routes shaped the forms of colonial literature. Each mail ship delivered bundles of periodicals, which were in turn cut and pasted into local publications, so that the latter swelled in the wake of ships’ visits and shrank in their absence. The lulls between the coming and going of the ocean mail ships acted as one prompt for the production of colonial writing. [16]

As volumes traveled by sea, their material form could be changed. If packed in the hold, books could be affected by other cargo: the smell of oil penetrated paper as did that of areca nut, while salt buckled pages. Books that were badly packed could be battered and scarred in transit. Steamships required coal and moved between bunkering ports, where the vessel would be fueled, at times by slave or forced labor. [17] Coal dust clouded the air and penetrated every nook and cranny, so that any books on board would in all likelihood have become gritty. To receive a book with the marks of its journeys was to be reminded of the routes it had traveled and possibly the labor that had enabled its passage (although this insight was probably limited to those who had knowledge of coaling practices or had relations or acquaintances who had done such work).

Yet the hydrocolonial journeys of books extended beyond the ship itself, especially in the port city, a choke point through which printed matter from outside a colony had to pass. Within the port itself, customs examiners checked printed mate- rial to see that it was not pirated, seditious, or obscene, a procedure that turned officials into censors as well as adjudicators of copyright policy. Port cities constituted a hydroborder, which had important implications for how books came to be defined, regarded, and classified. [18] The study of the maritime boundary-making of colonial states in the British Empire has shown the border’s seminal function in terms of creating racialized identities, paranoid styles of governmentality, and epidemiological forms of statecraft. [19] This scholarship has mainly attended to the practices of immigration restriction, a phenomenon of the 1880s on. A much older branch of port-city governance was customs (subsequently melded with excise), an institution with powerful implications for books and reading practices.

These textual functions of customs and excise were determined in part by law and regulation but as much by the daily protocols of the dockside. The law on copy- right comprised international, imperial, and colonial legislation and was contradictory and confused. It was difficult to decide which law applied where, and officials instead made ad hoc decisions governed by the logic of everyday procedure. Hence they tended to treat copyright less as an abstract legal entitlement than as a sign of manufacture or origin. Mark of origin (“Made in England,” “Made in Australia,” etc.) was an important aspect of late nineteenth-century British imperial trade, and commodities were required by the empire-wide Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 to carry such marks. Customs officials consequently paid considerable attention to them when checking commodities. [20]

In dealing with books and questions of copyright, customs relied on the logic of “marks of origin” to make decisions. Unable to fathom the various levels of copy- right law, officials sought evidence that the book had been “composed, manufactured or copyrighted” in Britain, subjecting the book to a logic of origin and source. In these procedures, they were supported by the Merchandise Marks Act, which specifically indicated that British copyright could “be taken to be [an] indirect indi- cation of British manufacture.” [21] Their obsession with marks of origin resonated with immigration-restriction procedures of excluding those with the wrong bodily “marks of origin” and the notorious writing and dictation test by means of which would-be immigrants, as a condition of entry, could be required to write a dictated passage in a European language and in Roman script.

Customs officials acquired powers of censorship, since they could seize or detain material deemed seditious or obscene. Like all censors, they read in a para- noid and suspicious way, a tendency increased by the uncertainty of the port city itself. Ports aimed to pave the ocean and assert sovereignty over the conjunction of land and sea. While any form of sovereignty is potentially flimsy, hydrocolonial modes are especially so, since they are subject to the ocean—both to the sea’s physical laws and to the people, objects, and animals delivered by vessels docking in the port. These objects (and people) were always under suspicion: they might be dis- eased, contaminated, seditious, obscene, illegal, or counterfeit. This anxiety was underscored ecologically. Titles of various offices attached to the harbor—Port Captain, Water Police, Beach Magistrate, Beach Master, Receiver of Wrecks (the latter three governing shipwrecks, flotsam, and jetsam)—exuded authority even as they reminded their holders that they were dependent on the ocean and its physical vagaries, a danger to which custom houses, generally built on reclaimed land, were occasionally heir.

Books and other objects stopped for examination were regarded as though they carried the contamination of the ship with them and were at times treated as if they had dangerous microbial properties. Banned films were described as unfit for human consumption as though they carried bacterial infection; condoms with objectionable slogans on them were deemed “harmful to health”; indecent items were considered injurious to the public well-being, while undesirable publications apprehended in the port were likened to foreign bodies. [22] In Australia suspect mag- azines were regarded as physical contaminants, immune even to the bleaching agent used in the manufacture of their pages. As one official noted, this disinfectant should have been able to “militate against disease” but in the face of such obscenity was useless. [23]

When assaying print objects, one might anticipate that examiners paid most attention to the words in the publication under scrutiny. Yet in many instances writing was not necessarily prioritized, since it constituted only one dimension of the object. Instead, the printed object was apprehended in its entirety or adjudged by a range of material features. French novels were often categorized as undesirable simply for being French or because of their illustrations. Book covers provided another avenue for assaying a publication; an offending jacket sufficed to have the object banned or burned. In other instances officials followed a sampling method in which random passages from suspect texts were selected, rather like an excise man testing a consignment of alcohol. [24] As already indicated, officials apprehended objects in material ways, often imputing microbial properties to inorganic substances.

The reading protocols that these officials formulated and refined would be adopted and extended by subsequent censorship regimes in South Africa. [25] Growing anticommunism from the 1920s on gave customs further occasion to extend their scope. However, as the Cold War gained ground and became an international “security issue” and as more films circulated (something for which customs lacked viewing facilities), censorship was taken over by the Department of the Interior (with their specially built “censorship theatre”) and then by a full-fledged censorship apparatus under the apartheid regime. [26]

Apartheid censorship has been widely studied and is quite correctly understood as a key plank in the regime’s attempt to control dissent. At the height of this system, Nadine Gordimer observed that the South African censorship machine treated literature “as a commodity to be boiled down to its components and mea- sured like a bar of soap at the Bureau of Standards.” [27] Gordimer’s analogy, intended to belittle the censorship board, compares it to the body in charge of quality control and standards, which had its origins in customs and excise. While Gordimer was probably unaware of the genealogies of censorship in South Africa, her comments nonetheless usefully summarize the origins of censorship, a process having its roots in the hydrocolonial practices of customs officials in port cities.

Placing books in a hydrocolonial framework makes visible the meanings and associations that they accrued as they journeyed over land and sea. Such meanings could reside in the pages of the book itself, smelling of areca nut or buckled by salt. Strong emotion could also cohere around an absent book—the publication or periodical that never arrived, having been detained at customs and possibly burned or destroyed there. Such missing books generated more powerful feelings than the volumes that did actually arrive.

These censorship protocols remind us that books were a form of soft imperial power, instruments of civilization, and calling cards of Englishness. They had consequently to be policed lest the dangerous ones infected their readers. Such suspect texts were “lively,” humming with dubious elements rather like adulterated cargo. We might usefully describe the ways in which customs officials read as apprehensive. Not only did they apprehend the object by seeing it physically and mentally, but at times they seized and detained it on the grounds of being piracy, sedition, or obscenity. These objects elicited suspicion, producing fear or apprehensiveness for what they might contain.

The colonial condition is always nervous, both for the “native” and the settler. The nervous condition of the “native” has been much discussed, most notably in Tstitsi Dangarembga’s Zimbabwean novel Nervous Conditions. [28] The condition of the boundary-making settler is equally nervous, or as this article has suggested, apprehensive. This condition was particularly acute on the hydroborder, where the “normal” anxieties of the boundary were exacerbated by ecological uncertainty, health hazards of ships arriving in port, and paranoia about “undesirable aliens” arriving by sea. The textual practices that these officials evolved in the uncertainty of the port city might be regarded as reading practices with hydrocolonial origins. These apprehensive reading modes were to be generalized into South African censorship practices, but their initial formation was tied up with maritime boundary-making.

Putuma’s poem works in and against this genealogy. The poem opens with the nervousness that the white-controlled beach produces for an older generation. Putuma addresses this nervous condition not by rejecting the sea and embracing the land more vehemently. Instead, her poem recalibrates the ocean, suggesting ways in which it might be decolonized, by naming its hydrocolonial formation and invoking precolonial understandings of the sea and the littoral as an ancestral realm and site of pilgrimage, healing, and renewal. From the vantage of the littoral, Putuma invites us to consider southern Africa as a hydrocolonial formation. Along with the poem, this article has started to outline some of the new analytic possibilities that such a genealogy suggests.

Isabel Hofmeyr is professor of African literature at the University of the Witwatersrand and Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. She has worked extensively on the Indian Ocean world and oceanic themes more generally. Recent publications include Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading (2013) and a special issue of Comparative Literature (2016) titled “Oceanic Routes,” coedited with Kerry Bystrom. She heads up a project called Oceanic Humanities for the Global South with partners from Mozambique, Mauritius, India, Jamaica, and Barbados (


I acknowledge the support of the National Research Foundation, which enabled research undertaken toward this article.


1  Putuma, Collective Amnesia
2  Gqola, What Is Slavery to Me?; Baderoon, “African Oceans.”
3  Hofmeyr, “South Africa’s Indian Ocean.”
4  Bystrom and Hofmeyr, “Oceanic Routes.”
5  “Hydro Colony” and “Hydro Colony—Ear Falls (1957).”
6  Pritchard, “From Hydroimperialism,” abstract.
7  For apposite examples of this point, see Deckard, “Latin America”; and Pritchard, “From Hydroimperialism.”
8  Mbembe, “Provisional Notes”; Mbembe, On the Postcolony.
9  These concepts are drawn from Samuelson, “Coastal Form”; Bremner, “Monsoon Assemblages”; DeLoughrey, “Heavy Waters”; DeLoughrey, “Submarine Futures”; Sandhu, “Hydropoetics”; Alaimo, Bodily Natures; and Cohen, The Novel and the Sea.
10  DeLoughrey, “Heavy Waters.”
11  Bremner, “Monsoon Assemblages”; Lavery, “Indian Ocean Depths.”
12  DeLoughrey, “Submarine Futures”; Rediker, “History from below the Waterline.”
13  Delmas, “From Travelling to History”; Sheikh, “The Alfred and the Open Sea.”
14  Killingray, “Introduction,” 5.
15  Blum, The View; Maynard, “‘In the Interests’”; Hyslop, “Steamship Empire.”
16  Da Silva, “‘Homeward Bound.’”
17  Anim-Addo, “‘A Wretched.’”
18 I am grateful for a reader of the article who suggested the term hydroborder.
19 Dhupelia-Mesthrie, “False Fathers”; Heath, Purifying Empire; Hyslop, “Undesirable”; Klaaren, “Migrating”; Lake and Reynolds, Drawing; MacDonald, “Strangers”; MacDonald, “Identity Thieves”; Martens, “Pioneering.”
20 Hofmeyr, “Colonial Copyright.”

21 Payn, The Merchandise Marks Act,
21; Treasury Department 972, 936, “Seizure under the Copyright Protection and Books Registration Act of 1895 of Certain Books,” 1906, Cape Town Archives Repository, Western Cape Provincial Archives and Records Services, Cape Town.
22 Customs and Excise 199, A/10/5X, “Prohibited and Restricted Imports. Indecent and Objectionable Articles,” 1939, Central Archives Repository, National Archives Repository, Pretoria; Customs and Excise 199, A10/6X, “Indecent and Objectionable Articles,” 1922, Central Archives Repository.
23 Heath, Purifying Empire, 115.
24 Lieutenant Governor 19, 25/54, “Customs Detention of Certain Books,” 1906, Transvaal Archives Repository, National Archives Repository; Customs and Excise 199, A10/6X; Treasury Department 912, 2145, “Detention of Book Vechten en Vluchten van Beyers en Kemp,” 1905, Cape Town Archives Repository.
25 Treasury Department 815, 1505, “Complaint by Mr. Speelman Regarding the Detention of Certain Books by the Customs,” 1904–5, Cape Town Archives Repository; Treasury Department 912; Attorney General 1367, 296, “Detention of Book ‘The Mobile Boer,’” 1904, Cape Town Archives Repository; Attorney General 1441, 4790, “Book Entitled ‘De Dochter van den Handsuffer [Handsopper]’: Detention of,” 1904, Cape Town Archives Repository.
26  Customs and Excise 209, A10/26X, “Prohibited and Restricted Imports. Censorship of Films. Precedent,” 1917–57, Central Archives Repository; Secretary of the Treasurer 696, F4/71, “Department of Interior. Censorship: 1) Entertainments (Censorship) Act 28/1931 and Amendments. 2) Board of Censors: Appointment and Remuneration of Members. 3) Board of Censors: Staff for,” 1963, Central Archives Repository.
27  University of the Witwatersrand, Historical Papers, Nadine Gordimer Collection, A 3367, F3, “Censorship in South Africa, Letter to the Secretary of the Interior,” January 23, 1973.
28  Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions. 


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