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Colonial ports, customs and censorship: tracking books from ship to shore

A world map and on it a large rope, campus and an open book.
Dockside Reading: how dockside protocols shaped copyright and censorship. Getty Images

Some years back, I wrote a book about Mahatma Gandhi’s work as a printer and publisher in South Africa, from 1893 to 1914. The man who was to become the great anti-colonial figure had arrived in Durban as a nervous young lawyer and had been rapidly drawn into defending Indian rights. Towards this end, he established a printing press and newspaper. One minor theme in the book was his steadfast opposition to copyright, which he thought hindered the free flow of ideas. Having completed the book, I wanted to investigate this thread further.

Was Gandhi’s position unusual, or not? What was the situation when it came to colonial copyright?

Rather surprisingly this search led me – figuratively – to the dockside and the Custom House. As I discovered, it was the Custom House that from the mid-19th century had overseen copyright in most British settler colonies. Printed matter coming from outside these colonies had to be funnelled through port cities, where Customs officials checked to see 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 has produced another book, Dockside Reading: Hydrocolonialism and the Custom House, which will be out in 2022. It unfolds alongside the ocean, in the colonial port cities of late 19th and early 20th-century southern Africa, with glimpses toward other parts of the British empire.

Researching the book

I sought out the Customs archives in South Africa with some trepidation, expecting dry and tedious reports on taxation and tariffs. Instead I found a fascinating archive teeming with objects, in some cases actual ones like swatches of fabric, labels of tinned condensed milk and packets of seeds.

The documents themselves were filled with arguments about what these items actually were: was a substance butter or margarine? Was there a difference between tea and medicinal herbs? Was a young pilchard the same as a sardine? The Custom House was far more intriguing than I had anticipated.

Had I done this project 10 or 15 years ago, I would no doubt have written a “drier” book, focusing only on the print culture implications of copyright and censorship in the Custom House without considering its location – the shore.

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

Dockside Reading is an attempt to embed print culture in the field of oceanic studies, to put water and paper closer together. This move immerses print culture in the ecological setting of the port city and extends how we think about print and reading beyond the predictable contexts of the library, the class room, the home, and religious organisations.

Paper trails from ship to shore

The book tracks printed matter from ship to shore and through the regulatory regimes of the southern African colonial Custom House.

It traces how dockside protocols shaped understandings of copyright and censorship. Rather than an institution associated with the rights of the author, copyright became conflated with cargo and commodity markings, especially mark of origin (such as “made in Australia”). British copyright became a token that a book had been made in Britain and was implicitly “white” and safe to admit. Colonial copyright was hence construed as a racial trademark and logistical inscription (a sign that aided the movement of an object).

Stacks of old books.
Custom officials judged books by their covers and language. GettyImages

As regards censorship, material was not read so much as treated like other forms of cargo, scanned for markings and sampled for traces of offensive material. Tax collectors at heart, customs officials were not keen readers. Instead, when dealing with a suspicious book, they applied the same techniques as they did to other suspect cargo: they sampled, counted, measured and touched.

Rather than reading them, they inspected books as objects. Books were judged by their covers, their language or script (French was suspect, non-Roman script dangerous). Inspectors focused on outward information like title, copyright and publisher rather than content. Like other suspect cargo, objectionable books became potential carriers of contamination.

The “reading” methods of the Custom House were to feed into subsequent apartheid censorship practices in South Africa.

The literary consequences of the Custom House eddied outward from the dockside – at times onto and under the water. Customs inspectors dumped unclaimed, smuggled or banned items into the ocean, as did passengers approaching those ports where pirated reprints of copyrighted works were not permitted.


The term that 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 colonisation by way of water (maritime imperialism), colonisation of water (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 a penal island), colonisation through water (flooding of occupied land) and colonisation 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 out for new articles on the state of our oceans in the lead up to the UN’s next 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 colonisation and empire. It challenges the way colonisation has shaped what’s considered to be important knowledge. It also looks at the knowledge created by people before they were colonised and highlights the rich pre-colonial understandings of water as a sacred resource, often inhabited by spirits, ancestors and deities.

The Custom House provides a useful vantage point from which to trace how water is colonised. We tend to think of the elements like air, water and ice as uncolonisable, because they cannot be settled or occupied. But these elements are colonised as resources to be extracted, or as dumping grounds for waste.

The long-term effectiveness of these strategies is apparent today if we turn to the ocean. From its sea bed to its surface it has been prospected, militarised, mined and claimed.

In southern Africa, coastal waters around port cities were colonised, most obviously through the extension of land into the sea through reclamation and submarine infrastructure. Another strategy of claiming the ocean was to extend land-based methods of governance over the ocean: claiming sovereignty, regulating the intertidal zone, declaring quarantine stations over areas around ships.

Garbage pollution at a beach.
The ocean colonised by human waste. Herianus Herianus/ GettyImages

The practice of dumping goods in the ocean served to define the ocean as a rubbish dump, a space to be colonised by human waste. We might describe the Custom House as a “hydrocracy”, ruling by and from the water’s edge rather than from the desk of bureaucracy.

Dockside Reading demonstrates one site in which hydrocolonialism can be used to illuminate cultural and literary histories. The term, and others like it, is being explored in different areas. Examples include a special issue of the journal English Language Notes on “Hydro-criticism” and work by 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.

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