If geography expresses in its very etymology the possibility to write and therefore read the surface of the earth for the actions that have been played out on it, the liquid territory of the sea challenges both representation and spatial analysis in maritime spaces. As a result, the sea is often perceived as the ultimate frontier beyond visibility and law. The deaths of illegalized migrants at sea seem to demonstrate this ongoing reality.
Governing migration at sea constitutes one of the prime examples of biopolitical power today. It is exercised not only through tracking people using remote sensing technologies and intercepting them with mobile patrols, but also through causing death by abstaining from rescue action—a form of passive, remote killing. Because these deaths are largely unknowable they are also unaccountable. Furthermore, the oceans have increasingly become a dense sensorium composed of optical and thermal cameras, sea-, air- and land-borne radars, vessel-tracking technologies, and satellites, in which all movements leave traces in digital form. The principle of the “freedom of the high seas” comes under threat as the sea becomes more intensely policed than ever.
But paradoxically, the more extensive the surveillance of the sea becomes, the more states become vulnerable to legal activism that seeks to render them liable for avoidable death. If states can see boats in distress they are obligated to intervene. As a result, the sea has become a laboratory not only for new techniques of state control and surveillance but for new practices of transnational citizenship and human rights.
(Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani)
The methodologies of contemporary human rights organizations owe much to the eighteenth-century British movement to end the slave trade. The 1789 drawing of the slave ship Brookes, made by an anonymous Plymouth abolitionist and perfected by Thomas Clarkson, featured a straightforward descriptiveness that differed starkly from previous moralizing tracts against slavery. The drawing spread quickly through the media and in pamphlets, and was included in Clarkson’s An Abstract of the Evidence, delivered before the House of Commons in 1790 and 1791. Its rhetoric of empirical precision and measurement makes it a powerful antecedent of human rights forensics. (Adam Hochschild and Thomas Keenan)
Eight years earlier in 1781 it was an event on the Caribbean Sea that fuelled the abolitionist movement. The crew of the English slave ship Zong threw 132 slaves overboard, having calculated that the insurance money for their death was worth more than the profit gained from selling them alive. As ships crossed the Atlantic it was a common practice for the captain and crew to jettison cargo in storms, but in a few instances such as on the Zong, it was slaves who were thrown overboard. An ensuing legal dispute was brought by the owners to claim £ 30 per head for each slave jettisoned, by invoking necessity, one of the criteria for the “Perils of the Sea” clause. At the time this was not considered a significant court case, as there were few other instances of jettisoning slaves and so there was little if any legal precedents. Outside the court, a storm of controversy erupted, spearheaded by the abolitionist Granville Sharp’s chronicle of the trial, which mobilized public indignation about the massacre. The event was represented in Turner’s 1840 painting of the scene. (Ayesha Hameed)
The Cap Anamur was leased in 1979 by independent humanitarian groups to respond to the plight of the Vietnamese boat people in the China Sea. Not only did the ship serve as a floating hospital and safe haven—its organizers claimed that in 1979 alone it helped to rescue 9,057 people from death—but it also became a media forum, populated with journalists of all kinds, for the collection and transmission of images of the boat people’s plight. The broadcast of distant suffering came thereafter to be regarded as one of the defining features of contemporary humanitarian interventions. In 2004, this time in the Mediterranean, a second ship named Cap Anamur rescued thirty-seven sub-Saharan migrants on their way to the southern shores of Europe. The Cap Anamur was later denied permission for the migrants to disembark and was kept off the coast of Sicily for eleven days, during which time it was reached by lawyers, journalists, politicians, and activists. Despite the courageous effort to bring the violence routinely perpetrated against migrants at the maritime borders of Europe into the public eye, most of the crew and the migrants were immediately arrested upon landing. (Lorenzo Pezzani)