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Colonial Proximities: Crossracial Encounters and Juridical Truths in British Columbia, 1871-1921

By Renisa Mawani

Review By Hamar Foster

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 173 Spring 2012  | p. 145-46

Colonial Proximities is a good book about an important subject: how colonial authorities, anxious about racial difference, tried to use legal and other strategies to regulate and restrict interracial “encounters” during the half-century after confederation with Canada in 1871. Its strengths are primarily three.  

The first is that Professor Mawani eschews binary oppositions and looks at how complicated relations were among the European colonists, aboriginal peoples, the Chinese, and those of mixed race.

The second is that she makes this come alive by situating these interactions in three distinct spatial and social arenas: venues of alleged sexual slavery and prostitution, the murky terrain of the illicit liquor trade, and the salmon cannery. (As someone who spent the summer of 1966 toiling in a salmon cannery in Tsimshian territory, that chapter had a particular resonance for me. It was also when I first saw the unfortunately named “Iron Chink,” a device the origins and function of which Mawani explains for the uninitiated.) The third, and perhaps best of all, is her chapter on “mixed bloods” and the varying degrees of anxiety that this phenomenon and its implications caused the authorities, both spiritual and temporal. Yet, as she notes in her conclusion, these interracial encounters “were in some ways ungovernable, producing friendships, affinities, and intimacies that are now being reclaimed and celebrated” (204). 

All of this deserves more space than a short review permits. Colonial Proximities is a book that anyone interested in BC history, or the history of colonialism generally, will want to have on the shelf.   

Of course I have, as reviewers inevitably do, a few quibbles. Mawani displays a mastery of the literature but, given that her subject includes aboriginal participation in the capitalist economy, I think she would have found such studies as Rolf Knight’s Indians at Work (1978; 1996) and John Lutz’s work, especially Makúk (2008) and his PhD dissertation, of interest. 

It is also a little odd that, although the book’s subtitle refers to “juridical truths,” only three sources are cited in the bibliography under “Jurisprudence”:  the Indian Act and two reported cases, one by a lay magistrate and the other by a county court judge. The former is hardly jurisprudence and the latter are somewhat thin gruel for a subtitle. I think the explanation is that the juridical truths in question may be more “low” than “high” law, gleaned primarily from newspaper accounts, letters, and other less formal sources, including some unreported cases. This is fair enough, but the subtitle suggests something more formal. 

A third quibble is not so much a quibble as a heartfelt plea that scholars read David Williams’ biography of Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie, published nearly 35 years ago, before casually describing him (148) as someone who “came to be known as the ‘hanging judge’.” Williams deals with this in Chapter 9 of The Man for a New Country: Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie (1977) and, whether one agrees with him or not, the question of Begbie’s role in BC’s legal history is more nuanced than any posthumous journalistic epithet, however entrenched, can convey.  Having said that, for those who have yet to read Begbie’s eccentric testimony before the 1894 Royal Commission on the Liquor Traffic, Mawani’s account is a head-scratching highlight. An articulate opponent of prohibition, the judge had some odd theories about the superiority of “races” that drink alcohol over those who confine themselves to water; but, in his defence, he also heaped scorn on the hypocrisy of “whites” who regularly insisted on generous financial marriage settlements but were indignant about the Chinese practice of purchasing parental consent to marriage (Williams, 127-8).

Quibbles and pleas aside, I have only one real complaint, and I readily acknowledge that it is unfair to single out Professor Mawani, because she is not alone. In 1936 Fred Rodell, in a hyperbolic lament that applies with just as much force to interdisciplinary scholarship as it does to law, rather famously wrote that there were only two things wrong with almost all legal writing. “One is its style. The other is its content” (Virginia Law Review, Vol. 23). The content of Colonial Proximities, as I have said, is very good; and there are portions that are very nicely written. 

But in common with too much academic writing, some sections of the book made this reader work far too hard. Consider the following sentence, one of a number of possible examples, from the two- paragraph conclusion to Chapter 3: “Conceptualizing aboriginal and Chinese slavery as conjunctive problematics enables an analytic approach that moves beyond the idea of racial crisis and opens up possibilities for tracking the internal workings of state racisms; racial exigencies and their constitutive truths did not entirely disappear but were folded into and informed emergent ones” (120-1). This is not nearly as bad as some academic writing and I know there are people who habitually write, and perhaps even talk, like this. But if we want important work – and this is important work – to be read by more than a handful of like-minded specialists, we need to start writing less like Hegel and more like Orwell.

Colonial Proximities: Crossracial Encounters and Juridical Truths in British Columbia, 1871-1921 by Renisa Mawani.
Vancouver: UBC Press 2009. 288 pp. $85.00 cloth, $32.95 paper