European colonisation, law, and indigenous marine dispossession: historical perspectives on the construction and entrenchment of unequal marine governance

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European colonisation played a fundamental role in Indigenous marine dispossession and the entrenchment of unequal and state-dominated marine governance regimes across diverse bodies of water. This article charts this process, utilising examples from waters and communities across the globe that experienced disparate forms of European colonisation and marine dispossession. These examples span between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries and traverse waters from the Caribbean to Oceania. This long historical context is necessary to interrogating how colonisation has produced unequal access to marine space, resources, and decision making in different ways through different methods across time and space, which continues to this day. One of the article's main contentions is that marine dispossession played out vastly differently across each locale and that it is only with deep and highly localised historical study that the heterogenous impacts and ongoing legacies of colonisation on the marine rights, governance, and access of specific Indigenous Peoples and local communities can begin to be grappled with. While the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities to marine spaces and resources have received some affirmation within recent international legal instruments, including the protection of customary marine tenure and access to aquatic resources, there continues to be key constraints surrounding the definitions, representations, and jurisdictions of Indigenous or 'customary' marine rights as they have been codified or 'recognised' within national and interstate frameworks. This has led to fundamental challenges that need to be navigated time and time again in order to attain, claim, or protect Indigenous and 'customary' marine jurisdictions. As this article outlines, the emergence of these issues is intrinsically tied to the colonisation of terrestrial and marine spaces. To understand these ongoing struggles, we need to pay close attention to the deep entanglements of law, colonialism, and marine rights in the past and present.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)387-407
Number of pages21
JournalMaritime Studies
Issue number4
Early online date4 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2021


  • colonisation
  • Indigenous marine rights
  • customary law
  • colonial law
  • marine tenure
  • ocean governance


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