2021, 7-8 January Online Conference: Paper Empires

The Forms of Law Project, in collaboration with the Colonialism Inside Out Project and hosted by the University of Exeter’s Centre for Imperial and Global History, will be holding the online conference ‘Paper Empires: Layers of law in colonial South Asia and the Indian Ocean‘ on 7 and 8 January 2021.

Concept Note

Anthropologists and historians have recently underscored the ways in which European colonialism created novel regimes of legality and record-keeping, associated with ambitious and exclusive state-centred claims to both truth and rights, while being constantly preoccupied with the spectre of forgery and corruption. However, the attention so far has been focussed on English/European-language records and the colonial institutions that produced, stored and deployed them. This focus has communicated a monolithic sense of power and normativity that unwittingly replicates the aspirations of colonial states. In addition, a more sociologically-inspired historiographical focus on colonial intermediaries as small cogs in the larger bureaucratic machinery tends to blur the underlying materiality and performative nature of record-keeping as such. Drawing on case studies from in and around South Asia, we propose instead that the law of empires was rooted in the highly localised, often multilingual, and fragmented bureaucracies that produced its records.

This conference brings together historians of pre-colonial Indian regimes with historians of British, Dutch and French colonialism in order to unearth genealogies of records in Bengali, Marathi, Persian, Sinhala and Tamil, besides French, Dutch and English, between the eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. In exploring that extended period, we place equal valence on subcontinental India and Sri Lanka, on European-ruled South Asia and indirectly controlled princely states, and on the search for sovereignty on water as much as land. While each paper deals with a specific mode of legal or institutional recording, our collective aim is to understand how indigenous regimes co-emerged and competed with incipient European Company-states, creating new forms and potentialities, and indeed, a whole gamut of novel record-making and -keeping strategies, in line with evolving ideas of legality.

In doing so, we engage the following questions:

  • How have not just documents but also legal concepts and state frameworks been translated? How were pre-existing forms displaced or repurposed by using seemingly traditional forms for novel purposes?
  • In what ways do these bureaucracies defy compartmentalisation in indigenous and colonial regimes? What do such co-constituted regimes tell us about power, empire, and law?
  • How did the materiality and ceremoniality of bureaucracies and records embody the processes of colonial law and generate the reality of colonial governance?
  • How does emphasizing the forms, concepts, and frameworks of law and bureaucracy change our understanding of the role of state agents and intermediaries?
  • How were the notions of law and language enacted in the everyday locality related to cosmopolitan cultures or vice versa? What commonalities or tensions existed between the specifics of mundane legal and bureaucratic acts versus the totalizing visions of colonial states?
  • How do these processes look different in different periods of colonial rule, from protracted transitions to high colonialism?

Presenters and Paper Titles

Debjani Bhattacharya (Drexel University, USA), Sketching to Own: East India Company’s Encounter with Amphibious Spaces

Fahad Bishara (University of Virginia, USA), The Sailing Scribes: Legal Thinking and Praxis Across the Twentieth-Century Indian Ocean 

Leonard Hodges & Nandini Chatterjee (University of Exeter, UK), The Power of Parwanas: Indo-Persian grants and the making of empire in eighteenth-century Southern India

Bente de Leede  (University of Leiden, The Netherlands) & Nadeera Rupesinghe (Sri Lanka National Archives), From the Inside Out: School Thombo Registration in Dutch Sri Lanka

Dries Lyna & Luc Bulten (Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands), Bureaucratic Legacies: Palm Leaf Deeds and Land Grants in Colonial Sri Lanka, 1680-1795 

Bhavani Raman (University of Toronto, Canada), The Paperwork of Security: Unfree Mobility and the Pass System in the British Empire

Alicia Schrikker & Byapti Sur (University of Leiden, The Netherlands), Village Bureaucracy, Colonial Ambitions and Cultures of Legality in Eighteenth-Century Jaffna and Bengal 

Elizabeth Thelen (University of Exeter, UK), A New Language of Rule: Alwar’s Administrative Experiment, c. 1838-58

Dominic Vendell (University of Exeter, UK), A True Copy? Document Reproduction and Legal Validation in Early Colonial Maharashtra

Logistics and Inquiries

The conference sessions will held on Zoom and will run on 7 and 8 January 2021 from 14:00-17:15 (UK/UTC+0) on both days. To register your interest to attend, please contact Professor Nandini Chatterjee, n.chatterjee@exeter.ac.uk.

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