Paper empires – or stitched empires?

Work-in-progress discussions with contributors to a collected volume of essays

Thoughtful but happy – our work in progress meeting

Nandini Chatterjee

Today, 6 November 2020, we had a catch-up-cum-work-in-progress meeting with the members of the Colonialism Inside Out team and some eminent external collaborators – Debjani Bhattacharyya, Paul Halliday, and Bhavani Raman. The aim of the meeting, inevitably on Zoom, of course, was to report on progress made towards producing nine papers on paperwork in colonial Sri Lanka, India and the Indian Ocean. Participants joined in from the USA, UK, Netherlands and Sri Lanka, requiring considerable flexibility and generosity on the part of many participants.


Over the course of the presentations and the following discussions, we swung from sea to land, talking of many empires –  Mughal, Dutch, French, English, and grappled with themes ranging from land registration to deregistered wives, from the legal drafting hobbies of sea captains to sketches of futuristic land prospecting. With nine papers to discuss, the natural limitations on human beings’ ability to tolerate Zoom for extended periods, our programme was tight. Elizabeth Thelen was a magnificently firm chair, and the Chat function allowed us to go wild with ideas as they cropped up. There is indeed something to say for the altered form of conferencing in these pandemic days!

The collected volume of essays, is going to be about the papery underbelly of colonial empires in South Asia, with especial attention to documentation in non-European languages – Bengali, Persian, Rajasthani, Sinhala and Tamil. What excites us about this is the possibility of opening up and using archives that tend to be neglected, but, which, when used, can make empires look very different. For example, when thinking of empire and documentations, do people usually think of a ship captain practising the drafting of legal documents – for fun, perhaps (Fahad Bishara’s paper)? Or drawings of a future coastal landscape which did not yet exist, but to which people already wanted to lay claims (Debjani Bhttacharyya’s paper)? There is simply a different vision, not only of abstract quantities such as legal cultures, but substantive entities, such as locales, persons, things that our empires appear to be populated with.

What was really helpful with this discussion is to identify the common ideas that linked our papers – entanglement being one of them; the others being manuals and models, registration (that led to an explosion!), codification, fiscal legality, networks of records and information,  archival process, public and private in law-making. There were ways in which certain kinds of empirical overloading were successfully balanced – for example Bente and Nadeera’s paper reminding us of the incursion of documents into the interstices of family life; Fahad and Debjani’s paper reminding us that not everything was about registering legal and other facts, they were sometimes about claiming legal futures. Generously engaging throughout the discussion, Paul kept asking is to think about the physical and temporal ‘containers’ that moved the documents, brought them together, stitched them together but did not necessarily merge them. It looks like the archival turn is going to be our driver here as we tell these stories.

Towards the end, we began to discuss what our most effective contribution to the literature on empires might be. Here, interestingly we started a move back from the process to the form – with Bhavani recommending attention to forms (well, we love that in this project) and conventions, Debjani glossing that to mean the epistemic virtues that certain ways of writing committed people to. We also agonised a bit about vocabulary and how to avoid falling into obvious analytical patterns that equate multi-lingualism with a pre-colonial/colonial or indigenous/European binary, and end up looking for separate genealogies as explanatory modes. Paul suggested a wider way out – proposing that we think about time – or temporalities – and writing in law being a way of attempting to determine what was and what might be.

And now we look forward to January, when advanced versions of these papers will be presented at a two-day conference co-organised by Colonialism Inside Out and Lawforms, and hosted by the Centre for Imperial and Global History, University of Exeter.

Please find below a list of the papers and presenters involved in the discussions today.

  • Debjani Bhattacharyya, Sketching to Own: East India Company’s Encounter with Amphibious Spaces
  • Fahad Bishara, The Sailing Scribes: Legal Thinking and Praxis Across the Twentieth-Century Indian Ocean
  • Leonard Hodges and Nandini Chatterjee, The Power of Parwanas: Indo-Persian grants and the making of empire in eighteenth-century Southern India
  • Bente M. Leede and Nadeera Rupesinghe, From the inside out: School Thombo Registration in Dutch Sri Lanka
  • Dries Lyna & Luc Bulten, Bureaucratic Legacies: Palm Leaf Deeds and Land Grants in Colonial Sri Lanka, 1680-1795
  • Bhavani Raman, The Paperwork of Security: Unfree Mobility and the Pass System in the British Empire
  • Alicia Schrikker and Byapti Sur, Village bureaucracy, colonial ambitions and cultures of legality in eighteenth century Jaffna and Bengal
  • Elizabeth Thelen, A New Language of Rule: Alwar’s Administrative Experiment, c. 1838-58
  • Dominic Vendell, A True Copy? Persian Reproduction and Legal Validation in Early Colonial Maharashtra
  • Paul Halliday – commentator
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