2009-10 Symposium on Comparative Early Modern Legal History

New Perspectives on Legal Pluralism

Organized by Lauren Benton, New York University, and Richard Ross, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Colonialism enhanced legal pluralism. European, African, Asian, and American polities relied on layered and multi-centric systems of law, and their encounters generated new and often repeating patterns of jurisdictional politics. This widespread legal pluralism at times contributed to regional integration by making substantively different legal systems intelligible to travelers and merchants. It also posed challenges to imperial administration as subordinate authorities sought to establish, expand, or protect prerogatives to act independently of metropolitan sovereigns and courts. With recent scholarship establishing clearly the benefits of framing colonial law as jurisdictionally complex and unstable, opportunities are now in sight to push this perspective further in a number of directions.

One interesting set of problems involves questions about how conflicts over the prerogatives of delegated legal authorities to discipline and control subordinate or dependent populations related to the changing contours of imperial constitutions or ideologies of rule. Conference participants may explore the ways in which such figures as garrison commanders, plantation owners, ship captains, Company officials, missionaries, and others with some measure of legal authority positioned themselves in relation to both metropolitan and colonial law. Did they make innovative legal claims or exert influence on regional patterns? We invite investigations of the conditions under which such actors deferred to imperial authority, the sources they drew upon to defend their legal prerogatives, and the nature of their interactions with various courts. Other studies might consider the degree to which the politics of making and defending claims to semi-autonomous legal authority informed broader, even regional, political processes. As we bring such connections into sight, it may be possible to refine comparisons of the politics of legal pluralism in different parts of a colonial regime, or between the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Indian Ocean worlds.

A related theme focuses on the legal strategies of subordinate groups. Taking into account a framework of legal pluralism, scholars can move beyond the study of “resistance” to ask questions about the legal participation of formally subordinate groups—even some that were seemingly powerless before the law. Forum shopping, petitions for mercy, violence against magistrates, new genres of legal writing, maneuvers to escape indebtedness—these and other strategies had immediate and sometimes far-reaching institutional effects. In addition to tracing such connections, we might probe the formative influences on legal strategies. How did knowledge about law circulate? To what extent did information or stories about of the effectiveness of particular legal strategies carry across social strata, imperial divides, and oceans? How did legal actors imagine and describe plural legal orders? With attention to these and other, related topics, the conference seeks to open the study of legal pluralism to new approaches and insights.

Panel 1: Varieties of Legal Pluralism: The Ottoman Empire, Spanish America, and British India

“Ottoman Imperial Management of Diversity: The Costs and Benefits of Legal Pluralism”
Karen Barkey, Columbia University

“Multiplicity of Meanings: Legal Pluralism and the Layer Legality of Land in the Sixteenth-Century Andes”
Jovita Baber, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“The Marital Patchwork of Colonial South Asia: Forum Shopping from Britain to Baroda”
Mitra Sharafi, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Commentator 1: Tom Ginsburg, University of Chicago
Commentator 2: Kristen Stilt, Northwestern University
Chair: Iza Hussin, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Panel 2: Legal Pluralism and Slavery

“‘Slave Trading is Not a Piratical Offense’: Legal Pluralism and Abolition in the British Empire”
Lauren Benton, New York University

“Fugitive Slaves and the Challenges of Imperial Jurisdiction in the Early Modern Caribbean”
Linda Rupert, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

“The Destruction of Liberty and the Remaking of Legal Space in French Guiana, 1789-1830”
Miranda Spieler, University of Arizona

Commentator 1: Theodore Christov, Northwestern University
Commentator 2 and Chair: Dan Hamilton, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Panel 3: Jurisdictional Tensions and Forum Shopping: Household Government and Land Ownership

“Marriage and Anglo-Imperial Jurisdictional Politics”
Kirsten Sword, Indiana University

“The Shifting Legal Frontier: The Southwest from 1598 to 1821”
Allison Tirres, DePaul University

Commentator 1: Richard Helmholz, University of Chicago
Commentator 2 and Chair: Gregg Roeber, Pennsylvania State University

Panel 4: The Development of Legal Pluralism in the British Empire from the Seventeenth- through Nineteenth-Centuries

“Bundles of Hyphens: Corporations as Legal Communities in the Early Modern British Empire”
Philip Stern, Duke University

“Albion’s Sceptre: ‘Explosive Colonization’ and the Legalism of the British Empire–New Zealand in the 1830s”
P. G. McHugh, University of Cambridge

Commentator and chair: Richard Ross, Illinois at Urbana-Champaign