Colonial Justice in the French Indian Ocean, 1700–1800
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 10
Scholars of French imperialism, long oriented towards Algeria or the Caribbean, are rediscovering the Indian Ocean, a space that included both island colonies and trading centers in South Asia. These spaces were relatively marginal within France's global imperial networks, and constantly threatened by British power after the Seven Years War (1756-1763), yet they were also remarkably durable. France's colonial presence in the Indian Subcontinent, which began in the seventeenth century, did not end until 1954 (several years after the end of British India), while the Indian Ocean island Réunion remains an integral part of France. The histories of these colonies shed new light on longue durée transformations within the French empire, enriching and recentering historiographies long focused on the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
Imperial competition between France and Britain in this region was intense in the eighteenth-century, and so to were exchanges, circulations and cross-pollinations across imperial boundaries. The peripheral but persistent existence of France's Indian Ocean colonies, therefore, offers stimulating opportunities for comparison across as well as within empires, and particularly for re-examining the work of scholars who trace the development of legal institutions in British India (Bernard Cohn, David Washbrook) or mobilities across the British-dominated Indian Ocean (Sughata Bose, Thomas Metcalf). Familiar themes from the history of British imperialism—the fusion of Orientalist knowledge and jurisprudence, the creation and performance of caste and ethnic identities through the legal system, or the importance of non-European agency to the development and functioning of colonial justice—reappear in the French colonial archives, but in unexpected forms. The perspective of these archives widens the scope of South Asian colonial legal history, a burgeoning field whose practioners (Elizabeth Kolsky, Mitra Sharafi, Mithi Mukherjee) focus mostly on the British case.
Each of the three panelists pursues a comparative approach to the history of law, justice and administration in the French Indian Ocean, connecting it to developments in France, across the French empire, and to the emerging British Raj in South Asia. Their research works towards the global perspective on law and empire, such as that outlined by Lauren Benton in Law and Colonial Cultures (2003), incorporating an inter-imperial perspective and a sense of the importance of local agency to the practice of law in the French colonies. Danna Agmon examines the interplay of French and South Asian modes of dispute resolution in a variety of colonial legal forums, showing that justice in French India had many centers and many languages. Laurie Wood investigates changes in colonial law in the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756-1763), seeing the French Indian Ocean as a space of transfer for ideas, practices and persons between the Atlantic and British India. Blake Smith explores the intersection of colonial justice and Orientalist thinking about caste (a topic central to the historiography of the Raj) in the context of the French Revolution, in which 'caste' had become a keyword of republican political culture in the metropole.