The 1880s saw a unique confluence of means, motives, and opportunities which led European states and their agents on African frontiers to enter into hundreds of pre-printed form treaties with local chiefs. While printing would seem wholly unremarkable in most other contexts; to those who carried a bundle of such treaty forms, their ordinariness was itself a symbol of the modern civilization which they represented. By treating indigenous groups as interchangeable counterparties to their agreements, the new tools carried by these diplomats in canoes carried both the benefits of expediency and the problems of alienation. The modern mass production of international law—made by relatively unskilled labor, in bulk, with limited variation—had arrived.
This paper will trace the origins and use of pre-printed treaty forms by the Belgians, French, British (including their corporate stalking horses) and, apparently, the Dutch and Portuguese as well, between 1880 and 1895. It will explore the implications of this technique for understanding the cultures of international law, diplomacy, and empire.
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