Manufacturing Diplomacy: Preprinted Treaties in the “Scramble” for Africa

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:20 AM
Columbia 12 (Washington Hilton)
Steve Harris, San Francisco State University
When Harry Johnston, H.M. Acting Consul in the Cameroons was threatened with being eaten while exploring the Cross River in 1887, he “extracted a Treaty form from [his] dispatch box, and three or four persons of prominence (or so they seemed) crowded into the canoe to make crosses on it….” A “Treaty form”? This was a far cry from the drawing rooms of Berlin where, two years earlier, the European powers had gathered to work out—through contentious discussion and drafting—the rules for commerce and navigation in Africa.

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.