Making International Law in Africa and Asia, 1850–1900

AHA Session 280
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 9
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Columbia 12 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Jonathan Chappell, New York University Shanghai
The Audience

Session Abstract

Scholars of international legal history such as Lauren Benton and Lisa Ford (Rage for Order: The British Empire and the Origins of International Law 1800-1850, 2016) have recently highlighted that international law was forged as much at sites of empire, by merchants, adventurers and consuls, as it was by jurists operating in the heart of Europe. While Benton and Ford argue that the early nineteenth century was pivotal for the formation of international law, this panel examines its continued development in Africa and Asia in the second half of the nineteenth century. At the start of this period international law was a tool of empires, providing legitimacy for imperial interventions or impositions upon extra-European peoples. Nonetheless its application depended in part on the political realities of each colonial context allowing some non-western actors to co-opt international legal rhetoric. This period was vital for defining modern international law which continues to be uneven in its global application.

Jon Chappell explores the role of international legal discourse in containing the Sino-French war (1884-1885) so that it did not disrupt the trading interests of other powers, particularly Britain and America. He argues that the plurality of foreign empires acting in China created space for Qing officials to become involved in legal discourse and thus to help define the boundaries of the conflict and of legal precedents. Steve Harris investigates the flat-pack legalism of the European use of pre-printed treaty forms across Africa in the 1880s and 1890s. European powers (and their chartered companies) aimed to create a legally homogenous terrain as much for their inter-imperial relations as for their commercial and jurisdictional activities with Africans. Mithi Mukherjee examines how the discourse of international law supplanted discussion of sovereignty in the discourse surrounding the trial for treason of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, the legally recognised sovereign of India, following the rebellion of 1857. Finally, Zak Leonard discusses the application of international law in India through a case study of the return of sovereignty to the Hindu Wadiyar dynasty of Mysore in 1867. The debates surrounding this decision helped to forge an understanding of sovereignty and who might hold it in British India, with implications for other parts of the empire. Together the four papers make the case that contemporary international law cannot be understood without acknowledging its roots in colonial encounters in the extra-European world. Within this encounter, ‘law’ was forged as much by diplomats, soldiers and sailors as it was by European jurists. At a global level ‘international’ law was unevenly applied, with notions of sovereigns and sovereignty depending as much on inter-imperial power politics as on legal precedent.

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