Enclosure Movements of the 19th Century: Views from the Global South, Part 1: Part 1

AHA Session 175
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Beekman Room (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Aaron Jakes, New School for Social Research
Andrew Zimmerman, George Washington University

Session Abstract

Across what is today called the “Global South,” the nineteenth century witnessed sweeping transformations in ownership regimes. With growing demand for raw materials to fuel industrialization in the "Global North," liberal elites advocated for exclusive dominium rights disentangled from social obligations as the most adequate tool for “improvement.” The history of nineteenth-century colonialism can thus be told as a continuation of earlier enclosure movements: as an elite attack on the commons and on their associated moral economies, with some ill-fated popular resistance. This workshop aims to complicate this model. By the late nineteenth century, exclusive dominium was far from being a settled legal category either doctrinally or in actual practice. In many societies, ownership remained plural, with elites and the popular sectors not necessarily mapping their interests onto a straightforward divide between “communal” and “private” property --concepts whose very definitions varied even in "the North." The panel takes property regimes--formal and informal, “customary” and “liberal”--as a lens for generating new concepts and scales of analysis for studying "the Global South." It also aims to place in conversation methodologies that have been pitted against each other. Political economic histories of capitalism have been criticized for not paying enough attention to subaltern politics that fissured seemingly immutable systems. At the same time, social histories have been challenged for being too narrow to explain systemic change. Pondering anew upon the conflicts between these two approaches through attention to property could bring to light new analytics for engaging with materiality.

The presenters explore the contingencies and conflicts associated with the construction of property rights in India, Senegambia, and the Lusophone South Atlantic (with a focus on Angola), and how different actors interpreted such contingencies. All the papers point to plural understandings of justice and rights that new legal regimes and political economic conditions are trying to standardize. The first paper reconstructs the history of compensation cases relating to coal fires in the Jharia coalfield of eastern India. The paper analyzes legal justifications for the fires, and displacements of culpability, through scientific claims that coal fires are caused by spontaneous combustion. Key to such legal definitions of “spontaneity,” argues Shutzer, were orientalist discourses about the fecundity of tropical nature, which, coupled with the legal ambiguity of the standing of subterranean property claims in colonial law allowed for the displacement of culpability. The second paper explores Senegambian definitions of animals prior to the imposition of European colonial rule in the area, yet at a time when the European demand for ivory and hides was growing. The author shows that wild animals were made into property through their association with village lands. This cultural isomorphism sharpened as European demand increased, as villagers tried to lay claim to wildlife against competitors. The final focuses on the intersection and conflict of different legal normativities around land in Angola, a colony that the Portuguese invested renewed energy into after losing Brazil. This session will appeal to scholars interested in comparative history, legal history, political economy, and environmental history.