Universiteit Leiden

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Ocean of Law

Monday 7 December 2015 - Wednesday 9 December 2015
Pieterskerkhof 6
2311 SR Leiden

Legal history in connection with the Indian Ocean world is relatively a new field. Recent work by many scholars in this area has added value to the cultural history of such regions as South, Southeast and East Asia, and the Middle East and of the workings of imperial and colonial structures. Interdisciplinary research and cooperation of scholars working on early-modern and modern history of the broader Indian Ocean world help trace back the journeys of legal ideas and to reconstruct these legal histories.

Keynote lectures

Prof. Paul Halliday (University of Virginia) Longing for Certainty, Across Law’s Oceans

Legal historians have long been ‘realists', countering the claims of ‘formalists'. Our impulse, especially in recent decades, has been to write histories of law that focus on those in positions of weakness who used law in surprising ways, or on those who were subjected to law's most vicious possibilities. Realist accounts of law’s pluralities help explain both of these experiences. But for all the importance of socially- and culturally-informed understandings of law in complex cross-cultural interactions, legal formalism has to be taken seriously. After all, many in the past took formalism seriously—none more so, perhaps, than justices in imperial superior courts. Such courts were created across the Indian Ocean, and other oceans, too, in the century after 1763. In the face of law’s unavoidable pluralities, English judges in imperial courts longed for certainty. Why, and with what consequences? The answers connect legalities across the Indian Ocean and other oceans beyond.


Paul Halliday, “"Laws’ Histories: Pluralisms, pluralities, diversity” in Lauren Benton and Richard J. Ross, eds., Legal Pluralism and Empire, 1500-1850 (New York University Press, 2013), 261-77.

Paul Halliday is Julian Bishko professor of history and chair of the University’s Corcoran Department of History. He writes about the legal history of Britain and its empire from the 16th to 19th centuries. His most recent book, Habeas Corpus: From England to Empire, was published by Harvard University Press in 2010 and won the 2011 Inner Temple Book Prize. He frequently consults in the writing of briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court on issues connected to English legal history. Halliday's research has been supported by fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, and the American Philosophical Society. He is now working on two research projects: one exploring the archival and other material forms of judicial authority in the 18th century and the other concerned with the formation of the imperial constitution, and in particular, with the judicial role in the making of empire. Through all his work runs a persistent interest in rethinking English law’s history and the use of that history in U.S. courts, as well as an interest in the relationship of English law to other legal regimes around the globe.

Prof. Engseng Ho (Duke University and National University of Singapore) Islam across Cultures in the Indian Ocean: Legal, Mystical and Mythological Faces

Across the Indian Ocean, new societies, cultures and polities have been created and recreated by the constant mobility of people to places across cultures. Accounts of cross-cultural encounters -- the founding of settlements, coming of foreigners, and creation of sovereignties -- are widespread, and take many narrative forms, including mystical, mythological and legal ones. What changes in the movement from one genre form to another? What consequences do these changes have for the meanings and markings of lines of distinction and inclusion between persons and communities? This lecture places law next to other faces of Islam across cultures in the Indian Ocean.


Engseng Ho, “Mobile Law and Thick Transregionalism” Law and History Review 32: 04 (2014): 883-889

Fahad Bishara, “Paper Routes: Inscribing Islamic Law across the Nineteenth-Century Western Indian Ocean” Law and History Review 32: 04 (2014): 797-820.

Engseng Ho is professor of cultural anthropology and history at Duke University and Muhammad Alagil Distinguished Visiting Professor at National University of Singapore. He was previously Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University and Senior Scholar at the Harvard Academy. After graduating from Stanford with undergraduate degrees in economics and anthropology, Ho spent a few years as an international economist in Singapore before pursuing a masters and PhD at the University of Chicago. His dissertation on a society of Yemeni people that had a 500-year history of migration broke the mold of a traditional anthropology program that focuses on the study of contemporary society in one geographic locality. He spent two years in Yemen conducting research that revealed a rich history of a people who traveled throughout East Africa, the Arab world, India and Southeast Asia, intermarrying and contributing to the establishment of new Muslim religious, political and legal institutions. The dissertation grew into a book: The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean (University of California Press, 2006). He is currently interested in the international and transcultural dimensions of Islamic society across the Indian Ocean, and its relations to western empires. Ho also has conducted research in Saudi Arabia, India, and Southeast Asia.

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