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Art, Law, and the Freedom of the Seas in the Early Seventeenth Century

Thursday 20 December 2018
University Library
Witte Singel 27
2311 BG Leiden
Vossius Room

This is the first seminar in Global Art History and Heritage, a cooperation of the NWO-Vidi project “The Chinese Impact” at Utrecht University, the Leiden University Center of the Arts in Society, and University College Utrecht. It is organized by Stijn Bussels (LU),  Mary Bouquet (UCU), and Thijs Weststeijn (UU).

This paper addresses the relation between art and law in the Mare Liberum/Mare Clausum debate of the early 1600s. The question about the freedom of the world seas – or rather who owns the seas and the material riches that are transported via their waters – occupied the most prominent jurists of the early seventeenth century. As legal historians have recently shown, the debate had its origins in a specific historical event; namely, the Dutch capturing of a Portuguese cargo ship near present-day Singapore in 1603. The vessel, subsequently taken to Amsterdam, was full of spices, textiles, porcelain, precious stones and jewellery, yet accounts of the debate and the legal theory to which it gave rise have ignored these objects. My paper will examine the objects on board the ship in their interaction with this body of legal thought. How did such objects – of a variety of East Asian backgrounds, often produced for export – change as their legal status turned? And can a formal analysis of objects helpfully inform our understanding of categories like ‘booty’ and ‘spoil’?

Image caption: unknown artist, Prospect of Lisbon, 16th century, pen and washed ink drawing on paper, 75 x 245 cm, Leiden, Leiden University Library (detail)
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