Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Building cultures of legality: a long term analysis of colonial commissions

What were the underlying practices and anxieties of colonial lawmaking?

2018 - 2022

This research project takes up the complex task of understanding the process of law-making in a colonial society where legal pluralities were the norm. It analyses the development of ideas about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘just rule’ through the lens of colonial commissions of inquiry, and traces the encounters and underlying anxieties of the lawmaking process.

As John Comaroff has argued, the best way to understand what colonialism entailed is through studying the cultures of legality that constituted colonialism. I focus on the process of the production of eighteenth and nineteenth-century ordinances that were issued from the office of the Governor General in Batavia. These ordinances were very diverse and range from instructions for tax farming to the issue of travel passes or criminal punishments. When lawmaking arose out of local issues, as was frequently the case, it was often preceded by a commission of inquiry, composed of prominent colonial officials. Such commissioners would travel down to the specific locality to draw up advise.

Through the compelling example of the so-called pauper commission in the 1860s, Ann Stoler has shown how important it is to understand the work of these commissions in the making of colonial culture. The daily reality of commissions that I study reveals a responsive process of lawmaking that more often than not resulted from practical problems, local tensions and lack of knowledge, which the law had to solve. I explore to what extent the self-image and colonial prejudices contained in the process of lawmaking influenced the institutional memory of colonial institutions in Asia and, subsequently, the political world in the Netherlands.

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