Friday, August 17, 2018

A conversation between Bishara and Seng

In April, Comparative Studies in Society and History hosted an online exchange between two of its authors writing about law on opposite sides of the Indian Ocean. Here's the opening set-up for a conversation between Fahad Bishara, University of Virginia and Guo-Quan Seng, Cornell University:

LEGAL ANOMALY

FAHAD AHMAD BISHARA, “‘No country but the ocean”: Reading International Law from the Deck of an Indian Ocean Dhow, ca. 1900”

GUO-QUAN SENG, “The Gender Politics of Confucian Family Law: Contracts, Credit, and Creole Chinese Bilateral Kinship in Dutch Colonial Java (1850s–1900)”


In “No country but the ocean”: Reading International Law from the Deck of an Indian Ocean Dhow, ca. 1900,” Fahad Ahmad Bishara considers the legal imaginaries of Indian Ocean mariners sailing out of the port of Sur, on the Arabian Peninsula. Maritime legal culture entailed a domestication and vernacularization of international law, not least in the ways it was materially manifested in flags and, for these captains, efficacious French documents (titres). These objects-at-sea extended legal regimes of the land, but also refracted and transformed them to captains’ own idiosyncratic purposes. Flags and documents were used to foment exchanges far beyond what they actually secured or promised; for example, titres were freely transferred from one ship, and sailor, to another. Bishara recounts a microhistory of a 1905 court case of Muscat-based dhows suspected of slave-trading, arbitrated at the Hague. The essay reveals the affordances and limits presented to seafarers sailing under a French flag and bearing French papers, though on a mostly British sea. At the same time, it highlights the processes by which dhow captains from Sur appropriated these imperial technologies and grounded them in their own world, framing their encounter with the British navy as the latest in a long string of imperial entanglements at sea, and anchoring the French titres in a regional regime of safe-conduct passes.

Attending to a different form of legal anomaly, Guo-Quan Seng’s essay, “The Gender Politics of Confucian Family Law: Contracts, Credit, and Creole Chinese Bilateral Kinship in Dutch Colonial Java (1850s–1900)” documents the extraordinary economic power enjoyed by creole Chinese women in nineteenth-century Java. These women possessed inheritance rights and directed their household economies, often retaining substantial wealth independent from husbands’ debts or other family liabilities. Beginning in the 1860s, though, Dutch officials began to administer Chinese family law in the colonial courts, and they did so relying on abstract ideals of Confucianist ethics grounded in Sinological studies and formalist textual interpretations. Confucianist legal doctrines of the male as natural head of the household began to inform Dutch legal norms. As a result, by the 1880s women’s autonomous wealth was made vulnerable to husbands’ debt and obligations. Seng shows that Dutch Confucianism, installed in the name of Chinese “tradition,” deprived creole Chinese women of legal rights that they had long enjoyed in actual tradition and practice.

Follow the rest of the conversation here.

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