Monday, October 7, 2019

A World of Law in a Scrap of Paper

In my last post, I suggested that writing the history of law in a space like the Indian Ocean “means that we have to rid ourselves of any singular, grounded notion of what “law” is, and take in a polyphonic world of multiple legalities, of circulations, of connections, and (invariably) of translations.” It sounds like a lofty goal – and in some ways it is – but if the growing literature on global history has taught us anything, it is that these sorts of histories are not just possible, they are eminently manageable.




I would, of course, love to see a macro-scale legal history of the Indian Ocean that tracks circulations and connections of different forms of law over the course of several hundred years, and I imagine that in time we will arrive at the kind of broad synthesis. As I mentioned in my last post, there is a lot of excellent work being done on the legal history of the Indian Ocean, across space and time.

For most of us, though, a macro-level legal history is neither realistic nor desirable. Although there have been some excellent legal histories of the broad, sweeping, synthesizing nature, the life-blood of the field is in the fine-grained archival research that allows historians to see the texture of the legal experience. Legal historians are quintessential archive rats: we live for the dusty volumes and case files, and for all of the stories therein. It’s no wonder, then, that the field has so enthusiastically embraced microhistory (and vice versa – though there are caveats here, which I might reflect on in another post); the archival foundation of legal history lends itself so damn well to good storytelling.

Indian Ocean historians are only now beginning to write the sorts of legal microhistories that have long left an imprint on the field: recent books by Sue Peabody and Danna Agmon, for instance, showcase exactly how gripping a good legal drama told in the Indian Ocean world can be. For the most part, though, Indian Ocean history is built on narratives of movement – of mobilities, of circulation, and of transregional connection. The best books in the field (of Indian Ocean history, that is, not Indian Ocean legal history as such) trace the movements of merchants, laborers, scholars, and showcase the geographies that they conjured up – movements between South Asia and East Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Arabia and Indonesia, and more.

I didn’t set out to write that kind of history myself. I actually began with a much more basic (and maybe embarrassingly sociological) set of questions about merchant networks and legal institutions. I had hoped to find letters that would help shed light on matters of business cooperation, and to use those to make a broader point about institutions and regional trade. I never found letters, and I am immensely thankful for that, for two reasons. First, as it turns out (I’m reading lots of letters now), letters were, for the most part, incredibly boring; business partners, I now know, rarely wrote to one another about anything interesting. But more importantly, what I had thought was a research disaster turned out to be a form of the kind of felicity we historians so often thrive on. For in my search for letters, I found contracts: debt deeds, really, and in the thousands. And what started out as an overly-sociological project turned into something that had to be rebuilt from the ground up.

The contracts – really, debt instruments – were surprisingly very interesting. They involved actors from around the Indian Ocean, and underpinned transactions in all sorts of different goods. There was an unmistakable genre form that I could see in them, but there was also a much broader picture in there on debt and its place in Indian Ocean economic life – and as it turned out, legal life as well.

What I ended up doing in my book A Sea of Debt was to take this genre of contract, and trace its journeys – its career, really – over the course of around 150 years. And while I had read thousands of these, I discussed the form as a single, generic instrument. Why? Well, through the story of one, I felt that I could tell the story of thousands. In one instrument, one could see the palimpsest of a long debate over the place of debt, writing, and commerce in economic life – one that, in the Indian Ocean world, took on a new urgency with the commercial changes that marked the nineteenth century. By peeling apart the layers of these discourses in the document itself, I could give my account of law and economic life in the Indian Ocean more granularity than I could have otherwise done. And in peeling apart those layers, I was actually reconstructing a vision of law itself: not one that projected outwards from legal treatises, but that I built upwards from the practices of everyday economic life.

But the instrument allowed me to do more than just dive deep into its intellectual history. It had a life, too: it changed hands, it was inscribed upon, it was registered in different institutions, and it was fought over in different legal forums – and it bore the imprint of those layers of history as well! Put differently, it circulated – and it allowed me the opportunity to circulate with it as well. So in addition to unpacking the layers of discourses present in the document itself, I was able to move around with it, from one institution to another, and from one corner of the Western Indian Ocean to another.

Which brings me back to the discussion of scale that I started this (now excessively long) post with. To write legal histories that play out over a broad space, one doesn’t need a birds-eye view of the past. As global historians have reminded us many times over now, one can just as fruitfully bring the scale of analysis down – down to the single instrument, which we can then read carefully and follow around. And from that micro perspective – from the vantage point of a single scrap of paper – we might be able to write what Engseng Ho called “a transregionalism that is thick, socially and historically.”

--Fahad Bishara

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