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A wave of interdisciplinary scholarship in the last two decades has managed to place empires at the center of the history of international law. This article surveys key insights resulting from this move and assesses remaining challenges. In explaining how the study of law in particular imperial locations can illuminate global legal transformations, the article identifies cross-cutting themes of articles in this special volume.
For five centuries protection has provided a basic currency for organising relations between polities. Protection underpinned sprawling tributary systems, permeated networks of long-distance trade, reinforced claims of royal authority in distant colonies and structured treaties. Empires made routine use of protection as they extended their influence, projecting authority over old and new subjects, forcing weaker parties to pay them for safe conduct and, sometimes, paying for it themselves. The result was a fluid politics that absorbed both the powerful and the weak while giving rise to institutions and jurisdictional arrangements with broad geographic scope and influence. This volume brings together leading scholars to trace the long history of protection across empires in Asia, Africa, Australasia, Europe and the Americas. Employing a global lens, it offers an innovative way of understanding the formation and growth of empires and uncovers new dimensions of the relation of empires to regional and global order.
References to protection were ubiquitous across the early modern world, featuring in a range of transactions between polities in very different regions. And yet discourses about protection retained a quality of imprecision that makes it difficult to pin down precise legal statuses and responsibilities. It was often unclear who was protecting whom or the exact nature of the relationship. In this article, we interrogate standard distinctions about the dual character of protection that differentiate between ‘inside’ protection of subjects and ‘outside’ protection of allies and other external groups. Rather than a clear division, we find a blurring of lines, with many protection claims creatively combining ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ protection. We argue that the juxtaposition of these ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ meanings of protection underpinned the formation of irregular, interpenetrating zones of imperial suzerainty in crowded maritime arenas and conflict-ridden borderlands across the early modern world.
Historical research represents our richest vein of information about the workings of legal pluralism. Before the long nineteenth century, all legal orders featured jurisdictional tensions without strong claims of legal hegemony by states. In a world in which plural legal orders were the norm, multicentric jurisdictional orders created continuities across diverse regions and polities. What can we learn from the history of legal pluralism in considering its relation to economic development today? To begin, legal history can provide an analytic guide to grasping the complexities of current legal patterns and behavior. A particularly helpful rubric emerges out of studies of the legal history of empires. A second relevant finding confirmed by historical studies of plural legal orders, including and especially empires, consists in the observation that legal actors – again, at all levels – tended to show a preference over time for adjudication in forums that seemed to provide a greater possibility of enforcement of rulings. This paper examines these phenomena in early modern societies in order to lay the groundwork for analyzing legal pluralism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By keeping in view the jurisdictional jockeying of imperial legal orders, we gain new perspective on the role of legal pluralism at major turning points in the development of international law. In particular, it becomes possible to understand nineteenth century prohibition regimes as forming through jurisdictional restructuring within and across global empires – a view that contrasts with traditional narratives of the rise of international law. Similarly, understanding the pervasiveness and persistence of strategies of appealing to imperial legal authority allows us to appreciate the effects on legal behavior of robust claims to the dominance of state law over subordinate jurisdictions in the twentieth century.