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Beyond Jurisdictions: Native Agency in the Making of Colonial Legal Cultures. A Review Essay

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 October 2015

Yanna Yannakakis*
Emory University


Colonial law as an arena for cultural contestation and hegemonic process has displaced an older view of law as a tool of imperial domination. Rich studies based on archival work in local judicial and notarial archives in Africa and the Americas, complemented by a wide range of sources from colonial and metropolitan archives, emphasize the role of indigenous peoples in shaping legal institutions, practices, bodies of law, and ideas about justice. We now understand that colonial legal culture was forged in diverse configurations of conflict and alliance that played out in remote village tribunals and metropolitan courts of appeal. However, the tyranny of the archives persists in that the written evidence favors—in descending order—the perspective of European legal thinkers and reformers, the functionaries of intermediate institutions like the magistrates and lawyers who operated in district courts, and litigants who included European settlers and native people. In colonial courts, the voices of native litigants and witnesses tend to be highly mediated through translation and transcription.

CSSH Discussion
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2015 

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1 The foundational work on colonial law as social control is Martin Chanock, Law, Custom, and Social Order: The Colonial Experience in Malawi and Zambia (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1998). For law as hegemonic process, see Berry, Sara, “Hegemony on a Shoe String: Indirect Rule and Access to Agricultural LandAfrica 62, 3 (1992): 327–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Susan Kellogg, Law and the Transformation of Aztec Culture, 1500–1700 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995).

2 Lauren Benton, Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

3 Benton, Lauren, “Introduction,” AHR Forum: “Law and Empire in Global Perspective,” American Historical Review 117, 4 (2012): 1092–100CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Merry, Sally Engle, “Legal Pluralism,” Law & Society Review 22 (1988): 869–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 870.

5 Tamanaha, Brian, “The Folly of the Social Scientific Concept of ‘Legal Pluralism,’Journal of Law & Society 20, 2 (1993): 192217 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Kristin Mann and Richard Roberts, eds., Law in Colonial Africa (Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Books, 1991), 8–9.

7 Burns, Kathryn, “Making Indigenous Archives: The Quilcaycamayoc of Colonial Cuzco,” Hispanic American Historical Review 91, 4 (2011): 665–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar; John Charles, Allies at Odds: The Andean Church and Its Indigenous Agents, 1583–1671 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010); Charles, John, “More Ladino than Necessary: Indigenous Litigants and the Language Policy Debate in Mid-Colonial Peru,” Colonial Latin American Review 16, 1 (2007): 2347 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Brian P. Owensby, Empire of Law and Indian Justice in Colonial Mexico (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008); Premo, Bianca, “Custom Today: Temporality, Customary Law, and Indigenous Enlightenment,” Hispanic American Historical Review 94, 3 (2014): 355–79CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Premo, Bianca, “Felipa's Braid: Women, Culture, and the Law in Eighteenth-Century Oaxaca,” Ethnohistory 61, 3 (2014): 497523 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; José Carlos de la Puente Luna, “The Many Tongues of the King: Indigenous Language Interpreters and the Making of the Spanish Empire,” Colonial Latin American Review 23, 2: 143–70; José Carlos de la Puente Luna, Los curacas hechiceros de Jauja: Batallas mágicas y legales en el Perú colonial (Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, 2007); Gabriela Ramos, “Indigenous Intellectuals in Andean Colonial Cities,” in Gabriela Ramos and Yanna Yannakakis, eds., Indigenous Intellectuals: Knowledge, Power, and Colonial Culture in Mexico and the Andes (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014); Yanna Yannakakis, The Art of Being In-Between: Native Intermediaries, Indian Identity, and Local Rule in Colonial Oaxaca (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008); Yanna P. Yannakakis, “Costumbre: A Language of Negotiation in Eighteenth Century Oaxaca,” in Ethelia Ruiz Medrano and Susan Kellogg, eds., Negotiation within Domination: New Spain's Indian Pueblos Confront the Spanish State (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2010), 137–71; Yannakakis, Yanna, “Witnesses, Spatial Practices, and a Land Dispute in Colonial Oaxaca,” The Americas 65, 2 (2008): 161–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Yanna Yannakakis, “Making Law Intelligible: Networks of Translation in Mid-Colonial Oaxaca,” in Gabriela Ramos and Yanna Yannakakis, eds., Indigenous Intellectuals: Knowledge, Power, and Colonial Culture in Mexico and the Andes (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014); Ana de Zaballa and Jorge E. Trasloheros, eds., Los indios ante los foros de justicia religiosa en la Hispanoamérica virreinal (México City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2010).

8 Sergio Serulnikov, Subverting Colonial Authority: Challenges to Spanish Rule in Eighteenth-Century Southern Andes (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

9 This idea is not new, but it has not been fully developed by historians. For foundational legal-anthropological work, see Sally Engle Merry, Colonizing Hawai`i: The Cultural Power of Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999). For interdisciplinary linguistic-historical work, see Martina Schrader-Kniffki and Yanna Yannakakis, “Sins and Crimes: Zapotec-Spanish Translation in Catholic Evangelization and Colonial Law (Oaxaca, New Spain),” in Klaus Zimmerman, Martina Schrader-Kniffki, and Otto Zwartjes, eds., Missionary Linguistics V/Lingüística Misionera V: Translation Theories and Practices (New York: John Benjamins Press, 2014), 161–99.

10 Johannes Fabian, Language and Colonial Power: The Appropriation of Swahili in the Former Belgian Congo 1880–1938 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

11 John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff have argued that Christian evangelization paved the way for capitalist transformation in South Africa through its effects on native epistemology, material culture, taste, and patterns of consumption; Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); and Of Revelation and Revolution: The Dialectics of Modernity on a South African Frontier (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). For the case of colonial Yucatán, William F. Hanks has demonstrated how the Franciscan program of reducción, including the rendering of Yucatec Maya into alphabetic form, a “Maya Reducido”; Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

12 A model work on this score is Katherine Luongo, Witchcraft and Colonial Rule in Kenya, 1900–1955 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).