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As composite polities, empires were plural legal orders. Conquest, settlement, and rule depended on elaborate arrangements to manage the relation of imperial law to local or indigenous law. Calls for impartial justice in empires emerged in the context of intricate legal conflicts over order and rights, with varied institutional trajectories as the result. The rule of law in empires must be approached as part of the history of legal politics in fluid, fragmented systems of law.
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.
In 1636, the Dutch East India Company official, Joost Schouten sat down to pen an account of the kingdom of Ayutthaya, or Siam. He described what he saw as an exotic and utterly unfamiliar legal system, characterized by despotic excesses and unfathomable customs. This chapter outlines an approach on Alexandrowicz's insights about the emergence of a comprehensive law of nations and that recognizes the importance of empires to the international order without defining non-European law and sovereignty as problems that Western jurists and international lawyers had to solve. As with protocol and jurisdiction, the long nineteenth century brought important shifts in the way protection functioned internationally. A quality of imprecision in such basic understandings could provide valuable flexibility and prevent conflict. It sometimes also sharpened conflict by introducing new jurisdictional tensions, creating opportunities for flawed performances of protocol, or exposing the fictions embedded within offers of protection.