“A Search for Sovereignty” by Lauren Benton

2010, 300 p & notes

Lauren Benton A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires 1400-1900

As a 1960’s schoolgirl, there was something rather comforting about all that red (or was it pink? or just faded?) territory on the map of the world that graced every classroom.  So much red; so neat and decisive.  In the same vein,  I think that John Howard was also drawing on the soothing idea of defined borders- so easy in an island continent- when he thundered that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

But as Lauren Benton argues in this book, borders (even for islands) are porous and contested. Although laws might be passed to regulate who comes, they often cannot be enforced-  or I’d suggest can only be enforced at significant financial and moral cost.  Nor did all that red on the map unfurl in an orderly, deliberate fashion.  Instead,  European control in new colonies was often “lumpy”. It was thick along river-banks, but sparse to non-existent inland; harsh on islands; cocooned in enclaves; and subsumed by the larger ‘law of the sea’ in open waters.

Benton divides her book into four geographical sites: rivers regions, oceans, islands and hill enclaves, and she ranges across a number of European empires to illustrate the contingent, fragile and contested nature of legal authority in these settings.

Rivers were “corridors of elusive but essential imperial control” and counterintuitively, it was the law of treason that colonists wielded against both whites and indigenous peoples perceived to be hindering exploration.  Quite a deft legal move there: using the crime of treason against people to whom legal protection was not offered!

She depicts the oceans as an even legal space, divided into long, thin zones of imperfect control that connected port towns, coasts, garrisons and islands.  Pirates and privateers drew on several competing legal regimes in drawing up commissions and in transacting privateering schemes, and they operated in the margins of the distinctions between the right to navigate and the right to exclude others from navigating.

Islands were used by empires as sites of exile with their own anomalous legal regimes (Van Diemens Land, Norfolk,…Guantanamo, Nauru,  Manus….) underpinned by military discipline of civilians and justified by evocations of vaguely defined emergency.  In such places,

…nature would corral criminals, military rule would ensure order, and systemic violence would respond to vaguely defined necessity (p.220)

Hills, too, were defined either as sites of lawlessness (think bushrangers in VDL, the maroons in Jamaica) or purity (Indian states- even Shangri-la??) and often became little enclaves, carved out and separate from surrounding legal, social and political regimes.

The structure of this book works well in explicating  the argument by jolting the reader loose from a focus on a particular territory or  empire. Instead, it ranges across the globe in exploring a geographical rather than territorial topic, and it includes Spanish, Dutch, English, Portuguese empires.  The structure also works chronologically as well, and the book ends with a  reminder of current fault lines between geography and law: the contentious status of Guantanamo Bay, the bare sovereignty offered to Iraq and Afghanistan, jurisdiction within US Indian reservations, and part-sovereign enclaves like Gaza.

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