Sood, Gagan D. S.
Sovereign justice in precolonial maritime Asia: the case of the Mayor's court of Bombay, 1726–1798.
From the beginning of the nineteenth century, remarkable developments in the realm of law were witnessed throughout the world. They expressed and paved the way for a new type of dispensation. For those parts of Asia and the Middle East with a substantial European presence, the legitimate rules, principles, and procedures for resolving disputes were progressively assimilated into systems of state-sanctioned legal pluralism. The process—at once gradual, charged, and punctuated—coincided with the initial consolidation of European imperial dominance and the emergence of Europe's modern global empires.
Though these changes in the realm of law date from the nineteenth century, the European presence there had long preceded them. This was perhaps most notable in maritime Asia. The Europeans in this region tended to cluster in their factories or in certain quarters of the towns and cities dotting the Indian Ocean rim. Notwithstanding differences between, say, a Mocha and an Aceh in size, location, and form of government, all these settlements had one quality in common: each was able to profit from the traffic conducted along the coast or across the high seas. As for the sovereign justice on offer, the dispensation that governed it in early modern times was far removed from its later analogue. This stemmed in large part from the rationale and basis for the European presence. In particular, Europeans could not dominate maritime Asia's provincial and imperial powers, especially those located inland, and the great majority of those arriving from western Europe intended to return as soon as possible; despite some involvement in racketeering and other forms of surplus extraction—famously in attempts to introduce and enforce a system of passports in maritime transport and travel—their interests were mainly commercial, oriented towards trade and shipping; the indigenous populations remained on the whole large and resilient; and many of the skills and techniques vested in livelihoods long associated with the region retained their primacy. As a result, the only realistic option for Europeans in maritime Asia was to reconcile themselves to the prevailing order. And this they did, with most of the region's fundamentals, not least in the realm of law, continuing to develop along what were essentially indigenous lines.
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