La Tinaja

Review: Lauren Benton, A Search For Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900

16 Feb 2015

For the last six months or so, I’ve been working a lot with what it means to discuss a ‘maritime empire’ in the sixteenth century. Colloquially, at least, we understand empires to make claims and to control territories and their inhabitants. More subtly, however, we might define imperial rule as ruling through the extension of power across space. Few empires in history have exerted direct control over the territories they claimed. In fact, the techniques of building and maintaining successful empire seem primarily to be those that facilitate the projection of authority in places where representatives of the imperial authority are scarce or even absent: negotiated rule through local proxies; surveying expeditions, censuses, and public health campaigns; trading regulation (or the equally ideological promotion of a free trade regime). Using this more abstract definition of the tools of empire and separating them from a focus on controlling territory allows us greater flexibility to relate the diverse forms imperial rule has taken in different historical and geographical contexts to one another.

My selfish interest in these questions has to do with understanding what it means to talk about ‘maritime empire,’ specifically in connection to the sixteenth-century Spanish maritime enterprise. The typical exemplars for the period are the Portuguese, but in their case the ‘maritime’ perhaps more accurately describes the between commercial enclaves than the space they claimed themselves. For imperial space to include the marine spaces that connected these enclaves, there would need to be a logic that described, organized, and ordered that space. In order to become a place that the Portuguese (and others) could have understood to be ‘theirs,’ these intervening spaces needed to be made part of a coherent order. In the absence of an organizing scheme, the seas remained no-places passed on the way to somewhere else.

Lauren Benton’s recent study of the interaction of legal and geographical discourses in defining sovereignty took these questions as its jumping off point: what does it mean when we discuss ‘maritime empire’ given the separation of sovereignty and terrioriality inherent in the term? This question led her to a general exploration of the development of colonial and international legal regimes and their connection to geography and, more specifically, to geographical discourse. In terms of the history of empire, this approach contributes to our understanding of the layered, overlapping, and intersecting spheres of influence, law, and tradition that shaped understanding of sovereignty in the period of European global empires.1 In terms of methodology, it marks an important contribution to our tools for thinking spatially about historical processes.

Benton organizes each chapter around a geographical feature or category—rivers, the sea, islands, and mountain enclaves—and explores the ways the physical space and the cultural imagination of these geographies shaped legal and political processes. These spatial categories carry her through five centuries of an evolving balance between the local and the imperial in defining sovereignty. For example, the practical and symbolic importance of rivers in making territorial claims raised the stakes of conflicts over authority, loyalty, and subjecthood on early expeditions of reconnaissance in riverine regions. Islands, for their part, provided bounded places that could be both enclaves of imperial authority and spaces of exception subject to the extreme whims of individual imperial governors.

Most chapters rest on comparisons of case studies taken from the British and Spanish empires. The Dutch appear frequently in earlier chapters. The United States arrives towards the end. This framework attaches the work to an Atlantic World historiographical tradition of comparing the English and Spanish exemplified, for example, by J.H Elliott’s Empires of the Atlantic World; however, in moving into the wars for independence and decolonization struggles in the successor states of these empires creates a chronological and geographical continuity that carries this narrative into a global twentieth century not often attempted by scholars working in the Atlantic paradigm. In this way, the work connects the well-developed study of the early modern Atlantic World to developing trends in transnational and Pacific World histories.

I’ve come to Benton’s work through my interest in developing contrasts between the chronology of spatial organization in the Spanish maritime enterprises in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. In short, I am interested in how lessons learned by developing the relatively predictable routing and schedule of the Indies Trade in the Atlantic were applied to the as yet uncharted Pacific by Spanish navigators and the institutions that supported them. It was this systematized, institutional approach (and the opportunity for iterating on past experience) that was lacking in the early experience of the Portuguese connecting commercial enclaves I mentioned above. In this sense, the Spanish crown of the sixteenth century provides a more robust case for examining maritime empire: the Spanish maritime enterprise developed techniques and vocabularies for organizing and bounding marine space itself, rather than simply facilitating its traversal. Benton’s chapter on the law and the geographical discourse of the sea, unsurprisingly, focuses primarily on the work of Hugo Grotius, but her explication of Grotius’s seventeenth-century maritime legal vocabulary as it relates to space bears the hallmarks of the spatial techniques navigators on Spanish vessels employed in the previous century.

The contemporary consequences for this exploration of the role of geographical discourse and space in the development of legal regimes of empire are profound. The two empires to which Benton devotes the most attention—the Spanish and the British—are as representative of the historical moments in which their empires fell apart as they are in their coming to be. In terms of territory, the vast majority of the Spanish lost their empire in large part to a series of wars of independence that were part of the hemispheric tumult of late eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century revolutions, while the British empire’s dissolution exemplifies the decolonization the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. Interestingly, while the United States only slides into Benton’s picture in its final stages, it is the ramifications of US empire for legal sovereignty that appear to pose uniquely twenty-first century problems.

Benton concludes by proposing that understanding the uneven and overlapping dynamics of legal strategy and power that define sovereignty can help us to understand contemporary spaces of exception such as Guantánamo Bay. US foreign and military policy, particularly in this era of the War on Terror, rely increasingly on these spaces of exception where sovereignty is twisted and becomes murky. Benton’s work showing the means by which these spaces of exception have been created over time provides insight both into the way that imperial power acts on these spaces, but also some hope that local conditions may still frustrate the dominant paradigm.

  1. Benton specifically limits herself to the European empires of the early modern and modern periods, particularly the English or British and Spanish cases. Her decision to do so reflects her focus on legal history; the common legal foundations of the western European examples facilitates this approach in a way that comparing the British and Russian empires, for example, would become more difficult. It is important to remember, however, that this layering metaphor for the sources of sovereignty helps explain many imperial contexts. Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper’s overview, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference, applies this perspective to imperial strategies from ancient China to the United States in the twenty-first century.