Policing mobility through protection: social knowledge and legal practices in the 19th-century British Empire

Research Project

This project studies how the social and administrative framework of ‘protection’ provided the historical site for the development and implementation of legal practices aimed at making the mobility and circulation of indentured labourers and Indigenous peoples governable and profitable for the British colonial state. This mobility, in fact, was not to be halted but instead regulated and secured by law, and thereby divested of any disorderly feature or criminal potential. From this perspective, protection was intimately connected with policing, which, from the early 19th century onward, was increasingly understood as a crime-prevention activity. The language of protection also offered a justification for the acquisition of social knowledge about these potentially troublesome imperial subjects; data collection and intelligence gathering, in turn, provided the investigatory work preliminary to the outlining of social policies and the passing of legal measures.

The framework of protection is wide enough to include individual legal actors embracing a protective rhetoric and the administrative stations officially tasked with the implementation of protective policies. By combining the approaches of legal and biographical history, this project analyses legal actors such as the missionary Louis Giustiniani. The first European to provide Indigenous prisoners with legal representation in Western Austrian counts, he performed a de facto protective role in the 1830s. Furthermore, this research will focus on the least studied type of protective station, which was also the most strongly tied to the government purpose to contain and regulate mobility: the Protectorates of Chinese Immigrants, which were established mid-century in Hong Kong and the Australian colony of Victoria and subsequently across the Straits Settlements, starting with the Chinese Protectorate that opened in Singapore in 1877.

As it analyses the interrelation between the ‘responsibility to protect’ and the imperial self-arrogated duty to police and reform the mobility of subjects perceived as potential security threats to the order of colonial societies, this project will look at, among other aspects, debates around the necessity to recognise Indigenous peoples as entitled to the legal status of British subjects and thus subject to English law; at ordinances and laws regulating the movement and employment of indentured labourers; and at the criminalisation of supposedly ‘habitual’ lawbreakers by the colonial state. By analysing a wide array of sources, including court records, legal and administrative treatises, correspondences and newspaper articles, this research will further the study of the legal history of the British Empire.

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