Frontier Law: Land, Territory, and Justice on the Edges of the Pacific World (Chile and the Philippines, 1750-1860)

Frontier Law: Land, Territory, and Justice on the Edges of the Pacific World (Chile and the Philippines, 1750-1860)


The 19th century witnessed a growing interdependence between cities and frontiers. The processes of intensive urbanization, spatial expansion, and increasing concentration of the population experienced by cities in the 19th century was complemented by their insertion into ever more complex networks that connected them to distant markets and sources of supply. Cities, in this sense, became increasingly detached from their immediate rural surroundings for the provision of food, raw materials, and basic commodities. As such, “the opposite extreme of the ‘city’ [was] no longer ‘country’, the realm of farming, but rather ‘frontier’: the moving boundary of resource development” (Osterhammel, 2014, 322). Migration towards the frontier, as the counterimage of migration towards the cities, produced an increasing demand for agricultural land in world regions that had sustained subsistence economies and had remained relatively isolated from national and world markets.

Taking this context into consideration, my project focuses on the shifts in local legal practices and institutions that intervened in the distribution of land and in the resolution of conflicts around land in frontier spaces both in Chile and in the Philippines. Both regions were tied to the expansion of the Spanish crown towards the Pacific and were thus influenced by early-modern juridical practice and the transformations of law during the 19th century. As such, by observing the discrete operation of law in the process of buying, selling, and claiming land, this project focuses on how law operated in indigenous territories during the process of European expansion and how the changes in law in the course of the 19th century reshaped everyday life in these spaces.

The main argument is that both contexts, tied as they were to global circulations of legal knowledge, should reveal a similar evolution in the manner in which claims to land were handled: while until the early 19th century the jurisdictional logic of law allowed for the existence of hybrid legal institutions, and legal practices were guided by local circumstances and adjusted to vernacular normative orders, the emergence of the paradigm of individual rights thereafter gave primacy to formal and abstract criteria in determining the allocation of land. In other words, by exploring two cases of ‘peripheries of peripheries,’ this project studies how interactions between the Spanish empire and local indigenous populations shaped the practice of law, how it created hybrid normative institutions, and how the normative diversity and autonomy of colonial peripheries eroded in the context of modernization and state formation.

Jaques Nicolas Bellin « Carte réduite des mers comprises entre l’Asie et l’Amérique, apelées par les navigateurs Mer du Sud ou Mer Pacifique. » 1776. Courtesy of Princeton University Library.

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