For historians of the Indian Ocean, the stakes in thinking about law and economic life are very high. As a key arena of world history, the Indian Ocean world has emerged as a site for reflecting on issues of connectivity and circulation, and for writing histories that cover broad spans of space and time. Many of these histories—and indeed, the pioneering works in the field—have focused on matters of trade and empire, the twin pillars of world history more broadly. Since around 2000, research has taken on different forms of migration as well as matters of ideology, culture, epidemiology, and more, but many of these discussions are still built on foundations of trade and empire: people, books, ideas, and diseases primarily circulate through networks forged via trade or through imperial channels. All of it, however, requires a rigorous engagement with questions of law, which undergirded production and trade in the region. The history of law and economic life in the Indian Ocean might be mapped onto three arenas. First, law played an important role in the politico-economic constitution of empires (Muslim or otherwise) in the Indian Ocean. Beyond that, though, one must consider the legal dynamics of trade networks within this world of empires, examining the intersecting private-order and public mechanisms that merchants drew on to regulate their commercial affairs. And finally, the histories of law, empire, and economic life all intersected in courtrooms around the Indian Ocean world, as economic actors took their disputes to different tribunals, shaping the contours of the legal history of the region.
Fahad Ahmad Bishara
Sebastian R. Prange
Piracy has been an important and persistent feature of Asia’s maritime history. In fact, the largest pirate organizations in all of history were found in Asia. Although often regarded as the antithesis of trade, piracy is actually closely related to the world of commerce. Pirates were themselves often traders (or smugglers) and relied on merchants to outfit their ships and sell their plunder. Despite the obvious and primary economic dimension of piracy, pirates were also political actors. This observation is significant because piracy has traditionally been distinguished from other forms of maritime predation (especially privateering, but also naval warfare) by stressing its supposedly inherently private nature. In Asia, however, the history of piracy is very much defined by its political contexts. Pirates themselves formed polities, whether as part of established coastal communities or in their endeavors to build their own states. What is more, as was the case in Europe, pirates often colluded with territorial states that used them as an instrument of state power, in order to harass and weaken their rivals. The political dimension of Asian piracy has long been overlooked due to the preponderance of European concepts and sources, which tend to depict all Asians involved in maritime predation as mere criminals. More nuanced studies of Asian pirates, especially when based on non-European sources, promise fresh insights into the commercial, social, and political worlds of maritime Asia.
The Dutch East India Company, also known by its historic initials VOC, was a chartered trading company that was active between 1602 and 1795. Formed by a merger of six smaller trading firms that traded in the East Indies and backed by a monopoly of trade, this proto-conglomerate emerged as a driving force in globalization, transregional investment, and early European colonization in Asia and Africa. The VOC operated as a profit-driven shareholder corporation and at the apex of its power, around the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, maintained a series of factories and settlements stretching from Cape Town in Southern Africa, the Malabar and Coromandel coasts of India, Bengal, to insular and mainland Southeast Asia and as far as Taiwan (Formosa) and Japan. Chartered companies possessed considerable investments and infrastructure outside Europe, especially with their administrative apparatus, contacts, business networks, and trading knowledge. This in turn laid the foundations for Dutch imperialism during the 19th century.
Kevin P. McDonald
Defining European piracy in the Indian Ocean is a complicated task and depends entirely on competing definitions and perspectives. As newcomers to the region, Europeans inserted themselves, often violently, into a complex long-distance trade system that had functioned relatively smoothly for centuries before the Portuguese arrival in 1498. Divergent cultural norms, particularly long-standing religious differences, were a central issue for the militantly Catholic Iberians, as they did not accept nor respect claims of sovereignty from local Muslim and Hindu rulers. Among Europeans, a similar dynamic applied after the Reformation, as rising Protestant empires, such as the Dutch and British, began to compete with the Portuguese, and each other, for control of the lucrative Indian Ocean commodities and markets as they battled for global trade dominance. Since the total number of Europeans in the region at any given moment remained quite low relative to the size of the Indigenous populations, they relied on violence and coercion to achieve their economic objectives. The persistence of European piracy in the Indian Ocean exposes a long-standing interconnected Indo-Atlantic world that is yet to be fully integrated into the historical narratives regarding European imperial and Atlantic histories.
Japan’s first movement for civil rights emerged in the 1870s, and a small number of women were part of it. Women’s legal status was significantly inferior to men’s in the pre–World War II era, and feminists struggled for decades to improve it. Their activism in transnational organizations often gave them a voice they did not have at home. For example, the Japanese branch of the International Woman’s Christian Temperance Union worked to end international sex trafficking, licensed prostitution, and marital inequality. The Japanese cultural world took a feminist turn in the second decade of the 20th century. Increasing numbers of women entered the classroom as teachers, nurses served on the battlefield and in hospitals, and actresses performed in plays like A Doll’s House. Many of these women were called “New Women,” and an explicitly women’s rights organization, founded in 1919, called itself the New Woman’s Association. When the Tokyo earthquake killed 100,000 people and destroyed millions of homes in 1923, women’s organizations of all types—Christian, Buddhist, alumnae, housewives, and socialists—coalesced to carry out earthquake relief. The following year, several of those groups decided to address women’s political rights. The Women’s Suffrage League grew from this collaboration in 1924. Annual Women’s Suffrage Conferences brought together women of diverse organizations from 1930 to 1937. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Japanese feminists also made their voices heard through transnational organizations, including the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association. When Japanese militarism at home and abroad repressed freedom of expression in the 1930s, feminist groups continued to meet, turning to community activism (like improving municipal utilities) and nonthreatening feminist legislation (the Mother-Child Protection Law of 1937). During World War II, many feminists accepted government advisory positions to improve the lives of women and families, viewing this as a step toward greater political integration. By the 1980s, however, feminists strongly critiqued prewar feminists for collaboration with the wartime government. Women voted for the first time in 1946. In 1947, the new Constitution granted equal rights, the new Civil Code eradicated most of the patriarchal provisions of the 1898 Civil Code, and the Labor Standards Law called for equal pay for equal work. Nevertheless, women continued to face discrimination in the workplace, at home, and even in the law. Feminists supported the United Nations International Women’s Year (1975) with vigor. Since then, they have successfully advocated for strengthened employment and child-care leave laws as well as anti–domestic violence laws. But gender-neutral legislation has been hotly contested and has led to a backlash against feminism in general.