(Social): Session at the European Association for Urban History Conference: Cities in Motion 2020

This session explores early modern colonial cities as places where global imperial ambitions and local practices intersected in social categorization. Were ethnic and racial classifications, caste and legal status the product of deliberate policing by colonial institutions? What was the role of pre-existing practices and local agency in shaping the way categories were adopted in daily life?

Expanding European early modern empires ruled over populations that were culturally, religiously and ethnically diverse. While boundaries between categories remained porous, colonial institutions enacted legislation to control and categorize this diverse population based on their origin, occupation, gender and legal status among other factors. The formation and maintenance of these social categories are often described as a regulatory strategy employed by colonial authorities to facilitate efficient labor and taxation regimes, and cement European dominance in a divide et impera fashion.  In recent decades, however, scholars have shifted their approach to early modern practices of law from a rigid and coherent domination that was imposed on the local population to an institution that was shaped by individuals and social groups (Herzog 2004, Benton 2001). More recently, historians have applied the concept of ‘uses of justice’ in an early modern colonial setting where legal systems were one of many tools available to enforce horizontal and vertical social control (van der Heijden en Vermeesch 2019; Schrikker and Lyna 2019). Building on this historiography, this panel proposes to examine the intersection of local practices and top-down regulatory strategies (such as legislation, criminal persecution, and registration) in the formation of social categorizations in colonial (urban) societies.

The aim of the panel is to put the top-down model in conversation with multi-dimensional perspectives that consider two main aspects. Firstly, the dependence of colonial institutions on pre-existing local categories, registration practices and norms. And secondly, the bottom-up influence of local agents’ use of categorizations when engaging with colonial institutions to serve their own interests. Participants are encouraged to reflect on the question of local agency in the historiography of colonial societies. How can historians reconstruct the agency of indigenous and enslaved local actors using predominantly sources produced by the European institutions enacting control? And how can agency be conceived beyond the framework of resistance to top-down impositions? We are particularly interested in comparative contributions that consider European early modern empires in a global perspective and encourage crossing the artificial division between the Atlantic World, Maritime Asia and beyond.

  • Spokesperson: Elisabeth Heijmans, Leiden University
  • Co-organizer(s): Miguel Bandeira Jerónimo, University of Coimbra | Sophie Rose, Leiden University
  • Keywords: Social categorization | Colonial law | Diversity
  • Time period: Early modern period
  • Topic(s): Social
  • Study area: More than one continent