Global Legal History on the Ground: Court Cases in African Archives

Global Legal History on the Ground: Court Cases in African Archives

Research Project

Africa is usually absent from Global Legal History debates. However, Africans engagement in normative production – including colonial normative production – was broad, rich and complex. The various facets of African agents’ active participation in normative production is still an understudied topic of Global Legal History in general and of the history of the Iberian empires in particular. While European conceptions of law were disseminated around the world during colonial expansion, we should not simply assume that they were the exclusive or even the most important normative framework operating in colonial societies and in colonial courts. There were moments where local population agency, their vernacular understandings of law, as well as non-European legal systems clearly played a pivotal role in the process of daily normative production. Working on local archives, with locally produced sources such as court cases, can be a method to overcome this blind spot.

Certain kinds of documents make the diffuse and entangled dynamics of normative production more evident than others. Court cases are very privileged in this sense, since they show the actual engagement of the local population in disputing the concrete meanings of legal norms and legal categories. They also allow us to better understand how the interaction of different normative systems shaped law and the resolution of conflicts in colonial societies. In doing Global Legal History, we should engage more seriously with local archives, since they hold documents, such as ordinary court cases, that better illustrate the participation of non-European agents in the process of producing normativities.

Court cases abound in Lusophone Africa archives. However, despite the richness of their collections, the documents are quite often unorganised and unidentified, which makes it very difficult for the academic community to make use of them. This project therefore seeks to overcome this obstacle by collaborating with local archives in identifying, preserving, organising and cataloging court case collections. In addition to the organisation of the local archives and the publication of instruments enabling the academic community to better access these sources, the project will also support research analysing such documents in order to highlight new perspectives on writing Global Legal History from the point of view of the daily normative production that took place in Portuguese colonial societies.

The forerunner of this project was a cooperation between Mariana Dias Paes (MPIeR), Mariana Candido (Emory University) and Juelma de Matos Ñgala (Universidade Katyavala Bwila/MPIeR). This cooperation both organised and compiled an inventory of part of the court case collection stored at the Tribunal da Comarca de Benguela. The collection comprises 2,034 court cases issued between 1850 and 1945 in the southern regions of Angola. An introduction to Angolan legal history and the inventory of the documents will be published in the Global Perspectives on Legal History series in 2021.

Currently, the “Global Legal History on the Ground” project comprises two initiatives. In partnership with researcher José Évora (Arquivo Nacional de Cabo Verde), the collection of court cases of the Arquivo Nacional de Cabo Verde is currently being inventoried. This inventory of the documents, along with an introduction to Cape Verde legal history, will be published in 2022.

In Guinea Bissau, the project is carrying out the identification, restoration and organisation of the collection of court cases held by the Arquivos Históricos Nacionais. The following step will be the preparation of an inventory and subsequent publication thereof.

Other initiatives include:

  • preparation of a research bibliography on court cases in the Iberian empires
  • production of an online video course on court cases in the Iberian empires
  • preparation of a guide to facilitate research on court cases in Lusophone Africa Archives, in co-authorship with Fernanda Thomaz (Universidade Federal de Juiz de Fora)
  • video interviews with experienced researchers who have worked with court cases in the Iberian empires

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