Indian Ocean Lecture Series

Law in Theory, Law in Practice. Legal Orientalism and French Jesuit Knowledge Production in India

Lecture by Danna Agmon, followed by Q&A and drinks.
Organised by the Leiden Centre for Indian Ocean Studies (IIAS; KITLV; Leiden University). 

The Lecture
French missionaries in India studied local law, shared this work with legal scholars in the metropole, and fundamentally shaped eighteenth-century Orientalist discourses about Asian and global law.

Central to comparative legal scholarship of this period was a schematic account of Indian law written in 1714 by the Jesuit Jean-Venant Bouchet, a work that informed Montesquieu and Voltaire’s writings on comparative legal regimes. But how was Father Bouchet’s description of Indian law shaped by his lived experiences as a participant in legal disputes in India?

This paper considers this question through an analysis of Bouchet’s description of Indian law in light of his arrest in the town of Thakkolam in the Carnatic region, and resulting experiences in South Indian legal arenas. In doing so, this paper demonstrates how Catholic orientalist scholarship on law emerged from the daily practice of Jesuit conversion in the mission field.

Danna Agmon is a historian of French empire, specializing in the history of French India in the eighteenth century, with a PhD from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and associate professor in the History Department at Virginia Tech. 

Her book, titled A Colonial Affair: Commerce, Conversion, and Scandal in French India, is both a global history and a local history. Published in September 2017 by Cornell University Press, A Colonial Affair offers a comprehensive analysis of the competing French projects of trade and religion in the Indian Ocean at the turn of the eighteenth century. At the same time, it reveals how the life of one man – Nayiniyappa, the most senior Indian employee in the French colony of Pondicherry – was tragically upended by his enmeshment in the imperial project.


The Leiden Indian Ocean Lectures series is organised by the Leiden Centre for Indian Ocean Studies (Leiden University, KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and IIAS).


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