Reporting and Interpreting Legal Violence in Asia: the East India Company's accounts of torture, 1603-24

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This article examines how printed accounts of torture can reveal the ways the law was experienced, interpreted and reported by the East India Company (EIC) during the early decades of the seventeenth century. It will explore how the company came to impose its own interpretation of the law when interacting with local powers and people while simultaneously attempting to adapt to and operate within existing legal systems in early modern Asia. This careful balance—sustaining English law while accepting the restraints of a different legal system—was essential in a region where merchants and other travellers moved through areas criss-crossed with overlapping jurisdictions. Interactions with locals often turned violent, even when under the protection of local states, and the English used legal violence to sustain their position in Asia as much as they were threatened by its use by others. Concepts of how the law operated were far from simple and overlapping legal institutions, customs and ideas resulted in numerous moments of competition as different legal structures were imposed simultaneously. The company was forced to think carefully about these issues when law and violence came together during the most violent aspect of judicial enquiry—torture. To assess how the EIC thought about the law and how this influenced the development of their imperial policies this article will focus on how information regarding the law—in its most extreme application—was reported to an English and European audience through the careful presentation of information regarding events in Asia.

It will focus on two case studies where torture was experienced by English merchants—and where accounts were deemed important enough for reportage and printed distribution. The accounts considered here, reporting the experience of torture in Bantam in 1603 and in Amboyna in 1623, were carefully developed and distributed by the company and intended to effectively present its ideas regarding the law and jurisdiction in the developing world of global commerce and empire. In the first, we see the English factors at Bantam seeking to operate within the parameters of the local rulers but increasingly turning to their own understanding of the law in response to threats. The account of this episode reveals how the company justified the seizure of legal authority through the effective interpretation of both English ideas of proof and their own grasp of international law. The second account covers an opposing scenario, where Dutch merchants seized legal authority over the English in contravention—or so the company claimed—of the law of nature and failing to effectively follow the rules of law regarding proof. Across the two accounts we see how the company struggled to come to terms with the ways it interpreted the law. This is turn defined how it developed policies regarding its role overseas, and the reporting of these legal encounters in England changed the way that other parts of the world and the challenges of international trade were understood.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)603-626
JournalThe Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History
Issue number4
Early online date23 Mar 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • empire
  • global
  • imperial
  • history
  • corporate
  • law
  • print
  • torture


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