Fluid Histories: Swamps, Law and the Company-State in Colonial Bengal

In: Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient
Debjani Bhattacharyya Drexel University

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The movement of the Hughli River in 1804-5 resulted in the deposition of alluvion along Calcutta’s river banks which unfolded as an ownership crisis for the East India Company. The Company responded by developing new legal categories and administrative language to manage these newly formed lands and thereby fashioning itself as a public agent of Calcutta’s land and landed property. Focusing on specific legal aspects of colonial hydrology that arose in the making of property in these amphibious spaces, the article argues that the soaking ecology of Bengal became a site for productive law-making by creating open-ended possibilities for taking land. It demonstrates how the Company used this new land formation to gradually institute a legal architecture regulating alluvion and dereliction and subsequently subjecting these soaking ecologies to an intricate documentary regime with the aim of disciplining the existing landed property relations in Calcutta. Documenting the haphazard extension and enactment of these new legal doctrines in a mobile landscape illuminates a particular history of the colonial regime of property and the Company-State’s early articulations of a particular type of quasi-eminent domain as a manner of taking land. Pushing a new direction in legal geography, the piece shows how the legal arena became a productive site for geographical knowledge production and legal experimentation in the colony.

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