Law and Empire in the Pacific: Intersections of Culture and Legality

Advanced Seminar

March 18–22, 2001

An interdisciplinary group of scholars met for “Law and Empire in the Pacific: Private Intersections of Culture and Legality,” an advanced seminar that considered the legacies of colonial and postcolonial legal arrangements in Hawai’i and Fiji. These legacies and their relationships to the current state of crisis in Hawai’i and Fiji were also examined. The diversity of the participants resulted in “exciting and wonderful conversations, as well as interesting analytical dilemmas,” reported Sally Engle Merry, who served as seminar co-chair with Donald Brenneis.

“Our goal was to understand today’s crises—such as political instability, ethnic tension, and resistance to indigenous land claims—in terms of the histories and legacies of law in the past as it is being created and recreated in the present,” said Brenneis. “Our discussions focused on variations in land ownership, kinship systems, political organization, historical events, conceptions of culture and race, and British and American colonial strategies. Law was a central but not exclusive concern.”

The seminar explored these intersections in a historical and contemporary context through detailed comparisons of Hawai’i and Fiji: two societies that share many features of social composition and historical experience yet differ in their form of legal colonization. The United States colonized Hawai’i; England colonized Fiji. Both Fiji and Hawai’i, Pacific societies with long traditions of chiefdom, became sugar plantation societies in the nineteenth century. Indigenous populations were forced to share space and resources with a small colonizing elite of predominantly European background amid growing ranks of workers imported from economically depressed regions. In both situations, colonial authorities constructed vastly different relationships with the indigenous peoples than they did with the imported workers.

A central theme that emerged was the intimate relationship between law and the production of social knowledge, as well as a sense of the possibility that such knowledge affords. The seminar discussions “re-centered law in social theory,” said Merry. “By examining the complex and contradictory changes of colonialism and postcolonialism through the lens of legal arrangements, this conference recuperated law as a core concern of the anthropological understanding of the production of social life.”

Donald Brenneis, Chair Department of Anthropology, University of California at Santa Cruz Dramatic Gestures: Law, Identity, and Performance in a Fiji Indian Community
Sally Engle Merry, Chair Department of Anthropology, Wellesley College Law and Identity in an American Colony
Jane F. Collier Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology, Stanford University A Chief Does Not Rule Land: He Rules People
Martha Kaplan Department of Anthropology, Vassar College Promised Lands: From Colonial Law-Giving to Postcolonial Takeovers in Fiji
John Kelly Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago Gordon Was No Amateur: Imperial Legal Strategies in the Colonization of Fiji
Hirokazu Miyazaki Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University Documenting Closure
Jonathan Kamakawiwo’ole Osorio Center for Hawaiian Studies, University of Hawai’i at Manoa That We Should Seek With All Our Strength
Annelise Riles Northwestern University Marking Place: Legal Formalities in a Cultural State
Noenoe K. Silva Kaneohe, Hawai’i Dancing on the Page: Hula in Hawaiian Literature During the Legal Ban

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