Thursday, March 12, 2009

Some Good Books in Asian Legal History (I): Zinoman, The Colonial Bastille

Like most readers of the Legal History Blog, my graduate school training focused almost exclusively on the history of the United States. And, like many other U.S. historians of the last few years, I have taken the “transnational turn,” in my case through an increasing interest in Asian history and U.S.-Asian relations. This post is designed to be the first in a series that introduces blog readers to some really interesting and accessible kind-of-recent books in modern Asian legal history. That’s it: interesting and accessible. Or at least they were to me. I hope that readers—particularly those with advanced expertise in this area—will offer their own suggestions as well. Send them on, either by email or through the Comments feature, and I will compile them for future posts.

In The Colonial Bastille: A History of Imprisonment in Vietnam, 1862-1940 (2001), Peter Zinoman traces French Indochina’s prison system from its construction through the beginning of World War II. Vietnamese Communists often called the colonial prisons a “school for revolution,” and Zinoman traces the ways in which (especially in the 1930s) “the Indochinese prison system provided a curiously stable environment for the reconstitution and expansion” of the Indochinese Communist Party. He also challenges much recent literature on colonial empires that suggests they were “model laboratories” for modern statebuilding. Quite the opposite, he argues. “It was the antiquated and ill-disciplined aspects of the colonial prison that facilitated its transformation into an instrument of anticolonial resistance.”

For me, this book was a reminder of the richness of Vietnamese historiography that U.S. historians rarely (if ever) give to their students when they teach about America’s Vietnam War. Beyond that, The Colonial Bastille is an amazing political and social history of imprisonment that should be of interest to any scholar who has struggled to figure out how to tell the history of prisons.

To be continued…

1 comment:

Red said...

Ritu Birla's (University of Toronto) Stages of Capital: Law, Culture, and Market Governance in Late Colonial India (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009) is one of the first major monographs looking at commerical law in India

"In Stages of Capital, Ritu Birla brings research on nonwestern capitalisms into conversation with postcolonial studies to illuminate the historical roots of India’s market society. Between 1870 and 1930, the British regime in India implemented a barrage of commercial and contract laws directed at the “free” circulation of capital, including measures regulating companies, income tax, charitable gifting, and pension funds, and procedures distinguishing gambling from speculation and futures trading. Birla argues that this understudied legal infrastructure institutionalized a new object of sovereign management, the market, and along with it, a colonial concept of the public. In jurisprudence, case law, and statutes, colonial market governance enforced an abstract vision of modern society as a public of exchanging, contracting actors free from the anachronistic constraints of indigenous culture."