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From Barataria to Utopia: Economic-Positivism, Scientific Governance, and Colonial Discourses of International Order, 1880-1940

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - EPOSSCIGOV (From Barataria to Utopia: Economic-Positivism, Scientific Governance, and Colonial Discourses of International Order, 1880-1940)

Reporting period: 2019-07-10 to 2021-07-09

EPOSSCIGOV set out to investigate the rise of specific practices of ‘scientific’ colonial governance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, how they were informed by hitherto unexplored economic-positivist legal theory gaining currency in British and Australian colonies, and ultimately how, because of this new legal theoretical context, the League of Nations mandate system proved especially receptive to transfers from ‘scientifically’ governed colonies to broader discourses of international order. Despite the severe limitations imposed on the project because of the COVID-19 pandemic, EPOSSCIGOV proved the concept that a novel methodology in new imperial scholarship reassembling the archive of British and Australian colonial and mandate administrations is a viable and valuable research methodology. It remains the first dedicated study of the practice of economic-positivism in European colonial governance, and important findings through the limited time available to consult archives in the face of COVID-19 lockdowns and closures demonstrated clearly the merit of such an investigation.

Through pursuing these objectives, EPOSSCIGOV contributed to bringing a new legal approach to established imperial historiographies that consider the histories of late 19th and early 20th century colonialism more broadly. And, building on aspects of exciting recent work on the international dimensions of European colonialism, EPOSSCIGOV was the first dedicated examination of Oppenheim’s economic-positivism in historical context, contributing greatly to advancing the ‘historical turn’ in scholarship on the jurispractice of legal positivism.

Overall, this MSCA, though significantly hamstrung by COIVD-19, has allowed the fellow to deliver on conceptualizing and further refining a project design that is recognized as beyond the state of the art, and has allowed the fellow the opportunity to progress the fellow’s own career development. EPOSSCIGOV succeeded in developing the fellow’s historical knowledge and interdisciplinary research and project management skills through mentorship by the project supervisor, Alan Lester. And while COVID-19 prevented implementation of formal networking, interdisciplinary communication, and event leadership skills, it still afforded the fellow a chance to conceive of these linkages, which the fellow will pursue fully as lockdowns are eased slowly across the world in many research communities relevant to this project.
All project tasks were heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even still, some success in achieving project goals through each of these work packages can be reported. During the first months of EPOSSCIGOV, significant progress was made in archival work in the UK National Archives. The fellow was able to digitally capture almost all of the necessary files in the Colonial Office series on British New Guinea and the New Guinea Protectorate, one of EPOSSCIGOV’s major cases. This work enabled the fellow to complete important sections of two original research articles, though the lockdowns resulting from COVID-19 resulted in the closure of this archive for most of the grant period. Furthermore, the fellow was also able to complete the first and shortest of the fellow’s planned trips to Australia to consult archival holdings in the National Library of Australia. Through the completion of this task, the fellow acquired copies of the diaries of important personnel who served as colonial officials in British New Guinea and successfully petitioning to open previously withheld records of New Guinea “Native Courts” that operated in the 1890s. However, because of surges in COVID, most copy services that the fellow engaged in Australia have been delayed. COVID rendered subsequent field work impossible.

COVID-19 lockdowns, suspension of travel funding by departments across the world, and subsequent stresses placed upon all researchers prevented virtually all of EPOSSCIGOV’s planned public engagement and dissemination activities during the grant period. However, when travel restrictions ease and funding for travel to conferences resumes sufficiently to allow participation, it is still the fellow’s intent to host these workshops (and to credit them to H2020 funding) in 2022 and 2023. Likewise, once enough progress has been made on archival research tasks allowing for the completion and publication of scholarly articles, work on dissemination outputs in the Conversation and on other named promotional platforms can be completed as well. Notwithstanding these obstacles and the impossibility of achieving most of the fieldwork needed to produce EPOSSCIGOV’s intended scholarly output and public disseminations, The fellow was able to draft the two original research articles that comprise the main scholarly output of EPOSSCIGOV during the action, one of which is under review, the other of which is awaiting additional archival material to complete fully for submission to the intended journal. Through these outputs and those exploiting the archival work started during the action, the project's results will be socialized to a wide audience of specialists working in imperial, legal, and colonial histories.
EPOSSCIGOV’s initial findings demonstrate how British and Australian colonial governments (in New Guinea in particular) began revising practices of ‘humanitarian’ governance, establishing a new colonial order founded on ‘scientific’ principles from the 1880s to the 1900s. During this time, the British colonial government of New Guinea increasingly regarded its purpose as developmental: enabling what were thought to be inherently different types of subjects to pursue their own interests, for their own reproduction as much as for the reproduction of the colonial state through new ‘scientific’ approaches to colonial administration.

EPOSSCIGOV found compelling evidence for this shift through the investigation of Sir William MacGregor’s governance of British New Guinea from the late 1880s to the late 1890s. Building on new legal, international, and colonial historiographies, EPOSSCIGOV developed two scholarly outputs that investigate different dimensions of emerging ‘scientific’ governance in New Guinea at this time. As a consequence, EPOSSCIGOV has provided an important data point to each of these historiographies, illuminating a hitherto absent legal theoretical context—an emerging economic-positivist approach to ordering society via law—to historical studies of colonial governmentalities. This intervention seems particularly relevant in places that European elites deemed ‘backwards,’ such as colonial New Guinea was throughout most of the colonial period. But, instead of such backwardness precluding New Guinea from the rule of law in European eyes, EPOSSCIGOV indicates that New Guinea was increasingly viewed as among the places best suited to the new, ‘scientific’ colonial government based on economic-positivist legal thinking. While further research needed to broaden such investigations was impossible due to COVID-19, findings from New Guinea point to richer avenues of inquiry that the fellow intends to pursue in future. As COVID lockdowns and restrictions ease and as archives begin to open again to researchers, the fellow intends to pick up where much of the important but impossible work on EPOSSCIGOV left off.
An image taken during the proclamation of the annexation of New Guinea, 1886 (colorized)