Our editors for news and forum contributions may be reached at: fhi@rwi.uzh.ch

Forum News

Arguing over Empire: Hugo Grotius, European Expansionism and Slavery

July 8, 2023

Location: University of Dundee
Date: 6-7 June 2024

Deadline for proposals: 31 August 2023

The Dutch humanist and jurist Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) is generally regarded as a ‘founding father of modern international law.’ However, he was also one of the early architects of Dutch colonial and imperial rule in the East Indies. Between 1604 and 1615, he served the Dutch East India Company (VOC) as a legal advisor and political lobbyist. In this capacity, he wrote memoranda and policy documents providing legal and political justifications for the Company’s commercial and military activities in monsoon Asia. In 1604, Grotius was commissioned by the VOC to write a treatise to defend the seizure of a Portuguese vessel off the coast of Johor (present-day Singapore). In his lengthy treatise, currently known as On the Law of Prize and Booty (De iure praedae), he argued that the Portuguese violated the natural rights of the Dutch by preventing them from sailing to the East Indies and engaging in trade with native populations. As judicial recourse was lacking, even a private trading company such as the VOC could wage a ‘just war’ to enforce its natural rights. On the Law of Prize and Booty remained unpublished during Grotius’ lifetime, except for chapter 12, which appeared in 1609 as The Free Sea (Mare liberum), still a key text in international law today. As VOC spokesperson at the Anglo-Dutch colonial conferences of 1613 and 1615, Grotius explained to the directors of the English East India Company (EIC) that the VOC was legally justified to monopolize the spice trade. The inhabitants of the Spice Islands benefited from a protection/tribute exchange: by means of spice deliveries, they compensated the VOC for the high costs of providing armed protection against their enemies. When the EIC directors pointed out that, in fact, the VOC used violence against native populations to impose its monopoly, they were told by Grotius that the natives’ unwillingness to stick to their contractual obligations to the VOC merely demonstrated the latter’s “perfidy,” which required punishment by the VOC. Grotian thinking about natural law, contracts and just war thus legitimized Dutch expansion overseas and the dispossession of the native.

Grotius’ On the Law of War and Peace (De iure belli ac pacis, 1625) is a case in point. Although the author was an exile in Paris by then, he relied on many years of practical experience as a VOC advisor and lobbyist in writing his magnum opus. In On the Law of War and Peace, he elaborates the views presented in The Free Sea by conceptualizing the natural rights to travel and free passage, the rights to settle in uninhabited lands and use natural resources, and the right to free trade between ‘persons at a distance’ --invoked by Europeans to demand access to non-European markets and territories. Likewise, Grotius defense of unequal alliances and protection/tribute exchanges figure prominently in On the Law of War and Peace. As the author explains, unequal alliances and treaties can lead to a transfer of sovereignty, by allowing the ‘superior party’ to place garrisons on the territory of the ‘inferior party’. Obviously, these are all arguments supporting the VOC’s claims-making in the East Indies, both against European competitors and native populations. On the Law of War and Peace also provides a legal justification of slavery as part of natural law and the law of nations. In the author’s view, those who are defeated in a just war can be enslaved under the law of nations, while human beings may also ‘voluntarily’ submit to slavery under natural law. Moreover, the children of the enslaved inherit the unfree status of their parents according to On the Law of War and Peace.
The aim of this two-day workshop is to explore the many connections between Grotius’ thinking about natural law and the law of nations and his full-throated defense of European expansion overseas and slavery. The organizers invite contributors to critically examine these connections by addressing the imperialist and colonialist readings of Grotius’ theory of natural rights, just war, property, unequal treaties and alliances, monopoly contracts, slavery, and the role of private actors (e.g., trading companies). They specifically welcome contributions that engage with the following questions:

• What were non-European responses to, or engagement with, such imperialist and colonialist readings? For instance, how did East-Indian rulers receive and interpret, or indeed resist, Grotian conceptualizations of natural rights and (monopoly) contracts? Were alternative conceptualizations proposed to contest Grotius’ justification of slavery?

• What was the relationship between the ‘Grotian tradition of international law’ and colonial practices in the early modern and modern eras? How were Grotian discourses of international law used to justify colonial warfare, native dispossession and slavery in the Americas, Asia and Africa between the 17th and 20th centuries? For instance, how did Grotian ideas about natural law, freedom of trade and humanitarianism (protecting the oppressed from inhumane treatment) contribute to justifying colonial warfare, and what role did private trading companies play in these wars?

In addressing questions like these, the organizers seek to understand the ambivalent relation between, on the one hand, Grotius’ innovate contributions to international law and humanitarianism, and, on the other hand, the use of his concepts to justify (Western) colonialism and imperialism.

The workshop ‘Arguing over Empire: Hugo Grotius, European Expansionism and Slavery’ is part of a series of conferences preceding the celebration in 2025 of the 400th anniversary of Grotius’ opus magnum De iure belli ac pacis published in 1625. Previous conferences in this series have dealt with, e.g., ‘Grotius’ Contribution to Commercial and Maritime Law’ and ‘Non-consequential theories of strict liability in historical perspective.’

A paper proposal of max. 300 words should be sent to M.J.Vanittersum@dundee.ac.uk
and m.dewilde@uva.nl The deadline for submissions is 31 August 2023. Applicants will be notified by 15 October 2023 whether their paper proposal has been accepted or not. The organizing committee will use two criteria in the selection of paper proposals: intellectual quality and potential fit with the workshop theme. The workshop is meant to be interdisciplinary and small-scale, allowing plenty of time for discussion and interaction. Available slots are limited. However, the committee’s aim is to invite speakers from diverse backgrounds (age, geography, gender, and career status).

The workshop takes place on location. Speakers who are unable to participate in person may do so online. Unfortunately, the organizing committee is not able to cover the costs of accommodation or travel. Selected speakers are requested to obtain funding themselves.
Speakers are expected to submit a draft paper before 1 April 2024. These draft papers will be circulated in advance of the workshop. Each speaker will be given a 30-minutes time slot, which includes 20 minutes for presentation and 10 minutes for questions and discussion.

The aim is to publish (revised versions of) the presented papers in a leading international journal related to Grotius, the history of international law, or the history of colonialism.

Organizing Committee:
Inge Van Hulle (Leuven University and Max Planck Institute, Frankfurt am Main)
Martine van Ittersum (University of Dundee)
Jacob Giltaij (University of Amsterdam)
Jeroen Vervliet (Max Planck Institute, Luxembourg)
Marc de Wilde (University of Amsterdam)