Possessing Empire

Lauren Benton

in Native Claims

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199794850
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199919291 | DOI:
Possessing Empire

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  • Early Modern History (1500 to 1700)


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This essay examines practices of imperial claims making in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and argues that a legal doctrine of possession with Roman roots featured prominently in the construction and defense of claims. European imperial agents responded to indigenous strategies and other local conditions in assembling arguments about possession and combining them with other strategies. Indigenous actors manipulated the symbolism of possession in positioning themselves within multi-sided disputes over territory. The processes resulted in broadly recognized conventions for establishing and challenging the legitimacy of imperial authority. The essay focuses on Iberian disputes following the Treaty of Tordesillas over the control of the Moluccas and in the Rio de la Plata region, as well as English and Dutch strategies to establish claims to West African trading posts. The results challenge standard narratives about an Iberian style of claims making heavily reliant on papal authority.

Keywords: empires; Portugal; Spain; Treaty of Tordesillas; possession; Roman law; Rio de la Plata; West Africa; Moluccas; international law

Chapter.  9991 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Early Modern History (1500 to 1700)

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