Tag Archives: Colonial history

Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore, three Asian city states

Sometimes events can seem rather unique, but historians have been trained to be wary of this claim. Since weeks the city state Hong Kong is in the grip of political turmoil. The legal and political status and future of this special administrative region in China is at the core of the disputes and actions. It is not a new idea to look at the law of both Hong Kong and Macau together, but I decided to add a third town in South East Asia to the comparison in this post. What have these city states in common apart from their geographical situation around a harbor? In this post I will look at a number of digital archives and libraries which bring you to important resources for the legal and cultural history of these interesting Asian cities.

Three of a kind?

It is tempting to start here with the colonial period of the three harbors. Macau was the oldest European colonial town in China, founded by the Portuguese in 1557. In and around Hong Kong people have lived already some 5000 years. For Singapore on the Malaysian peninsula there is a reference from the second century BCE. From the fourteenth century onwards there is more continuity for Singapore, but it is also clear the Portuguese destroyed the city in 1613. I prefer to treat the three towns here at first separately.

Startsscreen "Memória de Macau"

With currently some 600,000 inhabitants Macau is the smallest of the three cities. They live on a territory of just 30 square kilometer, making Macau the most densely populated spot on earth. Macau’s fortunes depended initially strongly on the position of the Portuguese commercial empire. Even though the Portuguese influence became weaker, Macau became attractive as a pivotal point in intra-Asiatic commerce. Since 1999 Macau is a special administrative region of China. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, actually a tunnel and a bridge with a length of 42 kilometer, connects since 2018 Hong Kong with Macau.

A search for digital resources concerning Macau yielded quickly some important results. The portal Memória de Macau was only launched in April 2019. It brings you to digitized books, archival records, maps, audiovisual materials and images of museal objects in Macau. The portal offers also a chronology of Macau’s history which you can even filter for events in politics and law, and there are of course sections on the arts and culture. Memória de Macau is accessible in Portuguese and Chinese. For searching the legal history of Macau the Base de Dados de Legislação de Macau (LEGISMAC) brings you not only to current law in Macau, but also to laws and other legislative acts since 1855. At Fontes Macau-China, sécs. XVI-XIX, part of the Observatório da China you will find a digital library with Early Modern books, its contents are viewable with a Portuguese, Chinese and English interface. The Biblioteca Digital da Fundação Jorge Álvares in Lissabon is a small digital library with digitized books about Macau and China. In the UM Digital Library Portal of the Wu Yee Sun Library, Universidade de Macau you can consult among other things Chinese worksWestern books on China and rare Western books. For Macau the digital library at the portal on Portuguese colonial history Memórias de Africa et do Oriente contains only nine titles.

The Arquivo de Macau has digitized the official gazette, the Boletim do Goberno / Boletim official de Macau, for the period 1850-1999, you can view the issues with a Portuguese, Chinese or English interface. In 1993 the Chinese government announced the legal framework for Macau from 1999 onwards. It is referred to as the Basic Law (here the English translation).

Hong Kong’s long history

Start screen Historical laws of Hong Kong Online

A similar search for digital collections concerning the (legal) history of Hong Kong took me much more time. Only the Hong Kong Legal Information Institute came immediately into view. This branch of the WorldLII contains not only modern legislation and jurisprudence, but also Privy Council Judgments (1861-1997), historical laws (1890-1964), and also first instance and appeal judgments since 1946. The University of Hong Kong Libraries offer access to Historical Laws of Hong Kong Online as a part of the Hong Kong University Library Digital Initiatives, a portal to several digital collections, including sections for rare books, legislation and war crime trials. I should have spotted at Historical Laws of Hong Kong Online the link to a page with several other online resources, for example Hong Kong Government Reports Online (1842-1941). The Hong Kong Public Libraries have among its digital collections a general Hong Kong Collection and for example old newspapers since 1853. The Run Run Shaw Lbrary of the City University of Hong Kong has a portal for its Digital Special Collections. Hong Kong Memory is a portal for digitized cultural heritage, mainly for the arts, geography, audiovisual collections and oral history. You can consult a number of historical maps at HK Maps. For Chinese rare books there are a digital collection of the Chinese University of Hong Kong Library and the Hok Hoi Collection of the Hong Kong Public Libraries with classic Chinese literature.

Two archives founded by the government of Hong Kong preserve archival records, the Government Records Service, with three digital collections and three virtual exhibits, and the Legislative Council Archives, founded in 2012. Within The Hong Kong Heritage Project you find the archive of the Kadoorie family and much more. A number of digitized archival collection for Hon Kong has been digitized by libraries. The Hong Kong Public libraries have digitized some 48,000 digitized archival records of the city council between 1965 and 2000 in their collection Municipal Council Archives. The Chinese University of Hong Kong Library, too, offers digitized archival records. In the Land Deeds Collection there are 160 land deeds and six volumes of fish-scale registers, from the mid-seventeenth to the twentieth century. In the Sheng Xuanhei Archive you will find digitized documents and transcriptions concerning a very influential merchant and politician (1844-1916) who initiated many projects. At Open Public Records of the UK National Archives this university gives you access to dozens of digitized documents from various series held at Kew. With the Elsie Tu Digital Collection (Hong Kong Baptist University) we come closer to this century. This collection contains speeches and publications of a scholar who followed closely political and legal developments in Hong Kong during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Her university presents also the HKBU Corpora, two linguistic corpora, the Corpus of Political Speeches (1789-2015) and The Chinese/English Political Interpreting Corpus (1997-2017), with in both speeches from the USA, Hong Kong and China.

In Hong Kong some 7,5 million people live on an area of 1,100 square kilometer, which brings this city a rank lower than Macau but still very high in the list of most densely populated places of our planet. The British took over power in 1841, formally stabilized in the 1842 Treaty of Nanking. The extension of Hong Kong’s territory came about in 1898 with the treaty concerning the 99 year-period of British rule over Hong Kong. During the Second World War the Japanese army occupied Hong Kong. In 1997 British sovereignty was transferred to China, entering the current period of fifty years until 2047 as a special administrative region within China.

A look at Singapore’s history and its digital presence

Heading "Straits Settlements Gazette", 1890Government

Heading of the “Straits Settlements Gazette”, 1890 – image source: Books SG, http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/printheritage/index.htm

With Singapore we go from China to the most southern point of the Malaysian peninsula, close to the Indonesian archipelago. The destruction of this town in 1613 is a clear break in its history. In 1819 a British trading post was established which gained in 1824 the status of a British colony. In 1824 an Anglo-Dutch treaty created a clear separation between Dutch and British territories in Malaysia and the islands of the Dutch East Indies. From 1826 onwards Singapore was a part of the Straits Settlements, governed from British India. From 1867 to 1942 Singapore was a Crown Colony. The harbor became in the twentieth century known for its facilities for the British fleet. Although it was deemed to be unassailable for enemies, the Japanese could take over Singapore in 1942 very quickly.  After the Second World War a turbulent period followed from which Singapore eventually emerged in 1965 as an independent republic. Singapore has currently some 5,6 million inhabitants on a territory of 7,800 square kilometer leading to a ranking for population density between Macau and Hong Kong. One of the things I realized while looking at Singapore is the major role of Chinese people in its history.

When you look at digital libraries in South East Asia it is good to start perhaps with the Asean Digital Library, a portal hosted by the National Library Board, Singapore and founded by the Association of South East Asian Nations. For Singapore this digital library contains some 26,000 items. The National Library Board of Singapore presents digitized old books and manuscripts in several subcollections at Books SG. Among the books labelled Politics and government you will find a number of issues of the Straits Settlements government gazette. Among the digitizwed titles I would like to mention two recent guides, The rare materials collection : selections from the National Library Singapore (2017), readable online, and the volume 50 records from history : highlights from the National Archives of Singapore (2019), downloadable as a PDF (264 MB), with in the latter a number of important documents for Singapore’s legal history.

The NLB has also created a section Newspapers SG with some Malaysian newspapers. The educational portal Roots created by the National Heritage Board looks at Singapore’s history and cultural heritage since 1819. At Legal Heritage the Singapore Academy of Law brings you not a digital library, but a guide to Singapore’s legal history. Lee Su-Lin, a librarian at the National University of Singapore created with Historical sources of Singapore Law a guide to (digitized) materials for researching Singapore’s legal history. You can benefit also from the guide to Singapore Primary Sources by her colleague Nur Diyana. The National University of Singapore offers digitized historical maps of Singapore (from 1846 onwards), a HISGIS for Singapore and the Singapore Biographical Database dealing with Chinese personalities in Singapore’s history The NUS Libraries have a large section with digitized Chinese materials pertaining to Singapore, including historical newspapers. At Singapore Statutes Online you can find three constitutional documents and a few acts from the colonial period.

The holdings of archives, libraries, museums and galleries in Singapore can be searched conveniently using the One Search portal. Thus you can look at inventories of the National Archives of Singapore. At its digital portal Archives Online you can look for example at a section for government records with also parliamentary papers – and at the Straits Settlements Records (1826-1946), Overseas and Private Records. The Singapore Policy History Project of the NAS is also worth your attention.

Of course important collections relevant to the subjects of this post can be found elsewhere. In the Cambridge Digital Library you can find the collection Voices of civilian internment: WWII Singapore. Among digitized items of the vast collections of the Royal Commonwealth Society you find can some panoramic photographs of Hong Kong, Macau and Kanton (Guangzhou) made in the early twentieth century.

Three or four harbors?

When you look at old maps of Macau and Hong Kong the latter is often difficult to spot, but yet another harbor to the north in the Pearl River Delta is quite visible, Guangzhou, to the Western world long known as Canton. Guangzhou is situated some 145 kilometer north of Hong Kong, To mention just one characteristic about Guangzhou, Cantonese is one of the major forms of the Chinese language. Singapore and Guangzhou figure in the top ten of largest harbors of the world. It would have been interesting to look here also at Guangzhou, for example at the Guangzhou National Archives, but it is perhaps better to admit I spotted it rather late.

While preparing this post on the history of three Asian ports another thing became very visible for me. In the Human Development Index of the United Nations, a quite detailed overview with several sections, you will find in the main HDI list just behind the top on place 7 Hong Kong, and on place 9 Singapore. Macau is not included in the HDI, but it would rank around number 17. China currently figures at place 88 of the HDI main list. The three city states of this post simply belong to the richest countries and areas of our world. Two of these three ports hold a stable place among the world’s busiest harbors.

Inevitably there are some clear lacunae in my post. It would be most useful to know about digital versions of the historical gazette(s) for Hong Kong, not just for Macau and Singapore. I referred only briefly to the historical and current constitutions which can be swiftly found using one or more of the portals for constitutions worldwide. Incidentally, I have listed a dozen relevant portals for constitutions at the digital libraries page of my legal history portal Rechtshistorie, where you will also see the archives I mention here. The page for digital libraries brings you also to the major portals for official gazettes and treaties. I have not looked closely at the development of the legal systems in the three city states, but this calls for more space, time and knowledge – both of the legal systems involved and of Portuguese, Malay and Chinese! – to engage with them here in real depth and width. The selection of resources for their cultural and legal heritage shows at the very least the need to use multiple perspectives. Perhaps the largest deficit here is the lack of references to (legal) sources in and about China and its history, and hte omission of a perspective from China. On my website I mention a number of digital libraries with Chines books and also a number of archives in China, but I point only to a small number of resources on China’s legal history. Finding digital resources with digitized old books  for Malaysia is an even greater challenge, but it is also advisable to turn to bibliographical research.

Whatever the outcome of the current conflicts in Hong Kong, it is surely influenced by the fact people live here literally packed on the shores of a thriving harbor and an important Asian economy. The people of Hong Kong are acutely aware of the legal, economical and political differences with China. These differences stand both for the success of Hong Kong and the challenges it faces. All over the world major towns have to deal with problems national governments find difficult to address. A number of cities worldwide cooperate in networks such as Metropolis and United Cities and Local Governments. The city states of this post stand out as not just remarkable legal cases for doing comparative law and comparative legal history, but as communities in densely inhabitated towns at pivotal points in the world economy and at the frontiers of major countries which have and show their own interests in them. The mixed legal systems of Hong Kong and Macau are a mixed blessing,. All three towns in this post have a long history of great changes which will encourage them to face current problems, too.

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Rembrandt’s private and legal life

Bannere exhibition "Rembrandt Privé"

On December 7, 2018 the exhibition Rembrandt Privé [Rembrandt Privately] opened at the city archives of Amsterdam. In an earlier post on my blog I mentioned the project RemDoc – Rembrandt Documentation which offers a searchable database with images, transcriptions and many English translations of seventeenth-century documents pertaining to Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). The exhibit show documents held at the Stadsarchief Amsterdam, the largest municipal archive in the Netherlands, some original works by Rembrandt, a number of maps and the chance to gain access to augmented reality around the documents using a tablet. The legal nature of many documents will soon become clear in this post.

Stories of love, art and money

I started to admire Rembrandt already as a child. His paintings, drawings and etchings are so much alive with people. Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age helped shaping my perceptions of the seventeenth century. I was soon aware of the many decisive turns in Rembrandt’s life. The way he portrayed people both in sorrow and joy, and the dark hours of his own life offered a healthy antidote to viewing the Dutch Republic in too much sunlight. The catalogue of the major Rembrandt exposition in Amsterdam in 1969 was a book I have seen many times. It often referred to historical documents about Rembrandt and his works.

The building of the Stadsarcheif Amsterdam

The Stadsarchief Amsterdam at the Vijzelstraat in the former bank building designed by K.P.C. de Bazel

Reading about somebody in a book is one thing, seeing the works of an artist in museums adds much to it, but somehow having the documents in front of you stirs the imagination even more. The Rembrandt Documentation project of the Huygens Institute in Amsterdam and the Radboud University Nijmegen gives you online access to many thousand documents. There was an older work, Die Urkunden über Rembrandt (1575-1721) by C. Hofstede de Groot (The Hague 1906; online, Universität Heidelberg) with transcriptions and commentaries for nearly 500 documents, followed by W.L. Strauss and M. van der Meulen, The Rembrandt Documents (New York 1979) and M. Roscam Abbing, Rembrandt 2006, II: New Rembrandt Documents (Leiden 2006). The online project has a wider time range, 1424 to 1799, and offers much more documents, and also references about Rembrandt in art literature. Sometimes Hofstede de Groot did not record texts completely. Commentaries can be very different and convincing explanations no longer missing. An example: Hofstede de Groot gave a large extract from an attestatio de vita from July 26, 1632 (no. 25, p. 24-25; RemDoc, no. 4399) made by a notary inquiring about Rembrandt’s health, but the reason for this inquiry was not clear to Hofstede de Groot. In 1979 it became clear it had to do with a rent subscribed to by one hundred citizens with the stipulation the full sum would be paid back to the longest living subscriber.

An enlarged map of Amsterdam and two documents

The exhibit at the city archive shows a selection of documents around a number of themes and events in Rembrandt’s life. Often two documents are shown, with either a print next to them or an image of a painting in the background, most of them from the collections of the Rijksmuseum and the Rembrandthuis. With the tablet you can focus on a document and start a short podcast about the document or documents. Often you will see a seventeenth-century map in the background showing you the exact location in the inner city of Amsterdam. The image to the left centers on a document about the execution of Elsje Christiaens, a Danish servant convicted for murder hanging at the display gallows in 1664 on the other side of the IJ, the estuary to the north of Amsterdam. Rembrandt often made sketches in this region. He drawed this young woman twice.

The exhibition shows some familiar documents, and although I had already some expectations, the legal nature of many documents is indeed striking. To mention just a few of them, the betrothal of Rembrandt and his first wife Saskia van Uijlenburgh in 1634, an ecclesiastical procedure about his later mistress Geertje, some testaments, the inventory of his bankruptcy in 1656, and the inventory of his house after his death in 1669 are all legal documents.

The 1669 inventory - Amsterdam, Stadsarchief

A page from the 1669 inventory – Amsterdam, Stadsarchief, Archief Notarissen, subseries 113, Gerrit Steeman, inv.no. 2625C

The death-bed inventory of Rembrandt’s house in 1669 is rather special. It belongs to documents more or less damaged by the 1762 fire in the city hall. Several documents have now been restored and digitized. Until now the transcriptions of this document in RemDoc (no. 13471; Hofstede de Groot, no. 306) could only be incomplete. It is a reminder that a historical state of affairs can change indeed. Illegible or missing words can become clear. In the case mentioned above a document which seemed inexplicable can be studied anew, placed in a context and yield new information. The readability of old Dutch documents was the theme in a post I wrote earlier in 2018. I proposed to everyone wanting to learn online to decipher Dutch documents from the seventeenth century to start with the documents about Rembrandt. As an example I showed an image of an obligation Rembrandt had got into for the purchase in 1639 of his house in the Sint Anthoniebreesteeg for which he had failed in 1653 to pay four years of interest (RemDoc no. 4628). Even if not for all documents images and an English translation is available, a fair number of archival records can be used to gain also palaeographical skills.

Among the archival records on display I want to single out two documents. The first is a complaint from the Portuguese merchant Diego d’Andrada in 1654 about a portrait of a young lady Rembrandt had made for him (RemDoc, no. 1661) with clauses about the way Rembrandt was going to act to fulfill the wishes in accordance with the regulations of the painters guild.

Documents about the black community in Rembrandt's Amsterdam

The second document involved also the presence of Portuguese merchants in Amsterdam, the burial of Francisco d’Angola in 1659 who had lived in the same street with Selijelij Krablije. Rembrandt could meet in the very street where he lived black people who lived as servants in the houses of Portuguese merchants. In Amsterdam it was forbidden to have slaves, but one can assume in some cases such servants were in fact slaves. Amsterdam had become in the seventeenth century one of Europe’s most important financial and trade centers. You might encounter anyone and anything, and thus Rembrandt’s world stretched far beyond Holland.

More archival records

The Stadsarchief Amsterdam is rightly famous for its digitization service. Some 30 million images of archival records are currently available online. Indexes exist for a steadily growing number of record series, and in most cases they lead you to digital images, too. The ondertrouwregisters (betrothal registers) are probably the most praised record series of the municipal archive, because uniquely for this kind of resource the Amsterdam records often contain additional information about the partners, their professions, origin and family.

Logo Alle Amsterdamse Akten

In 1906 Hofstede de Groot noted in the acknowledgements he had not used himself the notarial registers of Amsterdam, because this rich resource had not yet been adequately inventoried. He had mostly to rely on the transcriptions and editions of the people who had gained access to them thanks to the guidance of archivists. It is one thing to have now at your computer screen full access to digitized images of these registers using the finding aid (toegang 5075), but another thing to find quickly relevant acts. Here the crowdsourcing project Alle Amsterdamse Akten steps in which aims to digitize and create indexes for a staggering volume of notarial registers, good for 3,5 linear kilometer in 700 cupboards. The project overview gives a current number of nearly six million digitized pages, some 680 volunteers at the Dutch transcribing platform Vele Handen [Many Hands] and 267,000 documents. There are more than ten thousand registers from 731 notaries in the Early Modern period. The website contains special dossiers about six themes, among them Rembrandt and also slavery with highlights among the notarial acts, some of them newly found, others already known.

Search screen Alle Amsterdamse Akten

The search screen of Alle Amsterdamse Akten

After free registration you can start searching in the notarial registers from Amsterdam at the website Notarieel Archief Amsterdam. You can search for descriptions, type of act, first names and surnames for two persons, location, day, month and year, or choose a particular notary. When searching for Rembrandt van Rhijn you will immediately get a choice of variant spellings in a dropdown menu, both for Rembran(d)(t) and R(h)ijn. At this point I can no longer hide the fact that the exhibit can be visited in a Dutch and English version, but the other websites of the Stadsarchief Amsterdam are completely in Dutch. The press kit for the exhibit in four languages and the display texts for the documents are the exceptions, but the tablet scripts and transcriptions are only available online in Dutch. There is a strong case to add at least a search interface in one other language. It is some solace to be able to download the 1998 repertory of notaries in Amsterdam between 1524 and 1810 by A.J. Bosma. Earlier on an overview had been created of more than 5000 notarial acts in cases of gross avery between 1700 and 1810, damage to ships in emergency situations, an important resource next to an index on these cases of maritime law heard by a special court. I wrote a paragraph about these verdicts in an earlier post.

Rembrandt and Vermeer in documents

It seems wise to see Rembrandt not in isolation. John Michael Montias (1928-2005) was an economic historian who became an art historian focusing on the social context of art. He found and transcribed lots of Early Modern probate inventories mentioning works of art which can be searched in the Montias database of the Frick Museum, New York. The Meertens Institute for Dutch Ethnology has created the Boedelbank, a database with Dutch probate inventories from four regions seen as a resource for the history of material culture. In 1989 Montias published Vermeer and his milieu. A web of social history, translated into Dutch as Vermeer en zijn milieu (Amsterdam 1993). Over the years Montias had traced some 450 documents in seventeen Dutch and Belgian archives – not only in Delft! – with direct and indirect about information about Vermeer, his family and people associated with him. The Dutch edition contains as an appendix (pp. 331-403) an enlarged version of the list of documents with a number of full transcriptions. The number of documents for Vermeer is definitely lower than for Rembrandt. Even if such documents do not allow for strict conclusions about the content of his art works, they enormously raise the awareness about the multiple contexts of Dutch art in the seventeenth century.

In the face of an ocean of specialized art literature about Rembrandt and Vermeer the point I liked to make here is not only the legal nature of many archival records in the Amsterdam exhibition, but also the presence of many other persons in these documents. Rembrandt and Vermeer were supreme masters in portraying people who you seem to know and understand in an uncanny way. The Dutch historian Geert Mak wrote a book about the Six family [De levens van Jan Six. Een familiegeschiedenis, 2016; The many lives of Jan Six. A portrait of an Amsterdam dynasty, 2017], a merchant dynasty with Jan Six at its very heart, a friend of Rembrandt, portrayed twice by him. The painting is still owned by his descendants. Viewing someone in his familiar surroundings or in the streets of his hometown is also a metaphor for viewing law not as an isolated element of society, but vitally connected to its utmost veins. Finding and recreating such connections is surely challenging, but searching for a subject in vivo is more rewarding and revealing than staying content with results in a supposedly detached laboratory. At the end of 2018 I would almost say: Keep calm and study legal history!

Rembrandt Privé [Rembrandt Privately] – Stadsarchief Amsterdam, Vijzelstraat 32, Amsterdam – December 7, 2018 until April 7, 2019

Suriname’s slavery registers unbound

Start screen slavery regisyers, Nationaal Archief, Suriname

On July 1, 1863 slavery was officially abolished in Suriname. A ten-year transitional period followed during which former slave owners received a monetary compensation for each former slave. Since many years people originally coming from Suriname celebrate in The Netherlands on July 1 the feast of Keti Koti, “The Breaking of the Chains”. It is only fitting that last week the digital version of slave registers kept between 1830 and 1863, now hold by the Nationaal Archief of Suriname (NAS) in Paramaribo, was launched by a number of institutions led by Coen van Galen at the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen and Maurits Hassankhan at the Anton de Kom Universiteit van Suriname, with support from the Dutch National Archives in The Hague.

Last year I reported here on the project to move a number of archival collections concerning the history of Suriname from the Dutch Nationaal Archief to the NAS, and to digitize also a number of these collections. Collections with relevancy to legal history figure large among them. The digitization of the slavery registers is a key element completing the efforts for digital access and conservation, indexing the registers and making them much more accessible for researchers and the general public worldwide. In this post I will look at these registers and their online presence.

A crowdsourcing project

Logo crowdsourcing project "Maak de Surinaamse slavenregisters openbaar"In January 2017 the project for indexation and digitization of these slavery registers started, just after the transfer of important archival collections from The Hague to Paramaribo. A campaign with the slogan Maak de Surinaamse slavenregister openbaar, “Make the Surinam slavery registers public”, proved effective. Some 600 people donated money for the project, and some 400 volunteers helped indexing the registers. To put the record straight, anyone could and can come to these archives to gain access to the original volumes, provided their material state is not too fragile. It is safe to assume that you need to come with good arguments to touch them now they can be consulted online. The Dutch National Archives did already provide public access. The operation to bring archival collections back to Suriname created a more urgent need for conservation and digitization.

The digitized registers now in Paramaribo [NAS, toegang (finding aid) 16, inv.nrs. 1-43] can be accessed using an index form shown above. On purpose the NAS has not placed these registers among its forty digitized archival collections. The Dutch National Archives provide also online access to the slavery registers among its ever-growing set of online indexes. You can download the index in its entirety (4,2 MB, zipped file). At this point something becomes clear when you look at the URL of this file, a web address in The Netherlands at the search portal Ga het NA of the Nationaal Archief in The Hague. The search form of this digital resource at both archives is almost, but not completely identical.

Accessing the slavery registers

Logo Dutch Nationaal Archief, The Hague

You can use either a simple search form (Eenvoudig zoeken) with three fields, one for a free text search and two fields for setting a period, or go to Uitgebreid (Advanced search) with more fields. In the second mode there are additional fields from the slave name, the name of the mother, and the name of the slave owner. You can click on the search results in order to get both the information on a person, including also gender, references to the registers and the type of register – with its inventory and page number – and an image of the page in question. It is possible to zoom in at will to any image. Each scan has an individual URL, a URL from my country when viewing individual results, meaning there is one single database behind the two versions. By clicking on the field name in the results you can change their order. You will find either the names of owners or the name of the plantation and its location.

NAS, series 16, no. 34, fol. 2667

It is not my purpose to single out here any defects and omissions, but a few things are very visible. First of all the version hosted in The Hague contains additional information which is not or not yet provided at the website of the NAS. The section Achtergrond (Background) informs you about the information given in the search fields, with a second page about slavery in Suriname and the introduction of slavery registers and their survival. There are important losses, not in the least some registers of slaves owned by the Dutch colonial government. In the registers mutations such as birth and death, acquisitions and sales should be written down. A third page on Gebruik (Use) contains instruction on the use of the indexes and the interpretation of results, and also a handy list of common abbreviations in the registers. The other pages contain a colophon about the project and the user license (CC-BY-SA 3.0 NL).

A second thing to note is the incomplete translations in the English version of the search form. Even the simple search form has not yet been translated completely. The field names in the results screen have not been translated. A much sillier thing becomes also visible: In cases where there is no gender information, the volunteers entered the word Leeg (Empty). I suppose there are more concise and effective ways to convey the fact that no data have been entered in a particular field.

Viewing the context

Using to a large extent at this moment only Dutch for this project is not a particular lucky thing, and you can even extend this to the project website. Translations in languages such as English and Sranantongo are not just welcome, they are simply needed to really open this resource to people worldwide with interest in Caribbean history, the history of slavery or Dutch colonial history. For any project on Dutch colonial history in the East Indies contemplating translations into English and/or Bahasa Indonesia is luckily a natural thing. The project team states flatly these registers are a worldwide unique resource, the only series of its kind. On the project website some further, rather important explanations about the actual state of the slavery registers are offered. It appears no general index to the series existed. Some registers could be consulted on microfiches, but without one or more indexes searching would mean wandering in a jungle without much hope for any results. The thing to note here is that only in 2017 the need for an index was perceived as sufficiently urgent to start a project to deal with this sorry situation. Earlier on having only severely hampered access seems not to have led to constructive action. Van Galen and Hassankhan rightly stress the importance of the slavery registers for not only genealogical research, but as a key resource to connect with the manumission registers, neighbourhood registers of the city Paramaribo and other sources for Suriname’s history during the nineteenth century. The historic context and the slavery registers can enrich the information contained in them in both directions.

Surely we need to thank Coen van Galen and Maurits Hassankhan and the army of volunteers who succeeded in getting their tasks completed in time. Van Galen and Hassankhan provide on the project website a very useful page with four PDF’s with information that should immediately be included on the websites of  both versions of the online index. The project leaders provide a list with the names of plantations and other Dutch posts in 1834 (530 kB), a list with the names of free people in Paramaribo in 1846 (2,2 MB), both created by Huub van Helvoort, a list with first names of enslaved people on a number of plantations (70 kB), and even a list of letter forms, letter combinations and some Dutch words in nineteenth-century Dutch script (650 kB). It is good to see some basic historical skills are not forgotten! However, to my disbelief I did not find on the project website the URL of the index, not even after a few days… The slogan Open the slavery registers seems to have been at least temporarily forgotten by the web team. More down to earth, the current summer heat in my country, the gulf of enthusiasm about the launch, and the very end of the academic year created perfect excuses for forgetting to open literally the doors to the final results of the project also at the project website. The absence of news items from June and July 2018 is another indication for the sleeping state of the project website.

Such omissions and minor problems can be fixed quickly. I would urge anyone involved with this project to proceed as soon as possible with distributing lacking information to both versions and completing the translations. This succesful project well deserves this last effort to remove the barriers and chains which hindered easy access and practical use. The slavery registers of Suriname deserve interest from many corners.

A postscript

The uniqueness of these slave registers should be considered in the light of the presence of similar registers held at the Nationaal Archief Curaçao (finding aid 005, Archief Koloniale Overheid, nos. 1-1070).

A new resource on the legal history of violence in the United States

Banner Repsoitory of Historical Guin law - Duke University

At least on a few occasions even historians who try to remain detached from contemporary matters cannot escape from them. A blog dealing with law and history inevitably will touch major themes such as injustice, inequality, violence and slavery, things that are still present in our world, and are definitively not only history. The four themes mentioned here set a challenge to anyone thinking and writing. The subject of violence I have chosen for this post does not come completely unexpected. This month I read a notice about a new scholarly resource on the history of legislation about arms in the United States. Joseph Blocher and Darrell Miller (Duke University School of Law) have created a repository of historical gun laws. I will discuss here its contents and functions. By looking briefly at some contemporary resources on violence I will not shut out the present here entirely.

Finding laws

Blocher and Miller explain the way they compiled the information for their repository quite clearly. The first thing to notice is that the database does not contain the latest laws, statutes and other regulations. You will find English laws starting in the Middle Ages up to 1776, American legislation for the colonial period from 1607 to 1791, the year the American constitution was ratified, laws around the Fourteenth Amendment, and legislation up to the National Firearms Act of 1934. Colonial legislation has been limited to legislation in later American states. The legislation entered into the repository has been taken from regular resources such as well-known licensed databases on legislation by the Congress and state statutes, the Making of Modern Law, Yale Law School’s Avalon project and more general sources. A search for items mentioning the word gun was performed for the Session Laws. In the Making of Modern Law Blocher and Miller searched for the words gun(s), rifle(s) and pistol(s). The editors decided not to include every local regulation for every period. Sometimes a statute merely repeats earlier legal enactments. The spelling of older texts has been adjusted. On the blog of Duke Law School Blocher and Miller told on April 4, 2018 more about their project which contains currently some 1,500 items. They propose to add continuously newly discovered statutes, to expand the information for the colonial period, and of course they will correct factual errors.

Instead of creating at the outset a database with complete coverage of all possible legislation the two scholars at Duke did very sensible aim to deliver a set of materials which cover a most substantial period with due attention to colonial history. In the repository you can search at will using the free text field, and set filters for seventeen particular themes, for example militia regulations, hunting, manufacturing, sensitive places and times, race and slavery, and involvement of minors. It is possible to limit your search to specific years, and you can search for English law and for legislation from one or more states. The repository gives the texts of provisions, labelled with the usual current legal reference. A link to the sources used is also given. Thus you will find an act about the storage of weapons enacted on March 24, 1629 by the state Virginia with the reference 1629 Va. Acts 151, Acts of March 24, 1629, Act 5, and in this case a link to a digitized version in the Internet Archive of The statutes at large, being a collection of all the law of Virginia (…) (New York,1823). This statute at page 151 of the edition dealt with potash and nitre (saltpeter), vital ingredients for gunpowder.

The repository has six statutes on storage between 1607 and 1776, and eight from 1776 to 1791, and you will find 54 statutes on this subject from 1791 to 1861. Storage is the subject of 191 statutes in this database. I would not have labelled a statute of king Alfred from 890, the oldest law in the repository, about the way one has to carry a spear under storage, but under carrying weapons. The source used for this law is not given. In the edition of F. Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen (3 vol., Halle, 1903-1916) it is probably the statute no. 33 (I, 68-71). Of course this is only a detail, and one that can be quickly adjusted. The possibility of classifying statutes under two labels is certainly a matter needing attention. However, the important thing is that this repository enables you to pose questions about a particular genre of gun laws with a more than reasonable chance to find sufficient coverage. Thanks to the project Early English Laws I could quickly search for this medieval law.

At this point it becomes interesting, too, how we encounter laws with a relation to racial matters in the Duke repository. I will not spoil here your own curiosity by giving here a number of results for all subjects. For race and slavery you will find an overall total of 38 results. Here I cannot help thinking about Hein’s massive digital collection Slavery in America and the World where you can certainly find more or at least make valuable comparisons of the coverage. In 2016 I have discussed here at length some of its flaws and omissions, but it is a very valuable collection. Some quick searches among slavery statutes brought me already dozens of statutes which seem relevant for comparisons. Minors and other persons deemed irresponsible occur in 67 results in the Duke repository. Apart from statutes and regulations you will see also references to state constitutions and codes of law.

From the past to the present

It is not a regular thing to encounter a database with matters from the ninth to the early twentieth century. One of the compliments you must make to Blocher and Miller is that the quality of the repository makes one thirst for a sequel into the present. I suppose the editors reckon with the ability to find relevant legislation quickly, using either the licensed databases accessible at American law schools and elsewhere in research libraries, or the marvellous sets of digitized legal materials put online by the Law Library of the Library of Congress, together with links to other resources in open access. If you want to find online more about American legal history you can benefit from Legal History on the Web, the portal site of the Triangle Legal History Seminar at Duke University, for Blocher and Miller perhaps too obvious to mention!

It is impossible to ignore the current turmoil and debate about violence and gun laws in the United States. It would mean ignoring an elephant in the room. I was surprised the ever vigilant team of the Legal History Blog had not yet written something about the Duke repository. Maybe other recent news from Duke University was considered more pressing. The urgency of the situation around the use, abuse and possession of arms is clear to me, but here I can and will not offer my thoughts about possible remedies. For further information you can consult online websites such as the Gun Violence Archive, the Mass Shooting Tracker based on crowdsourcing, and Mass Shootings in America of the Stanford Geospatial Center. Projects such as Every Town for Gun Safety and The Trace bring news and background information concerning shootings, gun related violence, gun possession and gun laws in a larger context. At Mother Jones you can find a dataset concerning mass shootings in the United States between 1982 and 2018. SafeHome has an online dossier Gun Laws vs. Gun Deaths with maps showing the differences between American states.

Judicial statistics can generally be found at the website of the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Its page on weapon use will be at the focus of your attention. Those with access at a subscribing institutions can use the online edition of the Historical Statistics of the United States, where you can buy also two-day access to individual parts of it, or you can use the open access version of Historical Statistics of United States, Colonial Times to 1970 provided by the United States Census Bureau which brings you also to statistics for individual states. For statistical comparisons between countries one might start at the Swedish portal for historical statistics with as its core data for 21 countries.

If I had decided to follow here the path of historical statistics I would have added a second post. I am well aware more can be said, and that there are probably other online entrances to this kind of data, but I had rather not hide the main line of this contribution. The shooting at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018 led to massive protests. In my view the database created by Blocher and Miller is one of the things helping to reflect on the development of law and justice concerning weapons in the history of the United States. They perform a service to the public. Hopefully others, and in particular law schools, lawyers and other legal scholars are willing, too, to consider what difference they themselves can make by studying the impact of visible and hidden violence, and how laws, statutes and other regulations work and worked to achieve justice for the victims and anyone hurt by violence. Its role in American history and in legal history needs study in all its aspects.

Deciphering texts and Dutch legal history

Historians sometimes dream just as much as anyone else of immediate and intimate contact with the past. Museums nowadays create exhibitions and permanent rooms where often the experience of artefacts and objects is as important as the objects themselves. Historical documents can work as a time capsule, in particular when you have letters or diaries in front of you. Within several projects around the Prize Papers of the High Court of Admiralty held at the National Archives, Kew, letters take pride of place. Digitization projects have helped to approach them more directly than ever before. However, scholars sometimes sigh in front of historic Dutch handwriting. Is there any help in English for those wanting to decipher and study Dutch materials from the medieval or Early Modern period? In this post I would like to look at a number of online tutorials and guides, in order to compare their qualities, and to address also some of the difficulties you encounter. Two online projects prompted me to look here at Dutch palaeography and to search for online assistance in English.

The challenge of Dutch handwriting

A number of posts at my blog deal with old Dutch documents. I have looked here both at the Dutch letters surviving the centuries within the Prize Papers, and at projects dealing with other series within the archive of the High Court of Admiralty. In 2017 I looked at the 1623 Amboyna conspiracy trial with several archival records in Dutch with transcriptions and translations into English. Faithful readers might remember my summer posting about the colonial records of New Netherland in New York. Part of the success to edit and digitized these records was the labor of several archivists and historians to transcribe these records. Some of these transcriptions proved to be crucial when a fire in 1911 hit the building of the State Library of New York destroying a substantial number of these Early Modern archival materials.

In 2017 the department of Dutch Studies at Berkeley finished a project to publish transcribed Dutch colonial records in the Sluiter Collection of the Bancroft Library. Engel Sluiter donated his transcriptions made in Europe of Dutch archival records in 1996 to this library. You can download a PDF (3 MB) with a list of these materials prepared by Julie van der Horst. Seven boxes contain materials dealing with the New Netherland implantation. In this case the typed transcriptions were OCR-ed and checked by Julie van der Horst who is fluent in Dutch. Knowledge of Dutch was in this case more important than palaeographical skills.

The only tutorial for Dutch palaeography in English will be launched soon at the Script Tutorial of the Brigham Young University. It will appear in an English and Dutch version. The second project shows not only original documents in Dutch, but also transcriptions and for a number of them English translations. The transcriptions of a key document are shown line for line below snippets of the original record, thus approaching the qualities of a palaeographical tutorial. In fact I encountered the website because of the main resource, the journal of Hendrick Hamel (1630-1692). Hamel sailed in 1653 with the Dutch vessel De Sperwer from Batavia (Djakarta) on Java with the Dutch settlement at Deshima in Japan as final destination, but he ended in Korea after a shipwreck. He was arrested and lived for thirteen years as a prisoner in Korea. In 1666 he could escape with seven shipmates to Japan. Back in Java he wrote his report, which was first published in 1668 and quickly translated.

Hamel’s report is not a ship journal kept by the captain. For two centuries it was almost the only European eyewitness account of Korea. The contemporary translations contained numerous mistakes which were taken over at face value, without much inclination to go back to the original texts. Henny Savenije, a Dutchman living in South Korea, wrote with Jet Quadekker a book about Hendrick Hamel with a new edition of the Dutch text, Het journaal van Hendrick Hamel : de verbazingwekkende lotgevallen van Hendrick Hamel en andere schipbreukelingen van het VOC-schip de Sperwer in Korea (1653-1666) (Rotterdam 2003). On his website he presents a set of materials surrounding Hamel’s journal, with images of archival records, transcriptions in Dutch and English translations. For clarity’s sake you can find here an English translation of Hamel’s report about Korea which is actually quite brief.

Hamel's journal in the 1920 edition

Hamel’s journal in the 1920 edition by B. Hoetink – image The Memory of The Netherlands

I would like to focus here on the archival records at Savenije’s website and their treatment. The presentation, transcriptions and translation of Hamel’s report are the core of this website. The report is mainly written in a very fluent hand using a large script taking 51 pages of a register, referred to as “Nationaal Archief, nr. 1265”. If you look at the line-by-line transcription – here fol. 1155r – you can see for yourself the accessibility of this script. However fluent its look-and-feel, it nevertheless poses a challenge when you are used to English handwriting. In the modern edition of the Dutch text by B. Hoetink an image of the first page of the journal is included [Verhaal van het vergaan van het jacht De Sperwer (…) (The Hague 1920; Werken uitgegeven door de Linschoten-Vereeniging, 16)]. Hoetink’s edition is available online at The Memory of The Netherlands and in the Digitale Bibliotheek der Nederlandse Letteren (text-only).

Title page of Hamel's journal, Rotterdam 1668

Title page of Hamel’s report in the edition Rotterdam 1668 – copy Oxford University

I had intended to go quickly to the other Dutch records at Savenije’s website, but unfortunately navigating this site is not straightforward. It took me some time to retrace the page with images. The central page where you can choose other records is presented as an appendix (bijlagen) in spite of its central function. However, you must applaud the presence of both English and Dutch versions, but you become acutely aware of the difference between using the original or depending on translations with all their qualities or deficiencies. Savenije gives a list of seventeenth century Dutch editions and translations, and also modern editions. It is strange he does not recognize the Linschoten Vereeniging as the Dutch pendant to the Hakluyt Society, both societies which promote modern editions of Early Modern travel accounts.

A second matter which deserves attention is the incomplete reference to the source. The Dutch National Archives at The Hague are home to 100 kilometer of archival records. For the Dutch East India Company, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), you can use finding aid 1.04.02. No. 1265 is described as “1668 FFFF. Vierde boek: Batavia’s ingekomen brievenboek, deel II 1668”, a register of incoming letters at Batavia for 1668. Alas there are no digital scans of this register. You will recognize the need for a proper reference when you see the wealth of archival collections worldwide in the overview of relevant collections for the VOC at the TANAP portal. If you search for Sperwer in the TANAP database of VOC records you will get three results. Two of them refer to the register no. 1265, entered both for 1653 and 1666, as “Journael gericht aenden Ed. heer gouverneur generael Joan Maetsuijcker en d’Ed. heeren raaden van Nederlants India vant geene de overgebleven officieren ende matroosen vant jacht de Sperwer ‘t zedert 16 Augustij anno 1653 dat tselve jacht aan ‘t Quelpaerts Eijland hebben verlooren tot den 14 September anno 1666 dat met haer 8 ontvlught ende tot Nangasackij in Japan aangecomen zijn; int selve rijck van Coree is wedervaren mitsgaders den ommeganck van die natie ende gelegentheijt van ‘t land”, a report written for governor Joan Maetsuijcker and the council of the Dutch Indies by the remaining officers and men of the yacht Sperwer, how they were shipwrecked and escaped to Japan, and their notes on the kingdom of Korea, to be found on the pages – in fact folia! – 1155-1179. You can guess I would like to have precise references for any document for which Savenije has created a page with the Dutch text and an English translation, for example a notice from 1666 in the daily register of the Dutch settlement Deshima, an island in the harbor of Nagasaki. During two centuries it was virtually the only point of direct contact between Japan and Europe. Incidentally Savenije’s large pictures of the 1668 register are not sharp enough to be usable, but luckily those smaller selections you will see with the transcription are most readable.

The thing to note here for legal historians is the way Hamel was treated in Korea, his position with the Dutch in Deshima, and the procedures of his superiors who interrogated him about his adventures and prolonged absence. In the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands you search for the various editions until 1800 of Hamel’s report in the Dutch version.

Other roads to quick insight

By now you might conclude I am all in favor of good tutorials with proper references, transcriptions and translations, and I will mention some of them later on. I feel even tempted to ponder creating a tutorial myself, but I had better send you first to two portals with a lot of Early Modern documents in Dutch and a substantial presence of legal documents. Surprisingly art history comes here to help my needs.

Header Remdoc - KNAW/RU

At the portal Remdoc, a project fo the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences and the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, you can consult many documents about or related to Rembrandt van Rijn. It is the companion to The Rembrandt Database with information about his paintings, drawings and etchings. At Remdoc you can easily choose among 100 court records, 182 municipal records and 316 notarial acts. You can filter for holding institutions and even for the kind of document you would like to see. The Dutch terms are translated in English. Depositions, tax rolls, affidavits, fines, securities, inventories of insolvency, probate inventories, marriage announcements, two pleadings, due bills, you name it and you can get them. In many cases you will find images of the documents.

Document of a loan, 1653

Obligation to Rembrandt, 1653 – Amsterdam, Stadsarchief, Notarieel Archief, no. 1029B, p. 913 – image Remdoc and Stadsarchief Amsterdam

I picked a document for a loan Rembrandt got from Christoffel Thijsz. in 1649 to buy a house. It is the small inserted document at the right. The Remdoc project gives you a zoomable image, exact references about the source and relevant literature, a transcription of the seventeenth-century Dutch and a translation in English. This document tells you Rembrandt had failed to repay this loan for the purchase of his house, the very Rembrandthuis in de Sint-Anthoniebreesteeg – now the Jodenbreestraat – worth 7000 guilders in 1649, and that Christoffel Thijsz. claimed this sum with three years interest and additional costs, a total of 8470 guilders. The comments on the page of the portal explain the context of this document.

The due bill, 1653

Sometimes there is no other road to a destination than going the long road, and in my view it is not a punishment to learn about Rembrandt, by all accounts no stranger to human failure. His greatness is the way he conveyed his insight into human nature with consummate artistry. In Rembrandt’s work you have the uncanny sensation of knowing intimately the people facing you. It makes his series of self portraits into a touching voyage through his life.

The city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc), the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences and again the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, have created a similar project for Jeroen Bosch called BoschDoc. On the project website you can use either the Dutch, English or Spanish interface. Here, too, you will find a wide variety of sources and often images of original documents, but always at least a transcription, a translation, comments and further references. Art historians are familiar with the Montias database of 17th century art inventories of the Frick Collection in New York, but the Montias database does not include images of archival records. Dutch probate inventories have been transcribed for a database of the Meertens Instituut for Dutch ethnology, Amsterdam. The website of Joseph Byrne (Belmont University) will guide you to literature about ancient, medieval and Early Modern wills and probate inventories. I would almost forget the website of the Amboyna Conspiracy Trail where you can find a number of Dutch records, transcriptions and English translations side by side.

Learning by doing

In the current absence of an English online manual for Dutch palaeography it is sensible to search for a collection with online images of documents, transcriptions and translations in order to guide your first steps in a language that might sound strange to you and certainly differs from modern Dutch, and in a script that might look baffling. If I had to deal with similar documents from another country I would perhaps also start searching for a project presenting documents around a famous person. For example a search for Early Modern letters at Early Modern Letters Online (Bodleian Libraries, Oxford) would certainly bring you to a helpful project. Such documents offer a great training ground. In my view the only way to maintain your skills in deciphering old scripts is by regular exercise, but you will need initial training. At many universities and archives you can join groups to acquire palaeographical skills. Online tutorials can surely help you to overcome unnecessary fear, but they can also make you aware of real difficulties.

Since a year I have been collecting online resources for palaeography at a new page of my legal history portal Rechtshistorie. Until now I have found ten tutorials for Dutch palaeography. Since 2016 three archives in North Brabant and the Utrecht archives offer at Wat Staat Daer [“What’s That?”] a tutorial, and at an online forum people can upload images with their questions. In a few cases people from Canada came with Dutch documents they considered illegible or in other respects too difficult for them.

Banner Haagse Handschriften

The only tutorial from Belgium, Iter-digitalicum from Leuven, scores points with a poster in English with core information, something missing elsewhere. Apart from many texts in Dutch you can view in the gallery with nearly 700 manuscripts also manuscripts written in Arabic, Armenian and Coptic, and for example humanist letters to and by François Cranevelt. It would mean writing another post if I would give here a full comparison of these tutorials, but not the least among them is Haagse handschriften [Manuscripts from The Hague], a website of the municipal archive, focusing on sixteenth-century criminal law, a register of criminal jurisdiction for the years 1575-1579 called Quaetclap [literally “Slander”] (HGA, Oud Rechterlijk Archief, no. 1) with facing images of the register and transcriptions. The other strength of this tutorial is the rich section with references for general documentation, covering not only other auxiliary sciences, but also for example guidelines for transcriptions and editions and legal dictionaries, often with links to digitized versions. Information for both last subjects you cannot easily find together online elsewhere. The tutorial offers a similar reference page on the history of The Hague.

Surmounting supposed and real difficulties is sometimes a personal matter. Often it is motivating to delve into a subject that seems at the surface difficult. Once your interest in a particular thing is kindled, you will start to enjoy finding out more about it, and thus familiarizing yourself will not feel heavy or boring. As a historian I personally like to visualize behind documents real people and their lives. Medieval farmers did not plough through registers, someone famously said! Reading the original documents about early New York, Rembrandt or Bosch should make you happy and curious about people. Being able to read old scripts will also set you free from complete reliance on transcriptions and translations. Guidance and commentaries can be helpful and even necessary to some extent, but in the end you are studying the past and its traces, and you will learn how to interpret and use sources yourself in a reliable way.

A postscript

From December 7, 2018 untill April 7, 2019 the municipal archives in Amsterdam will present the exhibit Rembrandt Privé [Rembrandt Privately]. The exhibit will show the use of augmented reality for studying archival records. Some documents damaged by a fire in 1762 have now been digitized. At the educational resource Geschiedenislokaal Amsterdam [History Class Amsterdam] you can find a number of digitized documents concerning Rembrandt from the rich holdings of the Stadsarchief Amsterdam.

The many sides of Belgium’s legal history

Banner Digithemis

In the ocean of legal websites you encounter very different sites. There are relatively few attempts at creating portals. When I saw the Digithemis portal for Belgian legal history and discovered its qualities it was only a matter of time before I would write about it here. Digithemis has been created by the Centre d’Histoire du Droit et de la Justice, Université Catholique Louvain-la-Neuve. Currently there is no portal site for Dutch legal history, and thus there is every reason, not only for Dutchmen, to look at this website. It might well inspire scholars in other countries, too.

Simple layout and rich contents

Logo CHDJ, Univers't Catholique, Louvain-la-Neuve

One of the powerful aspects of this website is its simple layout, with an implicit promise you will not get lost here. The subtitle Système numérique d’information historique sur la Justice is best translated as “digital system for historical information about justice”. Under the first heading Applications three databases are presented. The first, Belgian Magistrates, is concerned with officials in the Belgian judicial system. The database contains personal information, details about nominations, jurisdictions and institutions. Cubes, the second database, gives you judicial statistics, information about the number of cases and given verdicts in Belgian courts of justice. As a matter of fact I was hunting for websites with historical statistics when I ran into Digithemis. The third section brings us a bibliographical database for Belgium’s legal history. The database is the fruit of cooperation between the CHDJ at Louvain-la-Neuve and the project BeJust 2.0 – Justice et Populations.

In the second section, Ressources documentaires, you will find four subjects: legislation, doctrine, jurisprudence, and surprisingly again judicial statistics. Under Legislation you can find the French versions of the various codes of Belgian law, bulletins of the Ministry of Justice (circulaires), legislation concerning the judicial structure of Belgium, and a similar section for Congo during the colonial period. For doctrine you can look at a number of legal journals, at mercuriales, discourses pronounced at the start of the judicial season by the attorneys general, and there is a bibliographical database for criminology with some 8,500 entries. The corner with jurisprudence seemed at first straightforward: for arrêts of the Cour de cassation between 1832 and 1936 you can consult the Pasicrisie, alas currently not available, and for the period 1937-2011 there is a similar site, but here I can see only verdicts between 2002 and 2015. A very much contested period in Belgium’s history comes up with the online version of La jurisprudence belge depuis le 10 mai 1940The section for judicial statistics is enhanced by a historical overview and a concise bibliography.

The section Expositions virtuelles contains two virtual exhibits. The first, Classified, looks at Belgian military intelligence forces. The second one, Mots de la Justice [Words of Justice] is concerned with images and imagery of law and justice. The accompanying congress in Bruges earlier this year has figured on this blog at the time the bilingual catalogue was published.

The next stop of this tour are the contributions, As for now there are only two scholarly articles. The Lignes de temps interactives show interactive timelines for three subjects, women and legal professions, the Belgian judicial organisation, and the jury d’assises. In particular the timeline for women in the legal profession is telling. Ten short videos with presentations in French and Dutch about recent research are the last element of this section.

Logo BeJust 2.0

Finally the links section of this website confirms its claim to be a portal for legal history. The concise choise of links concerns Belgium, France, digital resources, and some Transatlantic websites and projects. In the right sidebar you can browse for interesting items in a RSS feed. This portal does build on other major projects in Belgium, starting with BeJust 2.0. Other portals often have an events calendar, but it seems Françoise Muller and Xavier Rousseaux wisely have built a compact portal with space for future extensions. The footer of the portal mentions the 2016 prize of the Fonds Wernaers awarded by the Fonds National de la Recherche Scientifique (FNRS) for the best scientific website.

More statistics

Logo Lokstat

I found the attention to statistics a strong feature of this portal. I could not help noticing that it might be useful to add a more general website for Belgian statistics to this portal. The University Ghent has created the Lokstat project, an abbreviation of Lokale statistieken, local statistics. This project currently offers local statistics taken from the 1900 census in Belgium, with additionally an agricultural census from 1895 and an industry census from 1896, this one accompanied with maps. It would be interesting to combine these data with judicial statistics.

As a Dutchman admiring these efforts of a neighbour country I have not yet found similar Dutch judicial statistics at a special platform. The Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS) has made a fine website for Dutch Censuses 1795-1971, accessible in Dutch and English. At CBS Historische Collectie you can consult digitized reports from almost two centuries. For the field of law and justice there are mainly reports from the second half of the twentieth century, for example prison statistics (1950-2000), crimes between 1950 and 1981, juvenile criminality (1974-1981) and crime victims (1980-1984). A quick look at general publications since 1813 in this digital collection shows judicial statistics were part and parcel of the yearly overviews. For four Dutch provinces there are yearbooks since the 1840’s (Provinciale verslagen).

It is not because you find everything at particular websites, but because they help you to look further, to value information, to think about problems you want to study or to contact scholars or read their work, that portals such as Digithemis deserve a warm welcome and attentive followers. Digithemis should serve as an invitation for the creation of similar portals for other countries and regions, too.

An empire of laws and books

Empires come and go in different forms. The Spanish colonial empire came into existence and made its mark on people not only by physical conquest, but also by the power of words in print. The sixteenth century was witness to the success of the printing press. Governments used books in many ways. In this post I would like to introduce a new digital collection concerning colonial law in Latin America created by the library of the Max-Planck-Institute for European Legal History in Frankfurt am Main, In recent years global and transnational legal history has become a major focus in the various programs of this institute. At the start of a new academic year and at many other moments it is always sensible for legal historians to have a look at the developments of this great research institute.

The laws of the Indies

Starts screen De indiarum iure

The new digital collection has a Latin name, De Indiarum iure, “On the law of the Indies”As for now there are 33 titles in this collection. Instead of deploring the low number of books you had better appreciate the presence of works on canon law and the Christian faith. This mixture of subjects shows in a nutshell the all-encompassing impact of the books the Spanish published, mainly in Mexico and sometimes elsewhere in Latin America. The work that gives its name to the collection, Juan de Solórzano y Pereira’s De Indiarum Iure, has not yet been digitized within this digital library. You can consult online a copy of the first edition (Madrid 1629) in the Internet Archive (copy Rome, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale). There is a reprint of this edition (Frankfurt am Main, 2006). A modern critical edition of this text has been published in the series Corpus Hispanorum de poce by C. Baciero (3 vol., Madrid 1994-2001).

More to the point is perhaps the question of the relation of this new collection to the project of this Max-Planck-Institute around the legal history of the School of Salamanca. The term School of Salamanca refers to Early Modern authors who taught at Salamanca in the fields of law, theology and philosophy. A fair number of them were either Dominicans or Jesuits, and their background was another factor in making the debates more interesting and complicated. In fact there is a web page of the institute for cooperation with a second project in Germany concerning this Spanish university, The School of Salamanca (Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, Mainz). Thomas Duve, one of the two directors of the MPI in Frankfurt in Main, leads also this project in Mainz. The Mainz project will eventually also present a digital library of relevant resources. Thoughtfully one has already provided a list of works to be digitized. The website of the Salamanca project at Mainz points to a number of relevant links and even a mailing list for those interested in the project. These webpages can be viewed in German, English and Spanish.

Start screen digital collection The School of Salamanc

At a separate website, The School of Salamanca, with indeed a very sensible use of the extension .school in its URL, you may want consult the digital collection created for the project at Mainz which now contains 118 works. On closer inspection you will find currently only 21 works, with links to the online catalogue of the university library at Salamanca, but no actual links to digitized works. However, in the digital library of the Universidad de Salamanca you will find a number of the works announced at Mainz. Where possible links to digitized works at Salamanca could be added swiftly. The website with the digital library will also contain a legal-political dictionary. Both projects seem promising, but at this moment they both do not yet bring you completely what you would expect. The MPI website does not yet give you the URL of the joint digital collection. By all means one can wonder about the launch of two related digital collections which seem to cry out for an integral approach following the lines of the new projects at the MPI which cross borders effortlessly. Both projects do look beyond more traditional ways of inquiry. The blog of the Mainz project is one of the places to look for various aspects of modern research into Spanish authors, as does the general page of the MPI on the School of Salamanca and legal history.

A third project, Scholastica Colonialis, is worth some attention here, too. Scholars from six countries do research on the history of Spanish and colonial philosophy in the Early Modern period. This project will not contain a digital collection.

Logo Primeros Libros de las Americas

On purpose I mentioned the absence of a special digital collection at Scholastica Colonialis. In view of the variety of digital libraries in Latin America and those in Spain and Portugal concerning the Americas it is justifiable to question the need for a new digital collection. The MPI wisely chooses at De Indiarum iure mostly works not commonly associated with legal history. The project at Mainz has not yet completely implemented its choice for works digitized at Salamanca, but its aim and the argumentation behind this choice seem clear. To get an idea of the number of digital libraries for both North and South America you might want to look at the links collection I created at my own legal history website. For perfectly understandable reasons the MPI at Frankfurt am Main does not maintain a portal for legal history with extensive links collections, otherwise I probably would not have started my own pages with links to digital libraries, archives and image collections. To mention a few examples of the very extent of such libraries, the international Biblioteca Digital de Patrimonio Iberoamericano now even has a section for incunabula. Primeros Libros de las Americas is a second international project which brings you books printed in the Americas before 1601. This is the place to mention also the online Catálogo Colectivo de Impresos Latinoamericanos hasta 1851 for Latin American editions, and you might want to use the Catálogo Colectivo del Patrimonio Bibliográfico Español.

My first impression of the De Indiarum iure digital collection at Frankfurt am Main is mixed. Perhaps it is best to see it as a kind of preview. When eventually more titles have been added to it, the collection will certainly be a further asset to the digital library of the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte. No doubt the word “European” will one day disappear from its name! The digital collection at Mainz strangely lacks links to digitized books, but this omission can easily be repaired. A second thing to keep in mind is that whatever the qualities of both digital collections might be, they form elements for projects that will massively enrich our knowledge, understanding and views of the School of Salamanca as a factor in Spanish and Latin American history with a fascinating interplay between scholastic thought, legislation and Early Modern debates on many aspects of law and society.

A postscript

In Spring 2018 it is possible to access 21 digitized books in the digital corner of the School of Salamanca; they can be viewed using the IIIF Mirador viewer.