Comparative Studies in Society and History

Research Article

Frontier as Resource: Law, Crime, and Sovereignty on the Margins of Empire

Eric Lewis Beverley 

History, SUNY–Stony Brook


Nineteenth-century European colonialism produced a textured and uneven legal terrain rather than homogeneous imperial units. The fragmentation of sovereignty between empires and subordinated states created frontier zones that unsettled the workings of governance. This article views the developing landscape of power in high colonial South Asia from the loosely controlled frontier zone between Hyderabad, a Princely State ruled by sovereign Muslim dynasts titled Nizams, and the Bombay Presidency, part of Britain's Indian Empire, or Raj. I argue that the heterogeneous legal terrain along the border was a useful resource for administrators and subjects. State officials of both Hyderabad and Bombay justified various projects there; subjects of the two states shopped forums in a legal pluralist environment; and populations on either side of the border whose livelihoods and political agendas ran afoul of social pressures or the economic and cultural imperatives of state projects fled there from adversity. I examine cases of alleged cattle rustlers, bandits, and prostitutes and their engagements with police and courts to explore the political challenges and possibilities the frontier offered different groups. Colonial attempts to extend racialized policing practices across the frontier were frequently met by machinations of marginal people trying to avoid imprisonment or extricate themselves from oppressive social structures. Such figures could use the ambiguity of frontier legal authority to their advantage. The picture that emerges is one of a brute and often-arbitrary colonial power offset by alternative malleable sovereignties that resourceful subjects could play against one another.


  Crucial material support for the research and writing of this piece was provided by the Fulbright-Hays Program, Harvard University, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the Freie Universität Berlin. I am grateful for the intellectual generosity and critical engagement of Lauren Benton, Johann Büssow, Prachi Deshpande, David Gilmartin, Paul Gootenberg, Doug Haynes, Engseng Ho, Shekhar Krishnan, Daniel Levy, John Rogers, Svati Shah, Bhrigupati Singh, Ajantha Subramanian, Ashwini Tambe, and three anonymous CSSH reviewers. Their comments and insights, offered in conversation or in writing, have done much to shape the ideas and arguments presented here. Audiences in Stony Brook, Chicago, Berlin, and Cambridge, Massachusetts provided key critical feedback. Thanks also to Moacir P. de Sá Pereira for his excellent map, and to CSSH editors Andrew Shryock and David Akin, whose judgment and guidance proved indispensable.