Courtrooms of Conflict: Criminal Law, Local Elites and Legal Pluralities in Colonial Java.


Sanne Ravensbergen

PhD defended at: 

Leiden University


In her PhD thesis ‘Courtrooms of Conflict’, Sanne Ravensbergen demonstrates the role of criminal law and courtroom dynamics in the process of colonial state formation in nineteenth-century Java, where separate law courts and laws existed for different population groups. ‘Courtrooms of Conflict’ shows not only the inequality of this segregated criminal law system in the nineteenth century, but also provides insight into the uncertain and unjust workings of colonial criminal law in practice. Through an actor-focused approach and by tracing longer histories of law, ‘Courtrooms of Conflict’ offers a genealogy of the pluralistic character of the regional law courts in colonial Java.

In the pluralistic law courts— the landraden and ommegaande rechtbanken—where the local (and other non-European) population was tried, Javanese and Dutch court members decided over the verdict together by ballot, with Islamic and Chinese leaders providing advice on religious and local legal traditions. Consequently, legal pluralities were forged and the perspectives of Dutch and Javanese judges, as well as Chinese captains, local prosecutors and Islamic advisors, all influenced the law court sessions. While collaborative, these courtroom proceedings were often framed by a sense of superiority, racial prejudices and fear of Islam on part of the Dutch colonial officials. The pluralistic courtrooms were, because of the encounters and conflicts between and across the various powers, an uncertain arena where administrative (and financial) interests entangled with judicial power, and where the colonial state, based on a ‘dual rule’ of Dutch and Javanese elites, gradually consolidated. In a space where various actors entered the stage, it was by keeping laws undefined, procedures vague, and networks informal—by institutionalizing uncertainty—that space was created to exercise colonial rule.

By taking the spatial materiality of the courtroom as a starting point, Courtrooms of Conflict analyses the judicial, political and personal encounters between the various actors in the colonial courtroom. This approach reveals the conflicts between several layers, institutions, and individuals in the process of colonial state formation, and the importance of local actors in this process. Local dynamics as well as tensions between the various layers of the colonial state, which were either striving for uniformity or for the maintenance of local pluralities, provide insights into the complex formation processes of dual rule from below.