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Mimetic Governmentality and the Administration of Colonial Justice in East Timor, ca. 1860–1910

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 January 2015

Ricardo Roque*
Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon


This article explores the mimesis of indigenous “customs and law” as a theory of and strategy for colonial government in the period of late imperialism. I draw on the case of colonial administration in the Portuguese colony of Timor during the second-half of the nineteenth century. I introduce the concept of “mimetic governmentality”: the art of governing the Other through the productive inclusion of institutions, symbols, cultural materials, or social forms understood as other than one's own. In Timor, the imperial establishment was characterized by fragility and isolation, and a pragmatic style of colonial action thrived. In Europe, modern doctrines of colonial law rejected assimilationist policies and advocated “specialization.” In this context, between 1860 and 1910, administrators on Timor devised a system of colonial justice that required the colonizers to slip into the indigenous world and govern others from the others' position and perspectives. To efficiently govern the “natives” and apply colonial justice in courts—the so-called justiças—Europeans had to release themselves from European principles and embrace indigenous law, as they understood it. The essay uses the case of Timor to assert the analytic importance and potential of mimesis for the comparative study of colonial administrations during the period of imperial expansion.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2014 

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1 Seminal references include Paul Stoller, Embodying Colonial Memories: Spirit Possession, Power and the Hauka in West Africa (New York: Routledge, 1995)Google Scholar; and Bhabha, Homi, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” October 28 (1984), 125–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Taussig, Michael, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (New York: Routledge, 1993), xiii, 36Google Scholar. See also his Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987)Google Scholar; and Benjamin, Walter, “On the Mimetic Faculty,” in his Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 333–36Google Scholar.

3 Ibid., 16. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's critique of the “organized mimesis” revealed in Nazi anti-Semitic violence inspired Taussig's researches into colonialism; Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 137–73Google Scholar. See Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity, 45–46, 59–63. The relation between mimesis and violence is explored in a rather different direction in Girard's, René theory of mimetic desire: La Violence et le Sacré (Paris: Grasset, 1972)Google Scholar.

4 Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity, xviii.

5 Histories of mimesis as a far-reaching concept with changing meanings include Gebauer, Gunter and Wulf, Christoph, Mimesis: Culture, Art, Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995)Google Scholar; Potolsky, Mathew, Mimesis (London: Routledge, 2006)Google Scholar. Ideas of mimesis, imitation, and mimicry have also followed interconnected though distinct trajectories as concepts within the human sciences. Compare Dias, Nélia, “Imitation et Anthropologie,” Terrain 44 (2005): 518CrossRefGoogle Scholar. A critique of Taussig's conflation of mimicry and mimesis is Huggan, Graham, “(Post)Colonialism, Anthropology, and the Magic of Mimesis,” Cultural Critique 38 (1997): 91106CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Gebauer and Wulf, Mimesis, 4.

7 I mobilize this concept in its wider and inspiring sense as an “art of government” of individuals and collectives. Here I will not explore Foucault's prolific elaborations on the theme, especially in his later lectures. Compare Foucault, Michel, “Governmentality,” in Burchell, G., Gordon, C., and Miller, P., eds., The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 87104Google Scholar; and Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–78 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)Google Scholar.

8 See Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity, 4757. See also Mauss, Marcel and Hubert's, Henri critical revision of James Frazer's law of similarity in imitative magic: “Esquisse d'une Théorie Générale de la Magie,” Année Sociologique 7 (1903): 1146Google Scholar.

9 See Ranger, Terence, “The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa,” in Hobsbawm, Eric and Ranger, Terence, eds., The Invention of Tradition (London: Canto, 1983), 211–62Google Scholar. For a critical survey of the debate since the 1980s, see Spear, Thomas, “Neo-Traditionalism and the Limits of Invention in British Colonial Africa,” Journal of African History 44: 1 (2003): 327CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 See, for example, Hespanha, António Manuel, “Modalidades e Limites do Imperialismo Jurídico na Colonização Portuguesa,” Quaderni Fiorentini XLI (2012): 101–36Google Scholar. Compare with Mommsen, W. J. and de Moor, J. A., eds., European Expansion and Law: The Encounter of European and Indigenous Law in 19th and 20th-Century Africa and Asia (New York: Berg, 1998)Google Scholar; Kirkby, Diane and Coleborne, Catharine, eds., Law, History, Colonialism: The Reach of Empire (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

11 Portuguese missionaries first settled on Timor Island in the sixteenth century, but from the seventeenth century the country was divided into two spheres of colonial influence: West (Dutch) Timor and East (Portuguese) Timor. In 1769, the Portuguese established the seat of colonial rule in Dili and remained there until the Indonesian invasion of 1975. The territory is today the independent nation of Timor-Leste (República Democrática de Timor-Leste).

12 See Roque, Ricardo, “The Unruly Island: Colonialism's Predicament in Late Nineteenth-Century East Timor,” Portuguese Literary and Cultural Studies 17/18 (2010): 303–30Google Scholar.

13 de Almada Negreiros, A. L., L'Organisation Judiciaire dans les Colonies Portugaises (Bruxelles: Institut Colonial International, 1908), 1020Google Scholar; and Colonies Portugaises: Les Organismes Politiques Indigènes (Paris: Challamel, 1910)Google Scholar, ch. 10. See Hespanha, “Modalidades,” 124–27.

14 Compare, for recent studies that reassess the problem of the flexibility of justice in early modern Spanish colonial America: Herzog, Tamar, Upholding Justice: Society, State, and the Penal System in Quito (1650–1750) (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Pardo, Osvaldo F., “How to Punish Indians: Law and Cultural Change in Early Colonial Mexico,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 48, 1 (2006): 79109CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 See Saada, Emmanuelle, “Entre ‘Assimilation’ et ‘Décivilisation’: L'Imitation et le Projet Colonial Républicain,” Terrain 44 (2005): 1938CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Leys, Ruth, “Mead's Voices: Imitation as Foundation; or, the Struggle against Mimesis,” Critical Inquiry 19, 2 (1993): 277307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16 Singaravélou, Pierre, Professer l'Empire: Les ‘Sciences Coloniales’ en France sous la IIIe République (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2011), 368–70Google Scholar. See Rabinow, Paul, French Moderns: Norms and Forms of Social Environment (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989)Google Scholar.

17 See Negreiros, Colonies Portugaises.

18 He was relieved of the office of governor in June 1908, and the following January returned to Portugal, where he died in 1917.

19 See de Oliveira, Luna, Timor na História de Portugal (Lisbon: Agência Geral das Colónias, 1950)Google Scholar.

20 Celestino da Silva to Minister of Navy and Overseas Affairs (hereafter MNOA), 25 Jan. 1901, Lisbon, Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino, Macau and Timor (hereafter AHU; all are Macau and Timor files), ACL_SEMU_DGU_1R_002_Cx 11, 1901–1904.

21 The question of whether these archival sources accurately described concrete court practices across Timor is beyond this essay's scope. A study of the military districts' court records would complement my approach, though in East Timor that is probably impossible due to a lack of written records. From this period, few primary sources or archives at the level of military districts survived the waves of destruction that fell upon the country during the twentieth century, especially World War II and the tragic decades of Indonesian occupation (1975–1999).

22 See Celestino da Silva to MNOA, 5 June 1897, Lisbon, AHU, ACL_SEMU_DGU_1 R_002_Cx 10, 1897–1900.

23 Celestino da Silva to MNOA, 13 July 1905, Lisbon, AHU, ACL_SEMU_DGU_RM_fl. 3, 1904–1907.

24 Celestino da Silva to Governor of Macau and Timor, 1 Sept. 1894, Lisbon, AHU, ACL_SEMU_DGU_RM_003_Cx 7. 1890–1895.

25 See de Castro, Afonso, As Possessões Portuguezas na Oceânia (Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional, 1867), xvxviGoogle Scholar.

26 Afonso de Castro, Portaria no. 58, 2 Aug. 1860, cited in Afonso de Castro to MNOA, 4 Apr. 1863, Lisbon, AHU, ACL_SEMU_DGU_005, Cx 27, 1861.

27 Ibid.

28 Forjaz's proposal followed the model of the Portuguese colony of Guinea (West Africa), where a similar judicial system seemed to be in place. Cipriano Forjaz to Governor of Macau and Timor, 28 July 1891, Lisbon, AHU, ACL_SEMU_DGU_RM_003_Cx 6, 1887–1893.

29 See Traube, Elizabeth, Cosmology and Social Life: Ritual Exchange among the Mambai of East Timor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986)Google Scholar; Roque, Ricardo, Headhunting and Colonialism: Anthropology and the Circulation of Human Skulls in the Portuguese Empire, 1870–1930 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 See Roque, Ricardo, “A Voz dos Bandos: Colectivos de Justiça e Ritos da Palavra Portuguesa em Timor Leste Colonial,” Mana 18: 3 (2012), 563–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 Celestino da Silva to MNOA, 13 July 1905.

32 Afonso de Castro to MNOA, 26 July 1860, Lisbon, AHU, AHU_ACL_SEMU_DGU_005_Cx26, 1860.

33 Celestino da Silva to MNOA, 25 Jan. 1901; da Silva, José Celestino, Relatório das Operações de Guerra no Districto Autonomo de Timor no Anno de 1896 (Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional, 1897), 38Google Scholar.

34 da Silva, Celestino, Instrucções para os Commandantes Militares, 2d ed. (Macau: Empresa da Revista Militar, 1896), 5Google Scholar.

35 Ibid., 6–8; see Roque, Headhunting and Colonialism, ch. 2.

36 Silva, Relatório das Operações de Guerra, 42.

37 Roque, Ricardo, “Etnografias Coloniais, Tecnologias Miméticas: A Administração Colonial e os Usos e Costumes em Timor Leste no Final do Século XIX,” in Silva, K. and Sousa, L., eds., Ita Maun Alin … O Livro do Irmão Mais Novo (Lisbon: Colibri, 2011), 155–68Google Scholar.

38 In Goa, the judicial administration of indigenous people in the hinterland was ruled by codes of “uses and customs” compiled in the 1850s; the community villages in coastal regions (Old Conquests) referred to a charter of uses and customs, Afonso de Mexia's famous Foral compiled in 1526. Rivara, Cunha, “Foral dos Usos e Costumes dos Gauncares e Lavradores desta Ilha de Goa e Outras Annexas a Ela,” Archivo Portuguez Oriental 5, 1 (1865): 118–33Google Scholar; Xavier, Filipe Nery, Códigos dos Usos e Costumes das Novas Conquistas (Nova Goa: Imprensa Nacional, 1861)Google Scholar. In Angola and Mozambique, codification projects were launched in the late nineteenth century. See Pereira, Rui, “A ‘Missão Etnognósica de Moçambique’: A Codificação dos ‘Usos e Costumes Indígenas’ no Direito Colonial Português,” Cadernos de Estudos Africanos 1 (2001): 127–77Google Scholar; da Silva, Cristina Nogueira, “‘Missão Civilizacional’ e Codificação de Usos e Costumes na Doutrina Colonial Portuguesa (Séculos XIXXX),” Quaderni Fiorentini 33–34 (2004 2005): 899 921Google Scholar.

39 See “Elucidario dos Commandantes Militares—Formulário Jurídico,” Boletim Oficial do Distrito Autónomo de Timor 33, 40, 42, 44, and 48 (all 1902).

40 See de Castro, Alberto Osório, Flores de Coral: Poemetos e Impressões da Oceânia Portuguesa (Díli, 1908; reissued in Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional, 2004)Google Scholar.

41 See da Cunha Gonçalves, Luís, “Direito Consuetudinário dos Indígenas de Timor,” Memórias da Academia de Ciências de Lisboa (Classe de Letras) I (1936): 2034Google Scholar.

42 Compare Walker, Iain, “Mimetic Structuration; or, Easy Steps to Building an Acceptable Identity,” History and Anthropology 16, 2 (2005): 187210CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 Martinho, José Simões, Timor: Quatro Séculos de Colonização Portuguesa (Porto: Progredior, 1943), 264Google Scholar.

44 Joaquim Graça to MNOA, 20 Oct. 1882, Lisbon, AHU, ACL_SEMU_DGU_1R_002_Cx 3, 1882–1883.

45 Hugo Lacerda to MNOA, 6 Feb. 1877, Lisbon, AHU, ACL_SEMU_DGU_005_Cx 46, 1877.

46 Appointments could take months or years and their holders also were slow to arrive. As late as 1934, complaints continued about the “meteoric character of judges appointed to service in Timor,” including the fact that, in the absence of bachelors of law, the office was exercised for “eternities” by “medical doctors or army officers who took residence” in Dili. Correia, Armando Pinto, Gentio de Timor (Lisbon: Lucas & Ca, 1934), 196Google Scholar.

47 Castro, Possessões, 371.

48 Hespanha, António Manuel, “Os Juristas como Couteiros: A Ordem na Europa Ocidental dos Inícios da Idade Moderna,” Análise Social 36, 161 (2001), 1183–208Google Scholar.

49 See Benton, Lauren, Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 4549Google Scholar.

50 Hespanha, “Os Juristas como Couteiros,” 1198.

51 See Hespanha, António Manuel, Panorama da História Institucional e Jurídica de Macau (Macau: Fundação Macau, 1995)Google Scholar.

52 da Silva, Cristina Nogueira, Constitucionalismo e Império: A Cidadania no Ultramar Português (Coimbra: Almedina, 2009), 58Google Scholar.

53 See MNOA, Direcção Geral do Ultramar, “Decreto-Lei 18 Novembro 1869,” Diário do Governo, no. 265, 20 Nov. 1869, 579–80.

54 Gonçalves, “Direito Consuetudinário dos Indígenas de Timor,” 203.

55 Roque, Headhunting and Colonialism, ch. 7.

56 For the significance of headhunting for the colonial government in Timor, see Ibid.

57 Silva, Relatório das Operações de Guerra, 43. An early manifestation of specialization arguments in Timor appears in Castro, Possessões, 417.

58 Compare Luigi Nuzzo, “Colonial Law,” European History Online 16 Apr. 2012, (accessed 12 Oct. 2013).

59 For the history of the science of colonial law, ideas of specialization, and policies of “association” in France during this period, see Singaravélou, Professer l'Empire, 297–332; Saada, Emmanuelle, “Penser Le Fait Colonial a partir du Droit 1900,” Mil Neuf Cent 1: 27 (2009): 103–16Google Scholar.

60 Arthur Girault cited in Singaravélou, Professer l'Empire, 307.

61 This late nineteenth-century critique misrepresented the legacy of Portuguese liberalism and oversimplified the thinking of former liberal legislators for whom assimilation was often less straightforward than was portrayed by their specialization adversaries. In fact, liberalism could coexist with pluralist juridical views. See Silva, Constitucionalismo e Império, 13–67.

62 See Ibid., 303–6.

63 de Cayolla, Lourenço, Sciencia de Colonisação, 2d ed. (Lisbon: Typ. da Cooperativa Militar, 1912), 115Google Scholar.

64 See Silva, Constitucionalismo e Império, 45–66.

65 Regimento da Administração da Justiça nas Províncias Ultramarinas: Decreto-Lei de 20 de Fevereiro de 1894,” in Colecção Official de Legislação Portugueza anno de 1894 (Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional, 1895), 7998Google Scholar.

66 See articles 177, 178, and 51 of the Ordinance, respectively. The Ordinance did not mention the justiças and referred to Timor's specificities only as regards forced labor. Prison sentences could be exchanged for forced labor in public works, a practice also found in the Portuguese African colonies (article 3).

67 Jacinto Carneiro da Silva, Direcção Geral do Ultramar, to Governors of Cabo Verde, S. Tome e Principe, Angola, Mozambique, India, Guine, Macau, Timor, 8 Dec. 1896, Panaji, Historical Archives of Goa, 9217, Monções do Reino, 1896.

68 e Costa, José Horta, “Portaria no. 174, 18 Dezembro 1896,” Boletim Oficial da Província de Macau e Timor 51 (1896): 585–86Google Scholar. The reform of the administration of justice and the codification of Chinese uses and customs in Macau are analyzed at length by Araújo, Maria Carla, Direito Português e Populações Indígenas: Macau (1846–1927), MA thesis in Social Sciences, ICS, University of Lisbon, 2000Google Scholar.

69 MNOA, Direcção Geral do Ultramar, “Decreto-Lei de 30 de Dezembro de 1897,” Colecção Official de Legislação Portugueza: Anno de 1897 (Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional, 1897), 549–56Google Scholar.

70 Albano de Magalhães to Governor of Timor, 9 July 1895, in de Magalhães, Albano, Estudos Coloniaes. I—Legislação Colonial: Seu Espírito, Sua Formação e Seus Defeitos (Coimbra: França Amado, 1907), 200–6Google Scholar.

71 Ibid.

72 Prior to his appointment in Timor Magalhães had been Delegate of the Crown and Treasure Representative in Macau (1891–94), and after his second commission in Macau he served as a Judge in Goa and in Mozambique, in the 1900s.

73 See Regimento da Administração da Justiça na Província de Macau, proposto pelo Juiz de Direito Albano de Magalhães, 20 Oct. 1899, Lisbon, AHU, ACL_SEMU_DGU_1 R_002_Cx 10, 1897–1900.

74 Magalhães, Estudos Coloniaes, 149.

75 Silva, Relatório das Operações de Guerra, 42.

76 Celestino da Silva to MNOA, 5 June 1897. See Magalhães, Estudos Coloniaes, 25.

77 Ibid., 150.

78 Ibid., 150–51.

79 Benjamin, “On the Mimetic Faculty,” 333.

80 Celestino da Silva to MNOA, 11 Jan. 1897, Lisbon, AHU, ACL_SEMU_DGU_1 R_002_Cx 10, 1897–1900.

81 Projecto para a Adaptação do Regimento de Justiça em Timor e Simplificação do Processo, enclosed in Celestino da Silva to MNOA, 11 Jan. 1897, Lisbon, AHU, ACL_SEMU_DGU_1 R_002_Cx 10, 1897–1900.

82 Projecto para a Organisação de Timor em Districto Autónomo Feita por Comissão Nomeada em 16 Novembro de 1892, Lisbon, AHU, SEMU_DGU_1R_Cx 10_1897–1900.

83 A similar contemporary case for the simplification of justice in Portuguese Africa is Cunha, Joaquim d'Almeida, Os Indigenas nas Colónias Portuguesas d'África, Especialmente na Província de Angola (Luanda: Imprensa Nacional, 1900)Google Scholar.

84 Projecto para a Organisação.

85 Ibid.

86 Projecto para a Adaptação do Regimento de Justiça em Timor.

87 Magalhães to Governor of Timor, 9 July 1895, cited in Magalhães, Estudos Coloniaes, 203.

88 Celestino da Silva to MNOA, 5 June 1897.

89 Magalhães to Governor of Timor, 9 July 1895, cited in Magalhães, Estudos Coloniaes, 204.

90 Celestino da Silva to MNOA, 5 June 1897.

91 Magalhães to Governor of Timor, 9 July 1895, in Magalhães, Estudos Coloniaes, 205–6 (my italics).

92 Compare this with another description of a military court performance by Correia, Armando Pinto, Timor de Lés a Lés (Lisbon: Agência Geral das Colónias, 1944), 149–51Google Scholar.

93 Magalhães to Governor of Timor, 9 July 1895, cited in Magalhães, Estudos Coloniaes, 203.

94 See Chanock, Martin, Law, Custom and Social Order: The Colonial Experience in Malawi and Zâmbia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985)Google Scholar; Moore, Sally Falk, “Treating Law as Knowledge: Telling Colonial Officers what to Say to Africans about Running ‘Their Own’ Native Courts,” Law and Society Review 26, 1 (1992): 1146CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

95 See Roque, Headhunting and Colonialism, chs. 2 and 3.

96 See Robinson, Ronald, “Non-European Foundations of European Imperialism: Sketch for a Theory of Collaboration,” in Owen, R. and Sutcliffe, B., eds., Studies in the Theory of Imperialism (London: Longman, 1972), 118–40Google Scholar; Bayly, C. A., Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780–1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)Google Scholar.