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

  • Ricardo Roque (a1)

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.

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Homi Bhabha , “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” October 28 (1984), 125–33

Thomas Spear , “Neo-Traditionalism and the Limits of Invention in British Colonial Africa,” Journal of African History 44: 1 (2003): 327

Tamar Herzog , Upholding Justice: Society, State, and the Penal System in Quito (1650–1750) (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004)

Ruth Leys , “Mead's Voices: Imitation as Foundation; or, the Struggle against Mimesis,” Critical Inquiry 19, 2 (1993): 277307.

Ricardo Roque , Headhunting and Colonialism: Anthropology and the Circulation of Human Skulls in the Portuguese Empire, 1870–1930 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)

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

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

Sally Falk Moore , “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): 1146

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Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
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