A question has been occupying Danna Agmon’s mind so much that she is researching and writing a book to find the answer: How and where does law take its shape? 

To support her in her quest, the National Endowment for the Humanities has recently provided her with a prestigious one-year fellowship to support the writing of a book titled “A World at Court: Nested Legality and French Empire in the Indian Ocean.” 

Through a competitive application process, the endowment’s Division of Research Programs awards funding to individual scholars pursuing projects involving research, thorough analysis, and clear writing, and these must have value to humanities scholars or general audiences.

When Agmon researched French colonialism in India for her first book, she discovered a strange pattern in her primary sources. In many legal cases unfolding in French courts in the Indian Ocean, there seemed to be a hybrid system of laws and enforcement that involved not only France, but also village councils, commercial brokers, and local rulers.

Agmon did not write about this finding in her first book, “A Colonial Affair: Commerce, Conversion, and Scandal in French India,” published in 2017 by Cornell University Press, but the puzzle of these intersecting legalities stayed with her. 

“In the court records, I found all these unexpected patterns,” said the associate professor in the Virginia Tech Department of History. “For example, on multiple occasions the French courts produced hundreds of pages of documents related to a specific case, but at the end of the investigation, the right to hand down a verdict was given to an entity outside the court. Or when the time came to decide the punishment, French judges ceded that right and allowed someone else to decide that outcome.”

Agmon will begin her project in July 2020, when she will embark on a yearlong research leave as a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow. For part of this time, she will travel to archives in France and India to work with primary sources, which include many French court documents from the 18th and 19th centuries. She said these collections, especially from Puducherry, India, have received relatively little attention from historians.

“One crucial collection involves 250 criminal cases heard by the French court in Pondichéry,” she said. “These documents are a central source for my project. Over a period of a hundred years, we can see both the transformations in the concept of law and how, during this time, French courts used different ways of resolving disputes, in a process I call ‘nested legality.’”

Agmon recalls one such case from 1729, in which a Tamil man from Pondichéry (now known as Puducherry) was accused of forgery. The legal proceedings involved three different judicial bodies. Before reaching the French court, the accusations were examined through a process of arbitration involving local commercial brokers. Unhappy with their ruling, the accused man brought his case before the French court, known as the Superior Council. This court ruled against him, but rather than imposing its own sentence, it allowed the village authorities to decide the man’s fate.

“Once the Superior Council handed the man over to the caste chiefs for a decision,” Agmon said, “the French court effectively dropped the charges against him.” The caste chiefs reported back to the Superior Council that his punishment was exclusion from his caste group, confiscation of his goods to the benefit of the French East India Company, and banishment in perpetuity from Pondichéry. 

“The Superior Council ratified this sentence,” Agmon said, “but tweaked it by decreeing that the confiscated goods would benefit the poor of Pondichéry. These proceedings show three different ways in which to settle a case, and they were all woven together across three jurisdictions.”

Agmon — who is also a core faculty member in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought, a Virginia Tech graduate program better known as ASPECT — is the recipient of multiple other grants and fellowships. In 2015–16, she was a Huntington Library Long-term Fellow. In 2015, she also received a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society. And in 2018–19, she received a TransAsia Connections Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council.

Besides her first book, she has published four journal articles about French colonialism in India. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Tel Aviv University and a master’s degree and a doctorate in anthropology and history from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 

Agmon will devote her research leave to both the collection of archival data and to writing her book manuscript. With this work, she plans to reveal how local litigants and colonial officials transformed the practice of law across the French colonies in the Indian Ocean in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“I make the argument that France’s sovereignty was extremely shaky,” she said. “Historians of colonialism think that law builds sovereignty — but here’s a situation where an ambitious empire never has the hegemonic control that we identify with empire building. As a result, the shape of its legal interactions was unique.”

Written by Leslie King