Law and Interest: The Politico-Legal Battle on the Ostend Company and “la vie du droit” (1725-1730)

Activiteit: Talk or presentation at a conference


The critical legal scholar and legal historian Martti Koskenniemi promotes the concept of “legal imagination” (= the areas of knowledge and ideology that inform or inspire decisions on the exercise of power/domination across polities). His most recent magnum opus focuses on the interaction of the concepts of sovereignty (political power) and property (economic domination) in legal science before 1870 and the autonomisation of public international law as a discipline and a profession (Koskenniemi 2021). This greatly contributes to the enlargement of the traditional scope of legal history. Studies on communication and the incipient public sphere (Brétéché 2015, Durst 2016) are certainly useful to enhance our understanding of public pamphlets, but -as Michel Huisman’s still seminal study demonstrates- the study of mere justifications outside the arcana imperii reduces our object to an image, or just one of the potentially fallacious motivations projected the actors (see again Dhondt 2015b). Koskenniemi’s Foucauldian genealogy of legal knowledge as an instrument of power focuses on intellectual backgrounds in economics, political theory and philosophy, but does not make the link with diplomatic practice yet. My own work has unearthed part of the legal arguments developed by French and British diplomats after the peace of Utrecht (Dhondt 2013, Dhondt 2015a, Dhondt 2016), including the debate on the Ostend Company (Dhondt 2015b), which encompasses both dimensions. As I have demonstrated in a recent article on the Congress of Soissons (1728-1730), the fate of the Company is tied to the continuous and prudent coordination of interests in the European arena. The Company is brandished as a real casus belli by British diplomacy with the League of Hanover. Added to the Spanish threats to use the royal power to tax and derogate from the trade conventions concluded at Utrecht, the true target of the clash between the Leagues of Hanover and Vienna becomes clear: trade with Spanish America, not the East Indies. Flexibility and amenability dominate, even after the Parisian and Viennese preliminary articles of peace, which seem to seal the fate of the company. The legal arguments against the Ostend Company projected by the Dutch and the British are not fully adhered to by France, which detaches itself gradually towards a more equidistant position. Thanks to digitization, the copious memorandum written in 1732 by Nicolas-Louis Le Dran (1687-1774), top civil servant at the bureaux des affaires étrangères (Rule & Trotter 2014; Fournier 2015) allows to trace the evolution of legal argumentation from the Peace of Vienna (1725 (Dhondt 2011)) to the demise of the Congress of Soissons (1730). Six volumes totalling over 2000 folios, written in 1735, draw on bilateral correspondence and preparatory notes. Coupled with Le Dran’s own long legal analysis of the Southern Low Countries right to navigate the high seas (1729), the traditional image of a clear-cut interdiction flowing from the Peace of Munster, as in Vattel’s Le droit des gens, is seriously impaired.
Periode24 nov 2023
Evenementstitel300 Year Ostend Company
LocatieOostende, Belgium
Mate van erkenningInternational