The Paradoxes of supervision

The paradoxes of modernity
The “rule of law” put to the test of the colonial situation in British India 1772–1781
By Gildas Salmon


The desire shown by the British to establish the “rule of law” in the provinces conquered by the East India Company in the late eighteenth century was part of a paradoxical modernization project, distinct from the rhetoric of the civilizing mission that prevailed in the nineteenth century. They sought to govern the Indians according to their own laws better than they themselves were able to do. Through the analysis of a crucial case for the history of the imperial judicial system, the Patna case, this article highlights the bankruptcy of the mechanisms set up by the colonial power to control the administration of Muslim law in the courts of Bengal with British judges. In doing so, my aim is not only to illustrate the deadlocks encountered by the British in the exercise of a mode of power whose importance has passed unnoticed so far, i.e. supervision, in an empire where several heterogeneous forms of law coexisted. It is also to sketch a genealogy of Orientalism on the basis of the situated forms of reflexivity deployed by the colonial administrators, showing how and why a knowledge capable of objectifying the legal systems specific to the colonized peoples, in their difference with that of the colonizers, became necessary for the exercise of imperial governmentality.


  • British Empire
  • legal pluralism
  • Orientalism
  • rule of law
  • supervision
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