My thesis investigates the representation of late-colonial processes of rapid social change through a legal lens. By focusing on court records of designated native courts in the Usambara Mountains in Tanganyika, African actors, their grievances and choices are at the center of my research. The court proceedings, petitions and letters that accompanied a law suit open a broad window into social life, conflict and thought of Africans under colonial rule, a window that is not confined to local custom, as initial litigants of native courts often also acted in higher courts. Thus the broader field in which my doctoral thesis is situated is that of legal pluralism and diversity in colonial contexts.
My research departs from the observation of two major “trouble-spots” in the proceedings. The majority of the remaining case files are concerned with disputes over land or so-called “false accusation” cases. By measuring the importance of disputes by the frequency of emerging case clusters, I try to understand the underlying processes of social change through their representation in litigation patterns.
Both trouble-spots are tied to the unease felt by local peasants resulting from the introduction of an agricultural scheme against soil erosion. As a consequence, both land labor and became scarce. The enormous wave of land cases that swamped the native courts was a result of growing land scarcity, which, again was tied to agricultural scheme. I argue that the crisis that befell customary land-tenure practice is mirrored in the crisis of local leadership culture and the way the latter played out in colonial courts.
By closely reading individuals’ litigation strategies, specifically the language they used in proceedings or related documents, vis-à-vis broader discourses in Eastern African history on slavery and corruption, I try to stress how African litigants’ could influence courts’ decisions by appropriating a rhetoric tied to an entirely different realm.
My wider research interests include the history of political imagination and decolonization, the history of agricultural change in Africa, the history of racial thought in Eastern Africa, the conceptual history of healing in the Great Lakes region, and the history of psychiatry in Africa.