British consuls and colonial connections on China’s western frontiers, 1880–1943
Author: Emily Whewell

This book tells the story of British imperial agents and their legal powers on the British-Chinese frontiers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It offers new perspectives on the British presence in Yunnan and Xinjiang in western China and the legal connections to the British colonies of India and Burma. It examines how the mobility of people across borders forced consuls to adapt and shape law to accommodate them. Salt and opium smugglers, Indian and Afghan traders, and itinerant local populations exposed the jurisdictional gaps between consular and colonial authority. Local and transfrontier mobility defined and shaped British jurisdiction across the frontier in complex ways. It argues that frontier consular agents played key roles in creating forms of transfrontier legal authority in order to govern these migratory communities. Consular legal practices coexisted alongside, and often took advantage of, other local customs and legal structures. The incorporation of indigenous elites, customary law and Chinese authority was a distinctive feature of frontier administration, with mediation an important element of establishing British authority in a contested legal environment. The book is essential reading for historians of China, the British Empire, and socio-legal historians interested in the role of law in shaping semicolonial and colonial societies.

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Emily Whewell

The Introduction outlines the significance of the book within the context three fields of scholarship: British imperialism in China, law within the British Empire and Borderland studies. It provides an introduction to the British imperial presence in Xinjiang and Yunnan, an explanation of sources used and an outline of the chapters of the book.

in Law across imperial borders
Transfrontier salt and opium, 1904–11
Emily Whewell

The first chapter traces the establishment of British authority (1899–1911). As the provisions of the treaties were key legal documents, I show how the Tengyue consuls understood the rights of British and Chinese smugglers in two key transfrontier trades: salt and opium. The movement of illicit goods was integral for the frontier economy and local populations. Tengyue consuls reimagined consular rights based on their understanding of these local considerations and imperial policy. The chapter explores two key smuggling cases to show how consuls were mediators amongst a number of different British colonial and consular authorities in London, India, Burma and China on legal rights. The chapter is therefore concerned with how consuls understood the overlapping frameworks and tensions of different layers of law: Sino-British treaties, Burmese territorial law and extraterritoriality

in Law across imperial borders
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People crossing the frontier, 1911–25
Emily Whewell

The second chapter demonstrates how the movement of different people, such as migrant labourers and itinerant domiciled subjects, shaped colonial and extraterritorial law (1911–25). Consuls petitioned for greater powers of deportation to remove unwanted Indian migrants across the frontier. Consuls also petitioned the metropolitan, Indian and China consular authorities to enable Burmese officers to exercise colonial law across borders by virtue of extraterritoriality. This chapter is therefore concerned with the relationship between borders, colonial law and extraterritoriality.

in Law across imperial borders
Emily Whewell

The third chapter explores how Tengyue consuls worked in a court to resolve Sino-British cases involving local populations (1909–35). The court was a reflection of the coming together of local laws and British and Chinese jurisdiction. The consular role was to work alongside Chinese officials and act as linguistic and cultural mediators between these officials and their Burmese counterparts. They therefore balanced British imperial objectives – such as furthering colonial claims to land – with efforts to ensure Chinese cooperation in the resolution of transfrontier cases.

in Law across imperial borders
Law between semicolonial China and the Raj
Emily Whewell

The fourth chapter examines the establishment of extraterritorial jurisdiction in Xinjiang (1880–1918). There, no treaty existed defining consular rights in the province. As a result, the consular official George Macartney carved out his rights through adjudicating Sino-British cases and by diplomatic negotiation with the Chinese authorities. As Macartney worked for the Indian government and, after 1908, was also a China consular official, he therefore bridged the colonial and semicolonial world. From 1918, his legal powers were derived from consular frameworks, but he could apply colonial laws from British India. He also sent suspects and convicts to India, creating an administrative and judicial fusion between the consular and colonial system.

in Law across imperial borders
Emily Whewell

Chapter 5 examines court cases in Xinjiang (1912–25). Consular officials worked a compromise between administering consular law, carrying out imperial objectives and allowing the jurisdiction of local custom over British subjects. Consuls were aided by aqsaqals, senior merchants who resolved minor disputes of the British communities in various towns. Consuls not only incorporated this indigenous administrative practice into British administration, but also arranged the aqsaqal system that had clear influences from Indian community organisation. The chapter therefore shows how Indian communities and Indian influences shaped British administration in Xinjiang.

in Law across imperial borders
The decline of consular rights, 1917–39
Emily Whewell

The sixth chapter traces the decline of British jurisdiction in the province (1917–39). The Chinese authorities in Xinjiang challenged British consular rights and consuls responded by managing this erosion of their powers. Consuls based their approach to managing this decline on the needs of the British community living in Xinjiang, as well as on practical and political considerations. The chapter ends by showing how the trading community that moved between India and Xinjiang declined rapidly and thereafter ended consular rights in the province.

in Law across imperial borders
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Emily Whewell

The book makes three arguments. First, it argues that frontier consuls played a key role in creating forms of transfrontier legal authority. Second, it demonstrates that the impetus behind these legal adaptations was the perceived challenges brought by the movement of British subjects and goods across frontiers. Local and transfrontier mobility therefore defined and shaped British jurisdiction across the frontier. Finally, British authority in the frontiers embraced and worked alongside other local norms and legal structures. This book is therefore the story of British consuls at the edge of the British and Chinese Empires and the nature of their legal powers.

in Law across imperial borders