Forensics of Capital

Forensics of Capital

by Michael Ralph

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226198576
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/08/2015
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Michael Ralph is associate professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. 

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Forensics of Capital

By Michael Ralph

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-19860-6


Forensics of Capital

In 1487 Bemoim wrote to John II of Portugal for assistance in defeating his rivals. As part of his plea, the Wolof king dispatched a messenger with a gift of gold plus one hundred slaves for the Portuguese king. John II was sympathetic to Bemoim's cause but, he noted, canon law prohibited him from supplying non-Christian rulers with arms. John II explained that he could accommodate Bemoim's request only if the Muslim king converted to Catholicism.

In 1455 Pope Nicholas V had issued a papal bull granting the Portuguese a monopoly over trade and navigation on Africa's Atlantic coast (a region the Portuguese termed Guinea). Yet for several decades neither conversion nor conquest had enjoyed much success. Despite constantly assuring the clergy in Rome of its interest in spreading Catholicism, the Kingdom of Portugal had thus far done little to establish a strong presence in the region. Instead, commercial ties had mostly been shaped by the whimsy of select traders and diplomats.

Then, between 1475 and 1479, private merchants and soldiers from the kingdom of Castille violated Portugal's Atlantic coast monopoly, gaining access to the prized fort of São Jorge da Mina. They broached land that stretched from present-day Ghana to Nigeria. In response, John II reaffirmed Portugal's access to Guinea and embarked on a much more ambitious project for conversion. Determined to secure unbridled access to the world known and as yet unknown (cuncta mundi climata omniumque nationum in illis degentium qualitates), King John asserted his dominion over the entire Atlantic coast of Africa in his capacity as "lord."

As early as the 1450s, Alvise da Ca da Mosto (more commonly known as Cadamosto), a navigator from Venice, had visited Senegambia on a charter sponsored by Portugal. Ca da Mosto remarked on the intimacy of trade relations between polities in this part of Africa and the city-states of Iberia in ethnographic musings on Wolof customs and strategies of governance. In 1488 Bemoim became the first African sovereign John II had ever hosted when his party of forty, including his son and other close relatives as well as a number of enslaved persons, descended on the royal court.

Instead of remaining seated, as was his prerogative, King John rose to greet Bemoim upon his arrival. In appreciation for this immense display of hospitality, Bemoim genuflected upon reaching the Portuguese king, but John II helped him to his feet. John II made arrangements for Bemoim and his entourage to be dressed in clothing befitting their rank. Silver accoutrements adorned the dining table. The Portuguese king was concerned to greet Bemoim with the diplomatic protocols befitting a sovereign ruler.

It was not long before Bemoim was baptized. John II knighted Bemoim and outfitted him with a coat of arms bearing a gold cross on a red background with the quinas (escutcheons) of the Portuguese flag along the border. Theologians and jurists counseled Bemoim privately about the expectations of his new faith. In honor of his spiritual mentor, Bemoim chose John as his Christian name. A short time later he sent a letter in Latin to the pope in which he praised the Portuguese king and conveyed his devotion to the dictates of the Catholic Church.

In accordance with the privileges Bemoim had earned as a Christian prince under the dominion of the Portuguese crown, John II sent him home with twenty caravels brimming with military provisions. The fleet included three hundred soldiers under the command of Pero Vaz da Cunha, who was tasked with building a fort in the Senegal River valley to promote Portuguese commercial interests, in addition to supporting friars and priests who expected to pursue missionary activity in the region. But when Portuguese men en route to this new commercial enclave were devastated by illness, Pero accused Bemoim of treason, murdered him aboard one of the Portuguese vessels, and sailed back to Lisbon.

According to Portuguese law, a person accused of treason should stand trial before the king. Thus it's possible that Pero murdered Bemoim after some sort of dispute, then created a legal justification for killing him. Perhaps Pero believed Bemoim was indeed guilty of treason yet worried that he would be granted a reprieve, since this Wolof king was one of very "few high-ranking converts from Islam" to enjoy such extensive interaction with the Portuguese sovereign. John II was apparently "very displeased" with the murder of Bemoim, yet Pero was never charged with an offense.

By the time the crime had occurred, Bemoim was a Christian. At that juncture, religious affiliation was perhaps the most reliable proxy for social standing. But did Pero somehow enjoy more legitimacy as someone from the Portuguese mainland (in other words, did Bemoim have less authenticity as a Christian because he was a convert?)? By that period, had race, region, or ethnicity already started to creep into the prevailing calculus of social difference in ways we tend to associate with the centuries to come?

Perhaps Pero had deliberately seized on the "ambiguity" of fifteenth-century maritime laws, where a ship's captain was considered a feudal lord over his crew, making mutiny a form of treason, punishable by death — hence the salience of killing Bemoim on a ship rather than on land. However we understand it, the assassination of Bemoim encourages us to think about the way social standing has historically been adjudicated. Bemoim's tragic murder underscores a question that has perplexed legal theorists for centuries: How do we know when a merchant or political official has been authorized to establish commercial agreements and diplomatic initiatives? This event also compels us to ask how rulers from what is today Senegal have historically been characterized and to inquire about the criteria used to arrive at these decisions.

In this regard it is telling that John II never held a formal inquest into the death of Bemoim, even though this Wolof sovereign now enjoyed standing as a Christian prince. By having Bemoim baptized and granting him a coat of arms, King John endowed him with sanctified authority. Bemoim's power as sovereign thus now derived from the Crown's status as God's earthly embodiment. This procedure underscores the historic role of sanctified authority in conferring legitimacy and in adjudicating social standing. Through his anointing as a Christian prince, Bemoim became accountable to the church, on one hand, and the Portuguese Crown on the other.

In what follows I explore the criteria used to determine where a polity, or a person, stands in a juridical regime. I call the calculus used to adjudicate social standing the forensics of capital. In deploying this concept, I discuss the diverse factors that have historically shaped Senegal's standing in a world of nations. I demonstrate that political belonging is shaped by strategies for securing political recognition — by protocols for assessing the integrity of a person or polity.

In the process, I reveal that governance has as much to do with pragmatic protocols as with formal treaties. I also show that diplomatic standing does not emerge in some self-evident way from the character or behavior of any given polity. Instead, it is shaped by the consensus that privileged polities and individuals arrive at concerning where a polity and its people stand in a hierarchical system. In spelling out these dynamics, I explain how Senegal has historically managed to secure standing as one of Africa's most stable democracies, and I examine the evidence this judgment is based on.

To make sense of Senegal's political history, it is crucial to revisit the historical formation of the polity. The practice of sovereignty that has structured international trade and governance during the past few centuries derives from long-held beliefs about social standing and divine agency in the context of Latin Christendom. In the aftermath of the Reconquista, these assumptions structured determined efforts to rid the Iberian peninsula of Islamic rule. This notion of sovereignty was also a crucial strategy for winning souls and territories for an increasingly ambitious Christian empire. Theological arguments meshed with pragmatic strategies for securing territory, for authorizing trade agreements, and for forging diplomatic ties. As the polities of Latin Christendom outmaneuvered their rivals in Africa and elsewhere, notions of sovereignty inspired by divine mandate migrated out of Christendom into purportedly secular structures of governance and credit-debt.

Theories of governance tend to presume a polity composed of rational, enlightened individuals. Within this framework, the terms of commerce and diplomacy are forged by the voluntary, self-interested decisions of self-conscious social actors. But what if we begin our analysis of politics from the specific rituals that people use to authorize trade and to solidify binding diplomatic agreements? In what follows, I suggest that important elements of the framework for sovereignty on which we now rely were born from ad hoc rituals for establishing social compacts on Africa's Atlantic coast from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth.

* * *

By the time he was invited to Portugal by John II, Bemoim was very familiar with European interests and commercial activity in Senegambia. Six years earlier, Christopher Columbus was engaged in trade along Africa's Atlantic coast — the Guinea coast as well as what came to be known as the Gold Coast. Columbus had even visited the notorious Portuguese fort São Jorge da Mina, becoming familiar with Atlantic Ocean wind systems and cultivating expertise with the navigation instruments he would use on subsequent voyages in the Atlantic. In 1484 Columbus had petitioned John II for resources to make a return visit to the Atlantic coast of Africa. His request was denied. Two years later Columbus showed up in Spain, pressing King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for the financial support that would ultimately fund his celebrated 1492 voyage to the Americas.

Bemoim's visit in 1488 has to be read in the context of a burgeoning system of international trade and diplomacy premised on a nascent forensic calculus that sought to adjudicate the social standing of the world's peoples and polities. The inhabitants of Africa's Atlantic coast were, from the Catholic perspective, members of the extra ecclesiam — people who did not claim Christianity yet could be construed as subjects of the Catholic Church should they submit to its stated protocols.

From the dawn of Portuguese interest in Africa, ecclesiastical authorities declared a sovereign imperative to adjudicate the spiritual destiny of peoples who resided there. This investment was steeped in a sense of shared humanity. If Iberian merchants and explorers did not deploy the "language of spiritual conquest" as frequently in dealing with Africans as they did when facing off against the indigenous peoples of the Americas, it is because they saw the inhabitants of lands that Muslim residents and rulers hailed from as part of a shared political geography. Initial interactions between Iberian merchants and diplomats reveal that they often considered Africans part of the Old World — having a shared history — rather than the New World. And given the principle of the extra ecclesiam, the Catholic Church was invested in asserting the right to adjudicate social standing in the kingdom of God for all potential converts.

This does not mean that relations between rival polities were not coercive at times. The Portuguese applied military force proportionate to their increasing influence and their eagerness to exploit their growing commercial and military advantage. During this period, Christians would routinely kidnap nonbelievers, holding them for rescate (ransom), forcibly converting them to Christianity if payments did not correspond to their specified terms. In the eyes of the church, this was a viable practice for converting infidels, who ultimately benefitted from the grace of God whether they realized it or not. Rescate was premised on the idea that life in an African polity entailed mortal danger. Thus becoming a hostage granted inhabitants access to a privileged lifestyle. The practice of rescate thus foregrounds the prominent role the church played in adjudicating social standing.

In testifying to the eminence of Infante Henrique (more commonly known as Prince Henry the Navigator), the Portuguese chronicler Gomes Eanes de Zurara spoke in glowing terms of the "notable deeds" his lord had managed to "achieve in the Conquest." Yet in the formative years of Portuguese exploration, efforts to establish binding claims to territory, to procure captives for sale, and to secure a strategic military advantage were incremental and ad hoc.

The Reconquista helped to establish juridical distinctions among the inhabitants of the African continent — some conceived as "sovereign," while others were dubbed "sovereignless," amid the "new taxonomy of difference" that emerged during the sixteenth century. During this time the idea of sovereignty became a way to differentiate between peoples whose lands should or should not be readily exploited — people who could or could not be seized and turned into possessions. Still, it is crucial to note that some of the very same African peoples who had been dubbed "sovereignless," or incapable of forging binding trade agreements, routinely exchanged goods and brokered diplomatic relations with traders from Latin Christendom and the emerging countries of the North Atlantic. Thus the Christian concept of sovereignty, which would ultimately shape notions of government by social contract, entailed a number of assumptions about the alleged profile and supposed standing of the parties to a transaction that were not consistent with how people tended to adjudicate the legal standing of persons and polities in practical terms.

From the fifteenth century onward, traders from different polities operating in the diverse context of Africa's Atlantic coast developed a repertoire of shared strategies for authorizing agreements and establishing rights to territory. As British trader Richard Jobson noted in 1621: "We payd a kind of poor custome, which in the mouth of the river, where the Portingall hath used, is not only greater, but peremptorily demaunded, whereas above it is lesse and rather taken as a curtesie presented, which moral kindnesse requires all strangers, comming in the way of amity."

Thus, even where African rulers and merchants did not necessarily secure legitimacy as sovereign on equal terms with European rulers, they established methods for sanctioning agreements their European interlocutors were obliged to accept. As Walter Rodney noted in his study of the Upper Guinea coast, "The word 'contract' can be applied to certain unwritten agreements between the Africans and the Europeans because many of these agreements were based on oaths which were binding under the customary law."

These expectations might cohere as a tax levied on North Atlantic traders, or in procedures that produced sanctified authority akin to what a priest — or in later years a secular judge — was authorized to bestow: "Experienced traders learned to insist that arrangements made with Africans were sworn on some 'medicine.'"

And yet these compacts were ultimately scorned by Enlightenment philosophers, who argued that, precisely because these forms of exchange and interaction maintained an "irreducible materiality," they failed to convey the abstract principles associated with Western forms of jurisprudence. They were, in the language of the time, "fetish oaths" but not legal contracts as such. Still, the "fetish" is useful in charting the formation of an international economic order precisely because the concept did not exist before the sixteenth-century Atlantic trade zone in which it first appeared as the pidgin term fetisso. In this context Africans were called "fetisseros" or "fetisheers," their activities translated into verb forms like "to make fetiche" or "to take the fetiche."

The term fetish comes from late medieval Portuguese term feitiço, "witchcraft." But it assumed a novel referent in the sixteenth-century Atlantic world. Defined by the chance encounter with natural objects of the material world, the concept of the fetish was used to mark a pragmatic reality: objects that drew competing forms of value together. From the perspective of North Atlantic traders, these objects had been "capriciously chosen and childishly personified." And yet this discourse helps us appreciate the novel challenge that plagued efforts to grapple with the status of the political compacts — and the nature and origin of the value of the material objects — that defined new forms of social belonging and commercial exchange in the intercultural trade zone of the Atlantic coast.


Excerpted from Forensics of Capital by Michael Ralph. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Prologue vii

Introduction 1

1 Forensics of Captial 11

2 Capacity for Governance 45

3 Problem of Accountability 59

4 Diplomatic Profile 75

5 Forensic Profile 93

6 Production of Captial 117

Coda 137

Acknowledgments 143

Notes 147

Index 179

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