Archival Follies, Dismal Scientists

Extra, Extra! Territoriality

Or, History: Slaughter Bench or Treasure Chest?


Over at Marginal Revolution the other day, Tyler Cowen opened a discussion about extraterritoriality as a way to promote economic growth, part of a longer-running conversation about the viability / desirability / possibility of setting up what Paul Romer calls “Charter Cities,” which as far as I can tell are colonies-by-permission.

As Prof. Cowen references some historical works on the concept, I presume he — and his commenters — are at least passing familiar with the way violence was needed to originate and maintain extraterritorial rights, at least over the last two centuries. However, their discussion, as with most of this kind of neo-liberal thought experiment, appears to have no real sense of how power — its mechanics, its actual use, it as a motivating factor — maps on to all of this.

Rather kills the fun, I think.

In that context, I think this excerpt from a letter by an American diplomat in Shanghai — that experiment par excellence in modern extraterritoriality — might serve as a useful correction to the discussion. This is what extraterritoriality meant the first time it was used in earnest: creeping (or running!) imperialism.

It seems that the Imperial troops attempted to intercept cannon which they understood a British House was designing to deliver to the Insurgents, and for this purpose entered the foreign settlement. They were met by foreigners and were driven out of the settlement, with a loss of six of their number, who were shot in the conflict. The Chinese fired also, but did no material damage. There were no citizens of the United States involved in the affair. Commodore Perry has not communicated to me any details of the report of Commander Walker, and I must therefore confine my own statement to the repetition of the brief report of the occurrence as it is mentioned in a private letter from Mr. Cunningham, the vice-consul of the United States.

This affair is a legitimate result from the prior conduct of foreigners generally at Shanghai, and of the British authorities and residents in particular. The Chinese, either Rebels or Imperialists, are unable to protect themselves against European arms; and a knowledge of this fact seems to render foreigners perfectly careless of the extent to which they trespass on their rights. For my stern opposition to all violations of neutrality and my warning that its consequences must be and ought to be the generation of national hostility, I have become quite a mark for scribblers through the British Press in China and, I presume, of animadversion at home. I rely for my vindication upon the determination of my Government to sustain a public servant in the firm discharge of public duty.

In any other country than China men would be arrested and immediately executed for a great many offenses which have been committed here with impunity, and apparently with the sanction of the foreign public authority. I enclose a printed slip containing a remonstrance addressed to the British Consul at Shanghai to his countrymen, which admits a conclusive case against them, yet, it is said, he demanded an explanation of this affair from the Chinese Imperial General, and received some sort of apology for the resistance of the Chinese troops! It must be plain that the Chinese will entertain resentment for such conduct although at present they may be unable to exhibit it. This occurrence has been the apology for strengthening the British guard at Shanghai; and, the foreign quarter of that city may already be said to be, in effect, under British rule. A correspondent of mine writing from that city under date of November 30 says

“The fact is, the authorities of Great Britain are exercising here in Shanghai all the rights and prerogatives of sovereignty, as between themselves and the Chinese. They have actually garrisoned the place on their own hook, refusing to regard it as a mixed and common cause of all foreigners. If the crews of the Spartan and Salamander are not sufficient, of course a Regiment of Ceylon Rifles or British Infantry would be put in requisition. What more could sovereignty do?”

~Humphrey Marshall, U.S. Commissioner to China, to the Secretary of State, 8 December 1853

But hey, maybe if we had a Western power – governed by an ideology of a liberal economics bent, naturally – administer a major city in some poor country’s territory everything would be cool? It might work out this time.

Unlike all the other times…

Image cite: Leekelleher, “extra,” Flickr CC License