The project

IberLAND. Beyond Property: Law and Land in the Iberian World (1510-1850) is a five-year research project funded by a European Research Council Consolidator Grant (2021-2026), led by Manuel Bastias Saavedra. The team is composed of six researchers: the PI, two postdoctoral and three PhD researchers. The project also has external research associates and receives visiting fellows. It is hosted at the Leibniz University Hannover (Germany) and was initially hosted by the Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory (2021-2022).

IberLAND seeks to provide a new, non-Eurocentric history of the development of land tenure from a global perspective. The idea that property was invented in Europe and transferred to the non-European world through colonialism, more than reflecting a historical process, is the product of a colonial image of the world based on the assumption that the European experience was inherently more advanced than those of other world regions.

Recent research, however, has shown that this assumption needs to be revisited. Until the late 18th century, land tenure in Europe was not characterized by private property. Instead, land was organized through different forms of reciprocal obligations between kings and subjects and lords and tenants, but also tied to cities and towns, kinship and marriage, and various forms of communal usage or ownership. There was, in short, no distinctly European manner of organizing the relation to the land other than that which functioned within the normative models of traditional society.

IberLAND draws on these insights to reframe the question of land and colonialism, in a long-term perspective, by inductively reconstructing the organization of the relations between people and land in the Iberian world. The focus on the Iberian world views all the regions that came under the influence of the crowns of Portugal and Spain as asymmetrically connected parts of a broad network of communication that cannot be restricted to ad hoc regional divisions.

If the traditional narrative of property does not provide an accurate account of land tenure arrangements across the early modern Iberian world, then we must look back and ask certain basic questions: How did people live on the land? How did they distribute it? How did they organize the relations to the land both inside and outside the group? How did contemporaries describe their relationship to the land? Which norms governed these relationships? How were these norms affected by the imperial experience? How did these relations change over time?

The project proposes two interrelated objectives. The first is a critical deconstruction of the diffusionist perspective – from Europe to the world – that has dominated the research on land, especially in non-European areas. This implies provincializing European law by de-essentializing property and geographically decentering our understanding of how law was constructed. The second objective is the reconstruction of the norms and categories that organized land tenure arrangements in different world regions by collating the existing literature and conducting archival research in different parts of the Iberian world. Iberian imperialism provides ideal cases because their long duration enables the study of land tenure arrangements from the early 16th to the 19th century, and they can correct many assumptions that derive from the study of British colonialism that has dominated the historiography of land tenure in colonial contexts.

IberLAND focuses on six case studies between 1510 and 1850: Mexico, Goa, Cape Verde, Spain, Brazil, and the Philippines. Whereas the former is the date when lands acquired relevance after the Portuguese conquest of Goa (the earliest case study of the project), the latter proposes a tentative end point because it is when most regions abandon the system of local tenurial practice and adopt systems of private property, through codification or otherwise. The cases are organized in three comparative units:

Unit 1 consists of a case study on Goa (1) and one on Mexico (2) between 1510 and 1650. The unit will look at how conquest and colonization produced new land tenure regimes and should provide insights into how different forms of regulation arose between and within the Portuguese and Spanish empires. Both cases also permit some comparison between the pre-Iberian and the colonial period.

Unit 2 consists of a case study on Cape Verde (3) and a case study on Spain (4) between 1600 and 1750. The unit will study how land relations shifted across this period in two regions that were entirely regulated by Iberian laws. Since Cape Verde was uninhabited prior to Portuguese colonization, the regulation of land was done exclusively through Portuguese administration. Land regimes both in Spain and Cape Verde, nevertheless, underwent important changes throughout this period.

Unit 3 consists of a case study on Brazil (5) and a case study on the Philippines (6) between 1750 and 1850. The unit focuses on the critical period that marks the rise of private law and the consolidation of the regime of private property. The suggested regions did not undergo liberal revolutions in the period of study and therefore provide good cases for exploring if and how notions of private property began to gain ascendancy even where political revolutions were lacking.


Image: João Teixeira de Albernaz – Taboas geraes de toda a navegação, 1630, Library of Congress (USA).

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