Between the law and the actual situation: Failure as property formation in French colonial Indochina

This article complements and complicates Bhandar’s discussion of ‘racial regimes of ownership’ (2018) by examining the relational co-constitution of notions of racial and property formations in the ‘non-settler’ colonial context of Cambodia. Working through the record of intra-colonial correspondence relating to the control of non-white but also non-Khmer property interests in Cambodia, this article documents racialization’s powerful disruptive impact on liberal property formation. Colonial failure as property formation indexes, first, how the racialized categories of ethnic difference that underpinned the rationalities of French colonial rule simultaneously undermined French colonial programs to alienate land. Second, it positions the failure to reconcile a confusing array of property laws and logics as integral to maintaining paternalistic colonial (and post-colonial) authority to sort racialized populations via the privilege of property. Through the lens of French attempts to control property claims, we show how the French colonial property regime, supposedly based on universal liberal norms, was in fact also deeply racialized, requiring it to be managed in a highly localized manner, in accordance with each territory’s existing set of ethnic property relations—or the practical racial hierarchy of colonialism would unravel.

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Volume 40 Issue 2

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