Historical Gaps and Non-existent Sources: The Case of the Chaudrie Court in French India
This article develops a typology of historical and archival gaps - physical, historiographical, and epistemological - to consider how non-existent sources are central to understanding colonial law and governance. It does so by examining the institutional and archival history of a court known as the Chaudrie in the French colony of Pondichéry in India in the eighteenth century, and integrating problems that are specific to the study of legal history - questions pertaining to jurisdiction, codification, evidence, and sovereignty - with issues all historians face regarding power and the making of archives. Under French rule, Pondichéry was home to multiple judicial institutions, administered by officials of the French East Indies Company. These included the Chaudrie court, which existed at least from 1700 to 1827 as a forum where French judges were meant to dispense justice according to local Tamil modes of dispute resolution. However, records of this court prior to 1766 have not survived. By drawing on both contemporaneous mentions of the Chaudrie and later accounts of its workings, this study centers missing or phantom sources, severed from the body of the archive by political, judicial, and bureaucratic decisions. It argues that the Chaudrie was a court where jurisdiction was decoupled from sovereignty, and this was the reason it did not generate a state-managed and preserved archive of court records for itself until the 1760s. The Chaudrie's early history makes visible a relationship between law and its archive that is paralleled by approaches to colonial governance in early modern French Empire.