We set the colonial laws in two important contexts. First, the colonial laws are set in context of medieval and early modern European law. Laws applied in the colonies partly followed the medieval tradition of ius commune and (as for Britain) common law. This was the case of most civil, procedural, and criminal law. In these branches of law, colonial law did not radically differ from the law in Europe. However, law in the colonies also followed the latest legal trends, and the growth of police regulation did not leave colonies untouched. Police regulation was, both in Europe and overseas, the main legal instrument with which modern states were governed. Police regulation formed the essence of what we normally conceive as colonial law. The project charts the growth of police regulation at both imperial, regional, and local levels.
Second, the Project sets the colonial laws in a comparative context. This includes the early modern powers traditionally defined as colonial powers (England, the Dutch Republic, Portugal, and Spain) in close context with the other European empires expanding at the same time (Sweden, Russia). The Project also systematically compares early modern overseas legal orders and their use of police regulation with each other. The Project seeks to demonstrate how the legal strategies of the colonizing nations developed into different directions and why.
Apparently, the differentiation followed from the differences in the interests that England, the the Dutch Republic, Spain, and Portugal had overseas. The Dutch and the Portuguese saw their colonies overwhelmingly in terms of trade. For the Dutch, the East India Company (to which the Dutch Republic had “outsourced” its colonial operations) and for the Portuguese, slave trade were sources of huge income. The Portuguese and the Dutch aimed, first and foremost, at securing their trade routes more than at permanently occupying large tracts of lands. These empires invested relatively little on colonial administration and law, and more on a communications network. The strategies also changed, as the Portuguese examples of Brazilian captaincies from the mid-sixteenth century onwards and the New Conquests (Novas Conquistas) in the hinterland around Goa in the mid-eighteenth century show.
Whether to invest on territorial conquest and the heavy legal infrastructure it required, or trade networks and “law light” depended surely on human, financial, military resources as well. Suffice it to mention that the population of Portugal in 1530 was 1,4 million, whereas that of Spain had reached almost 6 million.
Furthermore, the comparative context necessarily involves considering the different levels of cultural resistance of which local populations were capable. The legal circumstances into which, for instance, the Spaniards in America and the Dutch in Far East Asia introduced their law were extremely different.