Histories of Global Netherlandish Art, 1550-1750


20 December 2018

1st Global Art History and Heritage Seminar: Elsje van Kessel

Elsje van Kessel (University of St Andrews): Art, Law, and the Freedom of the Seas in the Early Seventeenth Century

This paper addresses the relation between art and law in the Mare Liberum/Mare Clausum debate of the early 1600s. The question about the freedom of the world seas – or rather who owns the seas and the material riches that are transported via their waters – occupied the most prominent jurists of the early seventeenth century. As legal historians have recently shown, the debate had its origins in a specific historical event; namely, the Dutch capturing of a Portuguese cargo ship near present-day Singapore in 1603. The vessel, subsequently taken to Amsterdam, was full of spices, textiles, porcelain, precious stones and jewellery, yet accounts of the debate and the legal theory to which it gave rise have ignored these objects. My paper will examine the objects on board the ship in their interaction with this body of legal thought. How did such objects – of a variety of East Asian backgrounds, often produced for export – change as their legal status turned? And can a formal analysis of objects helpfully inform our understanding of categories like ‘booty’ and ‘spoil’?