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Bound by Property in Death


08 November 2022 | 3pm GMT

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This paper explores the dark side of powers of attorney used to administer property in Yemen and Southeast Asia. I highlight how the popularity of this legal device in the early twentieth century produced a different kind of belonging beyond official ‘citizenship’ as property-owners based 4000 miles away became important stakeholders in British and Dutch colonies at the opposite end of the Indian Ocean because actions specified in the powers of attorney had no end date based the assumption that conditions such as ownership, sovereign rulers, and legal systems will remain the same over several generations. These documents constructed new temporalities. Building on my first book, I explore the subversive side of this phenomenon to shed light on the full dimension of this common practice which is normally hailed as an empowering tool. I pay attention to how death is the direct impetus for the proliferation of powers of attorney across the Indian Ocean because testators produced powers of attorney close to the end of their lives. Were they drawn up in panic? Many unprepared heirs transferred their power to another person almost immediately upon inheriting property. It took a high level of trust to invest power in others perpetually across the Indian Ocean, and to entrust them to appoint someone who would in turn appoint someone unknown down the line resulting in a chain of faceless agents whose power emanated from one single document produced once upon a time. There was much potential for dysfunction across centuries.

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Nurfadzilah Yahaya is a historian at Yale University. She researches history of Southeast Asia, Indian Ocean, Islamic law, history of infrastructure and environmental history. She is the author of Fluid Jurisdictions: Colonial Law and Arabs in Southeast Asia (Cornell University Press, 2020). Her current book project is on the history of land reclamation in the British Empire. 

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