Academic journal article Duke Journal of Comparative & International Law

The Legal Logic of Wars of Conquest: Truces and Betrayal in the Early Modern World

Academic journal article Duke Journal of Comparative & International Law

The Legal Logic of Wars of Conquest: Truces and Betrayal in the Early Modern World

Article excerpt

By definition, the term "conquest" implies the dominance of one political community over others. By definition, too, "conquest" denotes war, and hi stories of conquest tend to feature episodes of extraordinary brutality, including the complete destruction of civilian settlements. This basic understanding of conquest as political dominance through warfare brings unity to narratives about historical settings as diverse as Inner Asia under Mongol assault, Muslim and Christian advances across the Iberian Peninsula; and the Spanish takeover of indigenous South America. The history of the early modern world has sometimes been styled as a history of invasion, occupation, and the sweeping cultural and institutional consequences of both.

These basic assumptions about the nature of conquest deserve closer scrutiny. Rather than the stark opposition of conquering and conquered societies or the clear-cut dominance of victors over vanquished, early modern campaigns of conquest depended on, and also gave rise to, pluri-political formations. Conquering and conquered societies boasted multiple corporate entities and jumbles of overlapping jurisdictions, and these plural structures guided the strategies and determined the pace and designs of conquest. Campaigns of conquest also produced new patterns of association in fragmented political fields, from experiments in confederation to the construction of fragile networks of alliances. The overwhelming power of conquerors and the catastrophic defeat of the conquered could coexist with the persistence of indigenous polities' autonomy and often produced powerful constraints on the actions of imperial rulers.

A closer look at conquest reveals, too, that peace pacts formed an integral part of the process. Whether labeled as imperial projects or not, conquests enlarged composite polities, and truces created allies and established tributary arrangements such that zones of relative, if unstable, calm sat adjacent to frontiers of open warfare. Parties to truces recognized them as vulnerable to disturbance, yet the benefits of peace made such arrangements irresistible, no matter their duration. Many subordinate polities insisted on describing their relation to invaders as one of alliance even after submitting and becoming tribute payers, and imperial agents often adopted the posture of allies when forcefully entering foreign political territories. Some invaders acted initially as tribute payers of host polities before finding advantage and assuming the mantle of conquerors. The alternation of fragile peace and strident conflict created by the context of truces dictated the pace of conquest. Shifting alliances continually reconfigured frontier regions and generated small conflicts that could intensify and spread rapidly. Regardless of the balance of power reflected in truces, all sides understood their volatility and knew that the chronic violence of raiding during periods of peace could move political relation ships very quickly from mutual protection to enmity, or from peaceful inequality to open conflict and domination. (1)

In both tributary states and zones of open warfare, intermittent violence drove the dynamics of warfare. Pitched battles were very meaningful but also rare, and "small wars" (some declared, some not) produced more bloodshed if we sum the results of raiding, counter-raiding, violence against women, and captive-taking. This is not to say that conquest campaigns lacked decisive battles. The sack of Constantinople, the fall of Granada, the taking of Tenochtitlan--these and other famous engagements served as the centerpieces of conquest chronicles for good reason; they carried great symbolic importance and conferred strategic advantage on the victors. Contemporaries' emphasis on these engagements reflected, too, widely held views that outcomes of pitched battles expressed divine will. Staged battles represented extensions of legal modes of conflict resolution and could even formally substitute for judicial proceedings in deciding conflicts. …

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