Corporate Frontiers: Business, Empire, and Colonial Legal Pluralism in a Burmese Oil Field, c.1900-1913

In the opening decade of the twentieth century, the town of Yenangyaung in colonial Burma emerged as one of the centers of the global petroleum industry. The dramatic growth of the nascent oil industry created expansive economic prospects in this recently annexed colonial territory. Large amounts of global capital flowed into Yenangyaung in the form of multinational corporate activities (such as Burmah Oil Company, A. S. Jamal Bros., Nath Singh Oil Company, and a brief attempt by Standard Oil), creating a corporate frontier where the corporation became the leading institution in the oilfield societies organizing economic production as well as social life. These new conditions of corporate influx and resource excavation necessitated the consolidation of the colonial legal regime, which was expected to provide an ultimate arbiter for matters of property dispute. However, the specific terms in which the colonial legal regime came in to this frontier area was far from clear, and only became clarified through specific contestations. The various oil companies held competing articulations about what the colonial state (and its legal provisions) should be about, and their particular contestations in specific cases significantly shaped the form of the colonial legal regime in terms of corporate-state relations in colonial Burma. This paper analyzes two cases of corporate-state dispute, the 1908 Yenangyaung investigation and the 1911 G.S. Clifford case, and argues for a “colonial legal pluralism” which saw divergent and contesting claims of metropolitan law within the colonizing groups, extending the concept of legal pluralism beyond the metropole-colony binary.