Lawyer v. East India Company

Nurfadzilah Yahaya's picture

This is the first post on the World Legal History Blog that focuses on a historical source. From next week onwards, we will have other legal historians contributing posts on their own sources on any theme, time and place, between 500 and 800 words ideally. If you are interested in blogging on a historical source drawn from your own research, or to launch a discussion on a topic (or two) relevant to the study of World Legal History in general, email me at wlhblawg@gmail.com.

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Like other historians of colonialism and imperialism, I often wonder how European lawyers actually viewed their clients, and lived amongst colonial subjects. As lawyers, they were attached to one of the most powerful colonial institutions – the legal court. In defending colonial subjects and others against the colonial government, how far did they identify with their clients outside of the courtroom? Did they even socialize with their clients? Lawyers were often silent on their own personal beliefs and opinions understandably until they themselves were sued in court.

One such case that I found was In Re Trebeck. Ismahel Laxamana v. East India Company in the English East India Company (EIC) court on the island of Penang in the Straits of Malacca in 1829. The early nineteenth century was a period of consolidation (legal and territorial jurisdiction) by the EIC in the Straits of Malacca. The dramatic law report reveals that a British solicitor named Charles Trebeck was struck off the Rolls of Law Agents after being found guilty of a gross insult to the court. 

The case against Trebeck was related to a more complicated case of Ismahel Laxamana v. East India Company in August 1829 where he was the plaintiff's lawyer. The story goes back to November 21st 1809 when the Sultan of Kedah (on the Peninsula, now part of Malaysia) through his admiral (Laksamana), deposited in the EIC Government Local Treasury in Penang, the sum of $5,000 (Spanish Dollars), to be kept until the admiral’s arrival. Unfortunately, the admiral never made it to Penang and was murdered in 1822 during the Siamese invasion of Kedah which began the year before. Upon the Sultan’s death, his son, the heir apparent to the throne, applied to the EIC Government for the money to be repaid to him, but this was not granted because the EIC had already spent the money. He then sued the EIC government for the sum of $10,000 in damages through his admiral who was the heir of the deceased admiral, and "according to the laws, religion, manners, and customs of the Kingdom of Quedah," was the successor of his deceased father, and entitled to receive the said sum.

At the beginning of trial, Trebeck opened by stating that his client, the admiral, submitted himself to the Civil Jurisdiction of this Court in Penang. His remarks prompted an immediate retort from the Recorder (precursor to Chief Justice) Sir John Thomas Claridge who stated that "it was known that every inhabitant of this Island (of Penang) whosoever he might be, was subject to the jurisdiction of the Court; and that he could not and would not listen to any petition framed in such highly gross and insulting language to His Majesty`s Court." Moreover, in 1826, the EIC had promised to recognize Kedah as a Siamese dependency according to the terms of the Burney treaty which all but destroyed the Sultan of Kedah’s claims to sovereignty in the eyes of the EIC. In fact, the late Sultan died in the EIC settlement of Malacca as state prisoners. Trebeck protested that the EIC was only present in Penang by the grace of the now deceased Sultan of Kedah. I reproduce his impassioned response below in full because it touches upon a range of themes which became a feature of colonial legal sovereignty such as the arbitrariness of treaties in international law in an imperial context, multiple imperial hierarchies, jurisdiction without territorial conquest, and the bold conduct of a Company-State.  

“This is certainly the first time I have heard that the Government here does not recognize there is a King of Quedah! Have they forgotten the man who for these last two years has been reduced to penury, who sought British protection, and at one time found it? They have forgotten the son of the Grantor of this Island, and they have now [with what justification is but known to themselves] forgotten to pay my client the tribute under which this very Island is holden. My Lord, I know of no act whatever which has been done either by the present King of Quedah, or by his late father, by which either of them have, in any wise forfeited, or on their part relinquished, the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Quedah; and it would be best not to enquire too narrowly into that subject. My client is in fact and in truth, King of Quedah; and this Island is within his Kingdom, and tributary to him, were justice done to him. I am prepared, if necessary, to shew, that his seeking protection here, according to the Laws of Nations, so far from being a relinquishment of Sovereignty, is a confirmation of his Sovereign rights, as from the protecting party. I know not what arrangements were made at the time of the King of Quedah taking refuge in this Island, but I do know that he submitted to some reduction in the tribute; and that certain salaries were paid to his officers who were driven away by the Siamese invasion: and I know that my client was appointed to the office of Laxamana, and continued to receive the salary of that office, from the Defendant Company, and did receive it regularly for many years, and until the Government of this country, chose to stop that salary, on the commencement of this action. I suggest, therefore, in point of law, whether there may not be a sort of concurrent jurisdiction of this Court; and that the establishment of this Court did not vary the Sovereign right of the King of Quedah. Why the treaties with the King of Quedah are not to be made publicly known, when the people are supposed and expected to obey them, I know not; but this I do know, that those which have met the public eye did not grant to the King of England, the Company, or to any other power, the Sovereignty of this Island; nor did it more than particularly grant the power of trying for certain offences. Shall, then, the United Company of themselves set up and pretend that they have even the shadow of Sovereignty? The doing so would be but little short of Treason: for if any Sovereignty was relinquished by the King of Quedah, it could only have been to His Gracious Majesty the King of England, and not to the Company. The United Company cannot use or exercise actual Sovereignty in any part of India. They have power; but that can only be such power as the law has given them. No such power exists in this Island. But, my Lord, this has drawn me into matter rather beyond that immediately connected with the previous question, of whether I may be permitted to open the Plaintiff`s case or not; and I do trust that I have fully stated, why I have thought it my duty to be guarded in the first clause of the petition, and had I not been so, I should have been derelict in my duty to my employers."

For all his fervour, Trebeck was struck off the Rolls of Law Agents. For the rest of his days, he acted as a Conveyancer for the Sultan of Kedah “with little or no pecuniary advantage,” the court reporter noted.

Interesting post, Fadzilah, and a good way to start off the blog. Can you tell us where the case was reported? Was it published?

Yes, the report was published in 'Cases heard and determined in Her Majesty's Supreme court of the Straits Settlements, 1808-1884, Volume 1' compiled by James Norton Kyshe. You can find it at https://archive.org/stream/cu31924080340304/cu31924080340304_djvu.txt

The legal citation would be [1808-1884] 01 KY 4. The topic covered over court jurisdiction is actually very interesting legally because the grandson of this particular Sultan-in-exile was found to not be a British subject in a matter later (the family having been restored to the Kedah throne).