Stranger kings

by fpman

It’s that time of the year when one can (have the time to) think of things like… stranger kings. No, not the “Three Kings.” Just kings (or leaders) who are strangers to the land they rule (or used to rule, back in the day). I could as well be thinking about “What’s the purpose of Stonehenge?” (but I listen to it instead). The subject of stranger kings is nevertheless definitely closer to the subject area we are covering on this blog so I’ll spare you of some off-topic blogging.

If you think about it, the topic of stranger kings is actually even a bit of a paradoxical subject from the point of view of the Patrimony. Someone who was originally an alien to the people and the land under one’s rule by definition did not have family ties at birth that helped him/her into position. Those ties could of course be built up on the go, and they indeed were, in most cases, with the affinal ties that resulted being one of the key resources a stranger could use and rely on to get to rule… and to rule.

But some further literature which I am reading at the moment reveals that there may have been other resources, too. Or other reasons, rather, for a stranger becoming the king of the land.

David Henley: Conflict, Justice, and the Stranger-King Indigenous Roots of Colonial Rule in Indonesia and Elsewhere. Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1 (2004), pp. 85–144. LINK

Marshall Sahlins: The Stranger King or Elementary Forms of the Politics of Life. Indonesia and the Malay World, Vol. 36, No. 105, July 2008, pp. 177–199.

As it may transpire from these sources, picking a stranger to be king could mitigate conflict between an ethnic group’s competing sub-units – Henley explains the emergence of colonial rule in some places with this as a key mechanism. Sahlins ponders how stranger kings often represented the “foreign” that is both desired and feared, and how the choice of an alien to rule one’s land worked similarly to the affinal tie of marriage on the personal level (through which many stranger kings have historically come to power, actually). The choice of a stranger both as king and as spouse led to constructive renewal (which, as we know from the science on consanguineal marriages, is even biologically/genetically necessary, to avoid too much in-breeding).

This is all fascinating. But the examples considered from the world of ancient communities from Greece to the Southeast Asian islands and Melanesia, and from the colonial era, seem remote. This begs the question: are stranger kings extinct by today? Has, as a result of nationalism, citizenship (and the requirement thereof) emerged as a must-have bond to a political community that pre-determines that a certain degree of strangeness cannot be overcome to get to rule a certain land? Knowing that citizenship (where the notion exists) actually does not work in a universal and homogeneous manner (just like rule of law and human rights don’t, either) this is an intriguing question…

Interesting contemporary examples jump to mind, too, from the Hashemite dynasty ruling Jordan today in the person of Abdullah II (a dynasty hailing from the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula) to Sonia Gandhi in India (the Italian lady who met then-future Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi in a Greek restaurant in Cambridge, UK, and is now pulling the strings within the Indian National Congress party)…

Having thought through this, for strangers to be truly strangers one should also have a strong difference between internal and external that is not there so much, and certainly not universally there, in today’s increasingly transnationalizing world… which some people refer to as a “neo-medieval” order of sorts, implying that once we were there already, in the past…

Alright, no more paragraphs ending with ellipses today!