In the Shadow of the Great Powers: Freedom of the Sea and Neutrality in the 18th Century

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Stefano Cattelan


Vrije Universiteit Brussel - Faculty of Law and Criminology, CORE Research Group


DKK 700,000




Internationalisation Fellowships


The project explores the early steps of one of the most dynamic and debated branches of international law, namely the law of the sea. It focuses on the interactions between the principle of the freedom of the sea and maritime neutrality in the 18th century. Analysing the rich archival material conserved in the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs - series Mémoires et Documents - as well as the Danish National Archives - Rigsarkivet -, the project aims at the construction of a rich narrative of multiple uses of the law of the sea as an argumentative political-legal framework to express state and private interest. As such, the project participates in a broader turn to state practice in the history of international law, a booming field of interdisciplinary research.


The project focuses on the analysis of historical sources: however, it also bears relevance across time and space, tying into the fundamentals of the contemporary law of the sea and international law. The freedom of the sea remains today a foundational principle under UNCLOS III - United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea -, but it appears increasingly under threat across contested regions such as the South China Sea, the Arctic Ocean and even the Eastern Mediterranean. The project will significantly advance our knowledge on the conceptualisation of legal regimes at sea, uncovering the recurrent misalignment between theory and state practice.


First, I will develop my research in close collaboration with my prospective colleagues at the CORE Research Group of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), while maintaining a strong connection with my Danish peers. Second, I will dive deep into archival sources, digitising them whenever possible in order to make them easily accessible to other researchers. Third, throughout the fellowship I will publish and disseminate my progresses and results both in academic and non-academic settings. Thus, I will receive constant feedback and enhance the project's quality. Fourth, I will underline similarities and differences between the past and the present, always striving to make my research relevant to our present times.

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