Coastal development did not arise from sovereign property rights to the coast or efforts to fix moving shorelines in law. Instead, it emerged from ideas of the public good and public trust that vested the protection of shores and seas in modern states. State protection supported coastal development, especially ports, in the era of steamship technology. By examining case studies from seventeenth-century to late nineteenth-century coastal India, this essay illustrates how the idea of state protection emerged through legal disputes over the obligations of littoral societies, international law, customary practices, definitions of navigable waters, accretion, and the status of subterranean or derelict land. The resultant terraqueous framework was legally plural. Nevertheless, it strengthened state claims over coastal areas and facilitated coastal development by circumscribing the boundaries of littoral societies’ claims that have traditionally relied on fishing or livelihoods tied to these waters.

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