The colonial legal order was by its very nature a plural legal order. Multiple legal authorities were created out of the imposition of colonial law and the persistence, protection, and invention of indigenous legal practices. Less obvious but critically important, too, was the plural nature of European legal systems themselves—a complexity that carried over into, and was sometimes exacerbated by, conditions of colonial rule. Broadly speaking, we can trace a historical shift over three centuries of European overseas expansion from a relatively fluid legal pluralism in which semi-autonomous legal authorities operated alongside state law, to a hierarchical model of legal pluralism in which state law subsumed in one way or another all jurisdictions, including “traditional” forums given special status by the state.
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