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  • ZOË LAIDLAW (a1)

Historians of the British empire recast their understanding of relations between the metropole and its peripheries in the late twentieth century, notably through the work of the ‘British world’ network and the ‘new imperial historians’. The former emphasized the material, emotional, and financial links between British colonizers across the imperial diaspora; the latter focused on the empire's impact on Britain, particularly in terms of ‘everyday’ experience. This article critically reviews recent interventions, which extend and challenge these approaches by seeking new ways to juxtapose the macro with the micro, and balance the exceptional with the quotidian; by adopting a more transnational (or global) approach to colonialism; and by rethinking the categories of ‘settler’ and ‘colonizer’. Collectively, these works question the traditional frameworks within which both colonialism and the British empire have been understood. In conclusion, the article considers their impact on the vibrant field of Britain's colonial legal history.

Corresponding author
Department of History, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham TW20
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The author wishes to thank the editors and anonymous referees of this journal, Alan Lester and Catherine Hall, as well as participants in the ‘New imperial histories’ seminar at Royal Holloway, University of London, for their comments on this article.

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1 Frantz Fanon, Les damnés de la terre (Paris, 1961), trans. Constance Farrington as The wretched of the earth (New York, NY, 1963); Edward Said, Orientalism (London, 1978).

2 See, e.g., Lambert, David and Lester, Alan, eds., Colonial lives across the British empire: imperial careering in the long nineteenth century (Cambridge, 2006). This new emphasis contrasts with an older scholarship which held that ‘the influence of one colony on another’ was ‘always relevant, but only occasionally decisive’: Ward, J. M., Colonial self-government: the British experience. 1759–1856 (London and Basingstoke, 1976), p. vii.

3 John Weaver's exploration of the British settlement of the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa provided an important precursor to Belich: Weaver, John, The great land rush and the making of the modern world, 1650–1900 (Montreal and Kingston, 2003).

4 For an introduction to the ‘British world’, see Bridge, Carl and Fedorowich, Kent, eds., The British world: culture, diaspora and identity (London, 2003). Among the best of this work, see, e.g., Potter, Simon, News and the British world: the emergence of a British press system, 1876–1922 (Oxford, 2003); Magee, Gary B. and Thompson, Andrew S., Empire and globalisation: networks of people, goods and capital in the British world, c. 1850–1914 (Cambridge, 2010).

5 Belich, James, Replenishing the earth: the settler revolution and the rise of the Anglo-world, 1783–1939 (Oxford, 2009), p. 9.

6 Colley, Linda, ‘Little Englandism’, London Review of Books, 22 July 2010.

7 Belich, Replenishing, pp. 82–3.

8 Ibid., pp. 9, 221.

9 Ibid., p. 557.

10 Ibid., pp. 548–53.

11 Ibid., p. 222.

12 Kathleen Wilson, ‘Introduction: histories, empires, modernities’, in Kathleen Wilson, ed., A new imperial history: culture, identity and modernity in Britain and the empire, 1660–1840 (Cambridge, 2004), p. 1. See also Hall, Catherine, ed., Cultures of empire: a reader – colonizers in Britain and the empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Manchester, 2000); Hall, Catherine, Civilising subjects: metropole and colony in the English imagination, 1830–1867 (Cambridge, 2002); Burton, Antoinette, Burdens of history: British feminists, Indian women and imperial culture, 1865–1915 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1994); Burton, Antoinette, At the heart of the empire: Indians and the colonial encounter in late-Victorian Britain (Berkeley, CA, 1998); Burton, Antoinette, Empire in question: reading, writing, and teaching British imperialism (Durham, NC, 2011); Louis, Wm Roger, ed., The Oxford history of the British empire (5 vols., Oxford, 1998–9).

13 David Lambert and Alan Lester, ‘Introduction: imperial spaces, imperial subjects’, in Lambert and Lester, eds., Colonial lives, p. 5; Kennedy, Dane, ‘Imperial history and postcolonial theory’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 24 (1996), pp. 345–63.

14 Catherine Hall and Sonya O. Rose, ‘Introduction: being at home with the empire’, in Catherine Hall and Sonya Rose, eds., At home with the empire: metropolitan culture and the imperial world (Cambridge, 2006); Wilson, ‘Introduction’, p. 18.

15 Hall and Rose, ‘Introduction’, p. 8.

16 Porter, Bernard, The absent-minded imperialists: empire, society and culture in Britain (Oxford, 2004). A useful survey of critiques of the ‘new imperial histories’ is provided by Stephen Howe, ‘Introduction: new imperial histories’, in Stephen Howe, ed., The new imperial histories reader (Abingdon, 2010), pp. 1–20.

17 See Wilson's response to the criticisms of aspects of ‘new imperial histories’ and her appreciation of its potential pitfalls, ‘Introduction’, pp. 15–19. Hall and Rose, ‘Introduction’, p. 5.

18 McKenzie, Kirsten, A swindler's progress: nobles and convicts in the age of liberty (Princeton, 2010).

19 For a developed view of ‘imperial trajectories’, see Lambert and Lester, eds., Colonial lives. Another approach is to construe individuals as cross-cultural mediators, as in Janna Promislow, ‘One chief, two chiefs, red chiefs, blue chiefs: newcomer perspectives on Indigenous leadership in Rupert's Land and the North-West Territories’, in Hamar Foster, Benjamin L. Berger and A. R. Buck, eds, The grand experiment: law and legal culture in British settler societies (Vancouver and Toronto, 2008), p. 59.

20 Benton, Lauren, Law and colonial cultures: legal regimes in world history, 1400–1900 (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 26–8; Benton, Lauren, A search for sovereignty: law and geography in European empires 1400–1900 (Cambridge, 2010).

21 Ford, Lisa, Settler sovereignty: jurisdiction and Indigenous peoples in America and Australia, 1788–1836 (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 2010), p. 3.

22 Eric Richards, ‘Review of Replenishing the earth: the settler revolution and the rise of the Anglo-world, 1783–1939’, Reviews in History, no. 895.

23 John MacKenzie, ‘Empire and metropolitan cultures’, in Andrew Porter, ed., Oxford History of the British empire. Vol. 3. The Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1999), pp. 270–93. See also the 100-volume strong series, Studies in imperialism, which MacKenzie has edited for Manchester University Press.

24 Hall and Rose, ‘Introduction’, p. 23. See also Thompson, Andrew, The empire strikes back: the impact of imperialism on Britain from the mid-nineteenth century (Harlow, 2005).

25 Wiener, Martin J., The empire on trial: race, murder, and justice under British rule, 1870–1935 (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 5, 7.

26 Kolsky, Elizabeth, Colonial justice in British India: white violence and the rule of law (Cambridge, 2009), p. 2.

27 Wiener, Empire on trial, p. ix.

28 Ann Curthoys and Marilyn Lake, ‘Introduction’, in Ann Curthoys and Marilyn Lake, eds., Connected worlds: history in transnational perspective (Canberra, 2005), pp. 5–6.

29 Benjamin L. Berger, Hamar Foster, and A. R. Buck, ‘Introduction: does law matter? The new colonial legal history’, in Foster, Berger, and Buck, eds., Grand experiment, pp. 3–4, 7–8.

30 Lambert and Lester, ‘Introduction’, p. 2.

31 Levine, Philippa, Prostitution, race and politics: policing venereal disease in the British empire (London and New York, NY, 2003); Phillips, Richard, Sex, politics and empire: a postcolonial geography (Manchester, 2006); Howell, Phillip, Geographies of regulation: policing prostitution in nineteenth-century Britain and the empire (Cambridge, 2009).

32 Antoinette Burton has called for this trans-nationalism on a larger scale: advocating international collaborations that allow historians to embrace the comparative history of empires, and global cultures. Antoinette Burton, ‘Getting outside the global: re-positioning British imperialism in world history’, in Catherine Hall and Keith McClelland, eds., Race, nation and empire: making histories, 1750 to the present (Manchester, 2010), pp. 199–216.

33 Cooper, Frederick, ‘Race, ideology, and the perils of comparative history’, American Historical Review, 101 (1996), p. 1135.

34 Bayly, C. A., The birth of the modern world, 1780–1914: global connections and comparisons (Oxford, 2004), p. 2; Bayly, C. A., Imperial meridian: the British empire and the world, 1780–1830 (London, 1989). John Darwin does something similar, if less explicitly theorized, with After Tamerlane: the rise and fall of global empires, 1400–2000 (London, 2007).

35 This complements recent reappraisals of Atlantic Studies: Greene, Jack P., ed., Exclusionary empire: English liberty overseas, 1600–1900 (Cambridge, 2009); Greene, Jack P. and Morgan, Philip D., eds., Atlantic history: a critical reappraisal (Oxford, 2009); Michael A. McDonnell, ‘Paths not yet taken, voices not yet heard: rethinking Atlantic history’, in Curthoys and Lake, eds., Connected worlds, pp. 45–61; Gabaccia, Donna, ‘A long Atlantic in a wider world’, Atlantic Studies, 1 (2004), pp. 127.

36 Lake, Marilyn and Reynolds, Henry, Drawing the global colour line: white men's countries and the international challenge of racial equality (Cambridge, 2008).

37 Darwin, John, ‘Imperialism and the Victorians: the dynamics of territorial expansion’, English Historical Review, 112 (1997), pp. 624–42.

38 Ballantyne, Tony, Orientalism and race: Aryanism in the British empire (Basingstoke, 2002).

39 Lester, Alan, Imperial networks: creating identities in nineteenth-century South Africa and Britain (London, 2001); Laidlaw, Zoë, Colonial connections 1815–1845: patronage, the information revolution and colonial government (Manchester, 2005); Magee and Thompson, eds., Empire and globalisation.

40 Lambert and Lester, eds., Colonial lives.

41 Lester, Imperial networks; Ballantyne, Orientalism and race; Laidlaw, Colonial connections; Metcalf, Thomas, Imperial connections: India in the Indian Ocean arena, 1860–1920 (Berkeley, CA, and London, 2008); Magee and Thompson, eds., Empire and globalisation.

42 Howell, Geographies of regulation, pp. 19–23.

43 Ward, Kerry, Networks of empire: forced migration in the Dutch East India Company (New York, NY, 2009), pp. 147, 299307.

44 For an excellent overview of the spatial models applied to the British empire, see Lester, Alan, ‘Imperial circuits and networks: geographies of the British empire’, History Compass, 4 (2006), pp. 124–41.

45 Benton, Search for sovereignty, p. 3.

46 Ibid., p. 16.

47 Ford, Settler sovereignty, pp. 68 and 59–71, passim.

48 Belich, Replenishing, p. 23.

49 Veracini, Lorenzo, Settler colonialism: a theoretical overview (Basingstoke, 2010), pp. 67. See, e.g., Ford's argument that settlers deployed ‘local governmental power to defend the anomalous legal status of indigenous peoples’ against the federal/imperial assertion of territorial sovereignty, Settler sovereignty, ch. 5.

50 Wolfe, Patrick, Settler colonialism and the transformation of anthropology: the politics and poetics of an ethnographic event (London, 1999); Wolfe, Patrick, ‘Land, labour, and difference: elementary structures of race’, American Historical Review, 106 (2001), pp. 866905.

51 Ford, Settler sovereignty, p. 190.

52 Veracini, Settler colonialism, pp. 5, 23.

53 Ibid., p. 3.

54 Kolsky, Colonial justice, pp. 5, 44.

55 Here, she follows Alan Karras: Benton, Search for sovereignty, p. 9, n. 15.

56 John Darwin, ‘Orphans of empire’, in Robert Bickers, ed., Settlers and expatriates: Britons over the seas (Oxford, 2010), pp. 332–4.

57 Ford, Settler sovereignty, ch. 4.

58 Wiener, Empire on trial, p. 200; Kolsky, Colonial justice, pp. 72–3; McKenzie, Swindler's progress, pp. 204–10.

59 Ford, Settler sovereignty, p. 5.

60 Belich, Replenishing, pp. 58–70, 126–7, 557–9.

61 Wiener, Empire on trial, pp. 5–6; Berger, Foster, and Buck, ‘Introduction’, pp. 7–8.

62 Burton, ‘Getting outside the global’.

63 Caroline Elkins and Susan Pederson, ‘Introduction: settler colonialism: a concept and its uses’, in Caroline Elkins and Susan Pederson, eds., Settler colonialism in the twentieth century (New York, NY, and Abingdon, 2005), pp. 1–20.

64 Although, notably, no contributor could be found for the Caribbean. Robert Bickers, ‘Introduction: Britains and Britons over the seas’, in Bickers, ed., Settlers and expatriates, pp. 11–12.

65 Bickers, ‘Introduction’, pp. 1–17, passim.

66 Canada and Australia (but not, as yet, South Africa or New Zealand) have their own individual volumes within the Companion Series: Schreuder, Deryck and Ward, Stuart, eds., Australia's empire (Oxford, 2008), and Buckner, Philip, ed., Canada and the British empire (Oxford, 2008).

67 Bickers, ed., Settlers and expatriates; Harper, Marjory and Constantine, Stephen, Migration and empire (Oxford, 2010).

68 Veracini, Settler colonialism, pp. 15, 121–2.

69 See, e.g., Nijhar, Preeti, Law and imperialism: criminality and constitution in colonial India and Victorian England (London, 2009); Hickford, Mark, Lords of the land: indigenous property rights and the jurisprudence of empire (Oxford, 2011).

70 Ian Hunter and Shaunnagh Dorsett, ‘Introduction’, in Shaunnagh Dorsett and Ian Hunter, eds., Law and politics in British colonial thought: transpositions of empire (New York, NY, 2010), pp. 1–8.

71 See, e.g., Kostal, R. W., A jurisprudence of power: Victorian empire and the rule of law (Oxford, 2005); Anghie, Antony, Imperialism, sovereignty and the making of international law (Cambridge, 2004); Jennifer Pitts, ‘Boundaries of Victorian international law’, in Duncan Bell, ed., Victorian visions of global order: empire and international relations in nineteenth-century political thought (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 67–88.

72 David Washbrook, ‘India 1818–1860: two faces of colonialism’, in Porter, ed., The nineteenth century, p. 407.

73 ‘The single most important exemplar of the claimed beneficence of the empire was its system of laws’: Wiener, Empire on trial, p. 1.

74 Washbrook, ‘India 1818–1860’, p. 407. Tilak is quoted in Kolsky, Colonial justice, p. 4. As Wiener writes: there was an ‘endemic tension between everyday racial inequality evident throughout the empire and the deep-rooted liberal premises of the criminal law that extended everywhere in that empire’, Empire on trial, p. x.

75 John McLaren, ‘Afterword: looking from the past into the future’, in Foster, Berger, and Buck, eds., Grand experiment, p. 274.

76 Kolsky, Colonial justice, p. 13.

77 Mehta, Uday Singh, Liberalism and empire: a study in nineteenth-century British liberal thought (Chicago, IL, 1999); Pitts, ‘Boundaries of Victorian international law’; Karuna Mantena, ‘The crisis of liberal imperialism’, in Bell, ed., Victorian visions, pp. 113–35.

78 Emphasis in original. Kolsky, Colonial justice, p. 35.

79 Ibid., p. 16.

80 Wiener, Empire on trial, p. 5, see also pp. x, 19.

81 Ibid., pp. 2–4.

82 Ibid., p. 2.

83 Ibid., p. 70.

84 Kolsky, Colonial justice, pp. 29–30, 35–8, 59, 69.

85 Ibid., pp. 15–16, 20–2, 29, 36–41, 173, 187.

86 Ibid., p. 187.

87 Ibid., pp. 20–2. Wiener's work on British soldiers charged with interracial homicide in India underlines this point: Empire on trial, pp. 173–6.

88 E.g., the inquiries from the 1810s through to the 1833 Charter Renewal Act. Kolsky, Colonial justice, pp. 59–63.

89 Mantena, ‘Crisis of liberal imperialism’, p. 131.

90 Kolsky, Colonial justice, pp. 81, 84.

91 Ibid., p. 13.

92 Wiener, Empire on trial, p. 6.

93 Ibid., p. 9.

94 See, e.g., ibid., pp. 45, 48.

95 Ibid., p. 53.

96 E.g., in relation to India and Kenya, see ibid., pp. 189, 209.

97 Kolsky, Colonial justice, ch. 4; Wiener, Empire on trial, p. 169.

98 Wiener, Empire on trial, p. 101.

99 Ford, Settler sovereignty, pp. 127–8.

100 See, e.g., McHugh, Paul, Aboriginal societies and the common law: a history of sovereignty, status and self-determination (Oxford, 2004); Hickford, Lords of the land; Dorsett and Hunter, eds., Law and politics; Belmessous, Saliha, Native claims: indigenous law against empire, 1500–1920 (Oxford and New York, NY, 2012).

101 Ian Holloway, Simon Bronitt and John Williams, ‘Rhetoric, reason, and the rule of Law in early colonial New South Wales’, in Foster, Berger, and Buck, eds., Grand experiment, pp. 79–80.

102 Berger, Foster, and Buck, ‘Introduction’, pp. 1–12.

103 See, e.g., the connected and comparative investigation of the Habitual Criminals Act of 1869 in England and the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 in India in Nijhar, Law and imperialism.

104 Barry Wright, ‘Libel and the colonial administration of justice in Upper Canada and New South Wales, c. 1825–30’, in Foster, Berger, and Buck, eds., Grand experiment, pp. 20–4; Jim Philips and Philip Girard, ‘Courts, communities, and communication: the Nova Scotia Supreme Court on circuit, 1816–50’, in ibid., p. 120. McLaren, John, Dewigged, bothered, and bewildered: British colonial judges on trial, 1800–1900 (Toronto, 2011).

105 Wright, ‘Libel’, pp. 15–37; Stefan Petrow, ‘Moving in an “eccentric orbit”: the independence of Judge Algernon Sidney Montagu in Van Diemen's Land, 1833–47’, in Foster, Berger, and Buck, eds., Grand experiment, pp. 156–75.

106 Promislow, ‘One chief, two chiefs’.

107 Ford, Settler sovereignty, p. 26.

108 Ibid., p. 86.

109 Benton, Search for sovereignty, p. 292.

110 Ford, Settler sovereignty, p. 2. In this conflation, settlers asserted that ‘sovereignty was a territorial measure of authority to be performed through the trial and punishment of every person who transgressed settler law in settler territory’.

111 Benton, Law and colonial cultures, p. 12.

* The author wishes to thank the editors and anonymous referees of this journal, Alan Lester and Catherine Hall, as well as participants in the ‘New imperial histories’ seminar at Royal Holloway, University of London, for their comments on this article.

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