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Europeans have long justified a right to something or other by invoking ‘prescription’ (that is, the creation of a legal entitlement by the passage of time). Yet for all the importance of prescription in the creation of international geopolitical order, no genealogy of the idea has emerged from historical or legal scholarship. This article will explore the relationship between prescription and empire within private, public, corporate, and ecclesiastical legal contexts. The idea of prescription is then considered within the specific ideological context of European imperialism between 1580 and 1640, when a series of diplomatic disputes and intellectual debates were had in Europe principally regarding maritime navigation and foreign dominion by ‘donation’. The metamorphosis of prescription in legal and political thought from Justinian (483–565) to Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) is therefore explored. Additional colour is given to this intellectual history by contrasting how corporate interests in North America attempted to justify their foreign land holdings in forts, ports, and hinterland by invoking ‘prescription’ during the early stages of colonial expansion. The case will be made for historians of early modern imperialism and international law to take closer notice of the opportunism of those prepared to justify prescription in theory and practice.


Corresponding author

Downing College, Regent St, Cambridge, CB2 1DQ


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The first draft of this article was prepared as a Visiting Fellow at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law. Warm thanks must be offered to that institution, and more particularly to the community of scholars accommodated within it during the summer months of 2015. This piece has been amended subsequently following the generous advice of Carlos Espaliú Berdud, Richard Connors, Andrew Fitzmaurice, Mark Jurdjevic, Paul G. McHugh, Lauri Tähtinen, and, most helpfully, the anonymous reviewers for this journal. Finally, thanks be to Professor Phil Withington for his patience throughout this process.



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1 Lauterpacht, Hersch, Private law sources and analogies of international law (with special reference to international arbitration) (London, 1927); Johnson, D. H. N., ‘Acquisitive prescription in international law’, British Yearbook of International Law, 27 (1950), pp. 332–54; Lesaffer, Randall, ‘Argument from Roman law in current international law: occupation and acquisitive prescription’, European Journal of International Law, 16 (2005), pp. 2558 .

2 Year books of the reign of King Edward the first, years XX and XXI, ed. and trans. Alfred J. Horwood (London, 1866), p. 69: ‘Le Roy est prerogatif; par quey nul prescripcion de tens ne court encontre ly.’

3 18 Edward I Stat. 2 (1290), in English historical documents, iii: C. 1189–1327, ed. Harry Rothwell (Abingdon, 1996), p. 465. For custom and prescription in medieval England more generally, see Ibbetson, David, ‘Custom in medieval law’, in Perreau-Saussine, Amanda and Murphy, James Bernard, eds., The nature of customary law: legal, historical and philosophical perspectives (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 151–75.

4 Blackstone, William, Commentaries on the laws of England (4 books, Oxford, 1765–9), bk 1, ch. 18, pp. 460–1. See also Holdsworth, William Searle, A history of English law (5th edn, multiple vols., London, 1936–72), iii, pp. 475–9; Kantorowicz, Ernst H., The king's two bodies: a study in medieval political theology (Princeton, NJ, 1957), pp. 143–92.

5 Blackstone, Commentaries, bk 2, ch. 17.

6 Coke, Edward, The first part of the institutes of the laws of England; or, a commentary upon Littleton, ed. Hargrave, Francis and Butler, Charles (19th edn, 2 vols., London, 1832), i.

7 Greenberg, Janelle, The radical face of the ancient constitution: St. Edward's ‘laws’ in early modern political thought (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 135 , 169–74, 222–9. See also Lobban, Michael, A history of the philosophy of law in the common law world, 1600–1900 (Dordrecht, 2007), pp. 8699 ; Pocock, J. G. A., The ancient constitution and the feudal law: a study of English historical thought in the seventeenth century (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 169 , 229–305.

8 Burke, Edmund, Select works of Edmund Burke: a new imprint of the Payne edition (4 vols., Indianapolis, IN, 1999), iv, pp. 20–3.

9 For brief but thoughtful considerations of prescription, see Pagden, Anthony, ‘Law, colonization, legitimation, and the European background’, in Grossberg, Michael and Tomlins, Christopher, eds., The Cambridge history of law in America, i: Early America (1580–1815) (Cambridge, 2008), pp. 22–3; Benton, Lauren and Straumann, Benjamin, ‘Acquiring empire by law: from Roman doctrine to early modern European practice’, Law and History Review, 28 (2010), pp. 1112 . Patricia Seed, by contrast, takes prescription to mean ‘by declaration or decree’. Seed, Patricia, ‘Taking possession and reading texts: establishing the authority of overseas empires’, William and Mary Quarterly, 49 (1992), pp. 197–8.

10 See, for example, Boucher, David, ‘The law of nations and the doctrine of terra nullius ’, in Asbach, Olaf and Schrader, Peter, eds., The state and international law in seventeenth-century Europe (Farnham, 2010), pp. 6382 ; Miller, Robert J. et al. , Discovering indigenous lands: the doctrine of discovery in the English colonies (Oxford, 2010).

11 Fitzmaurice, Andrew, Sovereignty, property and empire, 1500–2000 (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 43–4, 67, 110–11, 116.

12 Brett, Annabel S., Liberty, right and nature: individual rights in later scholastic thought (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 186–92.

13 Trelles, Camilo, ‘Fernando Vázquez de Menchaca (1512–1569): l’école espagnole du droit international du XVIe siècle’, Recueil des Cours (1939), pp. 430534 . This summarizing piece has several merits, not least of which being the appraisal of those parts of Vázquez considered important within the context of scholarship on public international law in the interwar years.

14 See, for example, Burdick, William L, The principles of Roman law and their relation to modern law (Rochester, NY, 1938), pp. 298308 ; du Plessis, Paul, ‘Property’, in Johnston, David, ed., The Cambridge companion to Roman law (Cambridge, 2015), pp. 175–89; Buckland, W. W., A text-book of Roman law: from Augustus to Justinian (3rd edn, revised by Stein, Peter, Cambridge, 2007), pp. 180281 .

15 Justinian, Institutiones, ii, 1: 12. Justinianic law cited in this article derives from the Corpus iuris civilis, ed. Theodor Mommsen and Paul Krueger (Dublin, 1968).

16 Fitzmaurice, Sovereignty, property and empire, pp. 118–19, 259–60, 312n24. See also Watson, Alan, The law of property in the later Roman republic (Oxford, 1968), pp. 6274 .

17 Reynolds, Susan, Fiefs and vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford, 2001); Clanchy, M. T., From memory to written record: England, 1066–1307 (2nd edn, Oxford, 1993).

18 Between the rise of the mendicant movement and the beginnings of the papal schism (c. 1193–1378), thousands of ecclesiastical corporations fell upon the land from Kraków to Galway, variously attached to Rome but to each their own separate holding. The corporate form, for this reason so attractive to the canon lawyers and early conciliarists, allowed for a given church group to acquire titles, generally by purchase or gift, and hold these titles as a sole person with perpetual succession and a degree of separation from the pope. Lawrence, C. H., The friars: the impact of the early mendicant orders on medieval society (rev. edn, London, 2013); Tierney, Brian, Foundations of the conciliar theory: the contribution of the medieval canonists from Gratian to the great schism (2nd edn, Leiden, 1998), pp. 89142 .

19 Esmein, Adhémar, Cours élémentaire d'histoire du droit Français (3rd edn, Paris, 1920), pp. 310–14; Evergates, Theodore, The aristocracy in the county of Champagne, 1100–1300 (Philadelphia, PA, 2007), pp. 7681 ; Raban, Sandra, Mortmain legislation and the English church, 1279–1500 (Cambridge, 1982); Gasquet, Francis Aidan, Henry VIII and the English monasteries (2 vols., London, 1888–9).

20 Watson, Law of property, pp. 31–2, 48–61; Jolowicz, H. F. and Nicholas, Barry, Historical introduction to the study of Roman law (3rd edn, Cambridge, 1972), pp. 151–5.

21 Justinian, Codex, vii, 31: 33–5. See also Jolowicz and Nicholas, Historical introduction, p. 506; Burdick, Principles, pp. 342–5.

22 Kantorowicz, King's two bodies, pp. 165.

23 Justinian, Codex, i, 2: 23.

24 Liber extravagantium decretalium, in Corpus iuris canonici, ed. Emil Friedberg (2 vols., Graz, 1959), C. 16, q. 3.

25 A useful overview may be found in Helmholz, R. H., The spirit of classical canon law (Athens, GA, 1996), pp. 178–81.

26 Helmholz, Spirit of classical canon law, 49.

27 For canonistic prescription in good faith, see Noël Vilain, ‘Prescription et bonne foi: Du décret de Gratien (1140) à Jean d'André (d. 1348)’, Traditio, 14 (1958), pp. 121–89.

28 Helmholz, Spirit of classical canon law, pp. 191–8; Vilain, ‘Prescription et bonne foi’, pp. 153, 163–4, 179.

29 ‘[C]onsuetudo est jus disponens ex consensu populi vel majoris partis universitatis constitutum…praescriptio vero est jus dispositum…consentiunt in ea tamquam singuli, non tamquam universi.’ From this basis, Bartolus offered that prescription embodied the principles of contract more so than custom, even if both prescription and custom required the passage of time for the creation of right. For these passages and their analysis, see Ullmann, Walter, ‘Bartolus on customary law’, Juridical Review, 52 (1940), pp. 265–83.

30 Ullmann, Walter, ‘The delictal responsibility of medieval corporations’, Law Quarterly Review, 64 (1948), pp. 8592 ; Canning, Joseph, ‘The corporation in the political thought of the Italian jurists in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries’, History of Political Thought, 1 (1980), p. 31 ; Ryan, Magnus, ‘Bartolus of Sassoferrato and free cities’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 10 (2000), pp. 6589 ; Cesar, Floriano Jonas, ‘Popular autonomy and imperial power in Bartolus of Saxoferrato: an intrinsic connection’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 65 (2004), pp. 369–81. See also Canning, Joseph, A history of medieval political thought: 300–1450 (London, 1996), pp. 161–73.

31 ‘Nota Principem Romanum esse dominium totius orbis…quia ibi loquitur de facto. Nam de facto aliquae provinciae non sunt subjectae, sed de jure omnes dibi subjectae sunt…Quod credo verum nisi per aliquod tempus sit secuta praescriptio…Praeterea hoc non videtur verum, cum enim Francia ab ejus dominio sit subtracta et rex Franciae sit exemptus…Credo enim regem Franciae non subjectum esse Imperio.’ For this passage and an analysis, see Sidney Woolf, Cecil N., Bartolus of Sassoferrato: his position in the history of medieval political thought (Cambridge, 1913), pp. 108–10, 137–9.

32 See, for example, Tractatus de praescriptionibus (Cologne, 1590).

33 Bracton on the laws and customs of England, trans. Samuel E. Thorne (4 vols., Cambridge, MA, 1968–77), ii, p. 288: ‘Currit enim tempus contra desides et sui iuris contemptores.’ For situations in which prescription cannot apply, see ibid., ii, p. 58.

34 Ibid., iii, p. 186.

35 Thereafter, in the common law, writes Holdsworth, ‘it came to be thought that prescription was based not so much on a personal law in favour of the person seised, as on the fact that such immemorial user was conclusive evidence of a grant made before the time of legal memory’. Holdsworth, History of English law, iii, pp. 169–70. See, for a wider treatment, Thomas Arnold Herbert's Yorke Prize Essay of 1890, published as The history of the law of prescription in England (Cambridge, 1891).

36 See Seipp, David J., ‘The reception of canon law and civil law in the common law courts before 1600’, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 13 (1993), pp. 388420 .

37 As David Ibbetson suggests, there was much ‘terminological slippage between custom and prescription’ in the medieval common law, and the precise meaning of ‘prescription might once have been controversial’. Ibbetson, ‘Custom in medieval law’, pp. 166, 172.

38 Ibid., p. 166; Alan Cromartie, ‘The idea of common law as custom’, in Perreau-Saussine and Murphy, eds., The nature of customary law, pp. 213–14. Both refer to an entry in the year book from Henry VI's time which established two kinds of prescription: ‘one which extends throughout the whole realm, which is properly law; and another which some county, or some town, city or borough has had for time’.

39 Christopher Saint German, Doctor and Student, ed. William Muchall (Cincinnati, OH, 1886 [1518]), pp. 5, 79, and esp. 290, where the superiority of the ‘constitution’ over ‘prescription’ is likened to that of the ‘law’ over ‘custom’. Swayne's Case (1609), 8 Co. Rep., 64: ‘And note a Difference between Prescription which is made in the Person of any, as he and all his Ancestors, &c. or all those whose Estate he hath, &c. and Custom which lies upon the Land, as infra Manerium talis habetur Consuetudo, &c., and this Custom binds the Land, as Gavelkind, Borough-English, and the like.’

40 See Brett, Liberty, right and nature.

41 D. Fernandi Vasqvii Menchacensis, Controversiarvm illvstrivm (Venice, 1564). This is the edition reproduced in the Cuesta publication of the Controversies (4 vols., Valladolid, 1931), from which the following passages are drawn.

42 Ibid., ii, c. li, nos. 14–16.

43 Ibid., ii, c. li, nos. 20, 27; see also, c. lxxv, no. 3.

44 Ibid., ii, c. lxi, nos. 1–2; c. lxv, esp. nos. 1, 15–16, 19; c. lxviii; c. lxix; c. lxxviii.

45 IIbid., ii, c. lxvii, esp. nos. 5–7; c. lxxvii, no. 7.

46 Ibid., ii, c. lxxxii, no. 21: ‘Ergo cum nostri potentissimi Hispaniarum reges Hispaniarum regiones, homines, populos a Maurorum Sarracenorumque imperio & ditione proprio suorumque civium sanguine effuso virtute bellica liberaverint, & per tempus cujus initii memoria non est supremae ditionis ac imperii jus reddiderint, Romano posthabito imperio, non dubium est quin id jure fecisse intelligantur…& tempore cujus initii, &c. hanc supremam potestatem Hispariarum reges quaesierunt…sed nos advertimus quod etiamsi tempus immemoriale non praeteriisset, & etiam si ea justa causa quod a Mauris virtute bellica hanc regionem reges nostri liberassent, cessasset, adhuc de facto licuit se a Romano imperio subducere, cum constet Romanum imperium orbem vi & armis subjugasse ac subegisse, non autem conciessione onerosa tale imperium quaesisse ut patet ex superioribus.’

47 See Ibid., ii, c. li, nos. 37–8, a claim which appears in relation to the subordination of ecclesiastical corporations to the king of Spain after the vanquishment of infidels.

48 Ibid., ii, c. lxxxii, no. 9.

49 Ibid., ii, c. lxxxiii, nos. 30–1.

50 Ibid., ii, c. lxxxiii, nos. 30–1.

51 Ibid., ii, c. lxxxix, nos. 15–16, 22, 30–1.

52 Ibid., ii, c. lxxxix, no. 32: ‘…& quamvis ex Lusitanis magnam turbam saepe audiverim, in hac esse opinione, ut eorum rex ita praescripserit navigationem Indici occidentalis ejusdemque vastissimi maris, ita ut reliquis gentibus aequora illa transfretare non liceat, & ex nostrismet Hispanis vulgus in eadem opinione fere esse videatur, ut per vastissimum immensumque pontum ad Indorum regiones, quas potentissimi reges nosti Hispaniorum subegerunt, reliquis mortalium navigare, praeterquam Hispanis jus minime sit, quasi ab eis id jus praescriptum fuerit, tamen istorum omnium non minus insane sunt opiniones, quam eorum qui quoad Genuenses & Venetos in eodem fere somnio esse adsolent, quas sententias ineptiri, vel ex eo dilucidius apparet, quod istarum nationum singulae contra se ipsas nequeunt prascribere, hoc est, non respublica Venetiarum contra semetipsam, non respublica Genuensium contra semetipsam, non regnum Hispanoum contra semetipsum, non regnum Lustitanorum contra semetipsum…esse enim debet differentia inter agentem, & patientem, ut dictis juribus’.

53 Ibid., ii, c. lxxxix, no. 33; see also ii, c. li, nos. 32–4.

54 Letter patent to Francis Drake (15 Mar. 1587), Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, 277/15.

55 Cambdeno, Guilielmo (William Camden), Annales rerum Anglicarum, et Hibernicarum regnante Elizabetha (Frankfurt, 1616), p. 329 . That the anonymous speaker here is Robert Beale is the authoritative remark of Tuck, Richard, The rights of war and peace: political thought and the international order (Oxford, 1999), pp. 112n5.

56 van Ittersum, Martine Julia, Profit and principle: Hugo Grotius, natural rights theories and the rise of Dutch power in the East Indies (1595–1615) (Leiden, 2006), p. 5. This observation is confirmed by ongoing historiographical interest. See especially Borschberg, Peter, ‘The seizure of the Sta. Catarina revisited: the Portuguese empire in Asia, VOC politics and the origins of the Dutch-Johor alliance’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 33 (2002), p. 31 ; Keene, Edward, Beyond the anarchical society: Grotius, colonialism and order in world politics (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 50–2; Tuck, Rights of war and peace, pp. 79–80; Stapelbroek, Koen, ‘Trade, chartered companies, and mercantile associations’, in Fassbender, Bardo and Peters, Anne, eds., The Oxford handbook of the history of international law (Oxford, 2012), pp. 338–41; Koskenniemi, Martti, ‘International law and the emergence of mercantile capitalism: Grotius to Smith’, in Dupuy, Pierre-Marie and Chetail, Vincent, eds., The roots of international law / Le fondements du droit international (Leiden, 2014), pp. 49 ; Bull, Hedley et al. , eds., Hugo Grotius and international relations (Oxford, 1992).

57 The court's final ruling borrowed from the Amsterdam company's own justification for the seizure, but additionally mobilized a number of other justifications as well. Interpreting a commission issued by Maurits van Nassau in Holland, which permitted the use of force in acts of ‘self-defence’, to authorize the waging of a ‘just war’ in the Indian Ocean, the Amsterdam admiralty also conjoined a number of legal ideas from multiple sources of law that were not intuitively compatible.

58 van Ittersum, Martine Julia, ‘Hugo Grotius in context: Van Heemskerck's capture of the Santa Catarina and its justification in De jure praedae (1604–1606)’, Asian Journal of Social Science, 31 (2003), p. 523 .

59 It emerged after the acquisition of the Grotius papers by the University of Leiden in 1864 that the twelfth chapter of this long-unpublished manuscript formed the basis of Mare liberum, which was published to critical acclaim in 1609. See van Ittersum, Martine Julia, ‘Preparing Mare liberum for the press: Hugo Grotius’ rewriting of chapter 12 of De iure praedae in November-December 1608’, Grotiana, 26–8 (2005–7), pp. 246–80.

60 It represented an unusual intellectual configuration, to be sure. ‘But I believe that new light can be thrown on the matter with a fixed order of teaching’, Grotius opined in 1606, and ‘the right proportion of divine and human law mixed together with the dictates of philosophy’. Hugo Grotius to G. M. Lingelsheim (23 Nov. 1606), in Grotius, Hugo, Commentary on the law of prize and booty, ed. van Ittersum, Martine Julia (Indianapolis, IN, 2006 [1604–8]), p. 553 .

61 Ibid., pp. 9, 424.

62 Ibid., p. 343: ‘As a matter of fact, the entire question has been quite thoroughly discussed by Vázquez, the pride of Spain, a jurist who in no instance leaves anything to be desired in the keenness of his investigation of law nor in the candour with which he expounds it.’

63 Ibid., p. 343.

64 Ibid., pp. 340–7, quote at p. 346.

65 Ibid., p. 355.

66 de Freitas, Seraphino, De iusto imperio Lusitanorum Asiatico (Valladolid, 1625), c. xiii–xiv. For the nuances of this argument, and its relation to those developed by Grotius and Selden, see Vieira, Mónica Brito, ‘ Mare liberum vs. Mare clausum: Grotius, Freitas, and Selden's debate on dominion over the seas’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 64 (2003), pp. 361–77.

67 The need for an antecedent entity to create law (rather than to extinguish it) in this fashion is unclear. See Suárez, Francisco, ‘Of unwritten law which is called custom’, in Williams, Gwladys L. et al. , ed., Selections from three works of Francisco Suárez, S. J. (2 vols., Oxford, 1944), ii, pp. 503–18. See also Brian Tierney, ‘Vitoria and Suarez on ius gentium, natural law, and custom’, in Perreau-Saussine and Murphy, eds., The nature of customary law, pp. 101–24.

68 Juan de Solórzano Pereira, De Indiarum iure, ed. Carlos Baciero et al. (3 vols., Madrid, 1994), iii (‘De retentione Indiarum’), c. ii.

69 Selden, John, Of the dominion and ownership of the seas, trans. Nedham, Marchamont (2 books, London, 1652 [1635]), bk i, p. 2; Armitage, David, The ideological origins of the British Empire (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 100–24.

70 Selden, Of the dominion and ownership of the seas, i, p. 170.

71 Ibid., i, p. 128.

72 Ibid., i, pp. 9–10.

73 Ibid., ii, pp. 24–5.

74 Jacobo P. F. van der Graef, Syntagma iuris publici (The Hague, 1644), pp. 395–6, 398–9.

75 This matter had been far more pressing, of course, when the jurist Aggaeus van Albada presented his case to legitimize the actions of the Staten Generaal at negotiations in Cologne some forty years earlier, by making regular recourse to Vázquez, albeit principally to the first book of the Controversies (‘On Princes’). See van Nifterik, Gustaaf, ‘Fernando Vázquez, “Spaignaert”, en de Nederlandse opstand’, Legal History Review, 68 (2000), pp. 523–40.

76 Grotius, Hugo, The rights of war and peace, ed. Tuck, Richard (3 vols., Indianapolis, IN, 2005 [1625]), ii, p. 499.

77 Van der Graef endorses prescription for its use against tyrannous rule but is more ambivalent about its application for the expansion of imperium. See van der Graef, Syntagma, pp. 398–9.

78 Grotius, Rights of war and peace, ii, pp. 487, 489.

79 Ibid., ii, pp. 489–91, 498–501.

80 Johnson, Robert, Nova Britannia offering most excellent fruites by planting in Virginia: exciting all such as be well affected to further the same (London, 1609). For a wider treatment of Johnson's involvement in the Virginia Company of London, see Fitzmaurice, Andrew, Humanism and America: an intellectual history of English colonisation, 1500–1625 (Cambridge, 2003), pp. 61, 64, 74–87.

81 Bremer, Francis J., John Winthrop: America's forgotten founding father (Oxford, 2003), pp. 89124 .

82 Hosmer, James Kendall, ed., Winthrop's Journal (2 vols., New York, NY, 1908), i, pp. 128–9.

83 Roger Williams, Mr Cottons letter lately printed, examined and answered (London, 1644), in Complete writings of Roger Williams (7 vols., New York, NY, 1963), i, pp. 324–5; John Cotton, A Reply to Mr. Williams His Examination, in Complete writings, ii, p. 46.

84 Protest of Director Kieft against the Landing and Settling of the Swedes on the Delaware (6 May 1638), in B. Fernow, ed., Documents relating to the colonial history of New York (DHNY) (15 vols., Albany, NY, 1853–87), xii, p. 19. The bloody metaphor would find repetition later by van der Donck: ‘What right these people have to [occupy the Delaware River], we know not; we cannot comprehend how servants of other powers, as they represent themselves, but by what commission is not known here, make themselves so much masters, and assume authority, over land and property belonging to and possessed by others and sealed with their blood, independent of the [Geoctroyeerde Westindische Compagnie] Charter.’ Van der Donck, Adriaen, Remonstrance of New Netherland, and the occurrences there, trans. O'Callaghan, E. B. (Albany, NY, 1856), p. 23.

85 Report of Andries Hudde, or A Brief but True Report of the Proceedings of Prints, Johan, The instruction for Johan Printz, governor of New Sweden, ed. and trans. Johnson, Amandus (Philadelphia, PA, 1930), p. 269 .

86 See Dahlgren, Stellan and Norman, Hans, eds., The rise and fall of New Sweden: Governor Johan Risingh's journal of 1654–1955 in its historical context (Stockholm, 1988).

87 Heren XIX to Pieter Stuyvesant (22 Dec. 1659), DHNY, xiv, p. 450.

88 Banner, Stuart, How the Indians lost their land: law and power on the frontier (Cambridge, MA, 2005), pp. 10111 ; Weaver, John C., The great land rush and the making of the modern world, 1650–1900 (Montreal and Toronto, 2003); Tuck, The rights of war and peace, pp. 166–96; Fitzmaurice, Sovereignty, property and empire, pp. 85–214. See also Cavanagh, Edward, ‘Possession and dispossession in corporate New France, 1600–1663: debunking a “juridical history” and revisiting terra nullius ’, Law and History Review, 32 (2014), pp. 97125 .

89 Johnson v. M'Intosh, 21 US 543 (1823); Cherokee Nation v. Georgia 30 US 1 (1831); Worcester v. Georgia 31 US 515 (1832).

90 Canning, ‘The corporation’, 17; Ullmann, ‘Delictal responsibility’, 81. See also vonGierke, Otto, Political theories of the middle ages, trans. Maitland, F. W. (Cambridge, 1900); Maitland, F. W., ‘The corporation sole (1900)’, in Runciman, David and Ryan, Magnus, eds., Maitland: state, trust and corporation (Cambridge, 2003), pp. 931 ; Duff, P. W., Personality in Roman private law (Cambridge, 1938), pp. 221–3.

91 For this reason, it seems significant not only that Edmund Burke, in the oration cited at the outset of this article, would prefer to think in terms of prescription rather than custom in relation to the English constitution, but also that he would do so in order to justify the ‘legislative body corporate’ of the Commons.

* The first draft of this article was prepared as a Visiting Fellow at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law. Warm thanks must be offered to that institution, and more particularly to the community of scholars accommodated within it during the summer months of 2015. This piece has been amended subsequently following the generous advice of Carlos Espaliú Berdud, Richard Connors, Andrew Fitzmaurice, Mark Jurdjevic, Paul G. McHugh, Lauri Tähtinen, and, most helpfully, the anonymous reviewers for this journal. Finally, thanks be to Professor Phil Withington for his patience throughout this process.

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