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The Travels of Law: Indian Ocean Itineraries


I believe that no country ever stood so much in need of a code of laws as India; and I believe also that there never was a country in which the want might so easily be supplied. I said that there were many points of analogy between the state of that country after the fall of the Mogul power, and the state of Europe after the fall of the Roman empire. In one respect the analogy is very striking. As there were in Europe then, so there are in India now, several systems of law widely differing from each other, but coexisting and coequal. The indigenous population has its own laws. Each of the successive races of conquerors has brought with it its own peculiar jurisprudence: the Mussulman his Koran and the innumerable commentators on the Koran; the Englishman his Statute Book and his Term Reports. As there were established in Italy, at one and the same time, the Roman Law, the Lombard law, the Ripuarian law, the Bavarian law, and the Salic law, so we have now in our Eastern empire Hindoo law, Mahometan law, Parsee law, English law, perpetually mingling with each other and disturbing each other, varying with the person, varying with the place.

–Thomas Babington Macaulay On July 10 1833, in his lengthy and famous speech on the “Government of India” delivered to the House of Commons, Thomas Babington Macaulay offered a brief but fascinating spatial-temporal assessment of the exigencies confronting British legal reform in India. As his above-cited remarks suggest, Macaulay was well acquainted with the subcontinent's rich landscape of multiple legalities and was particularly attuned to the challenges this legal plurality posed to British rule. At the same time, his observations serve as an astute testament to law's travels. Macaulay's speech addressed a range of politically charged issues, including allegations of scandal and corruption surrounding the East India Company's administration. By the end, however, he turned from justifying and defending Company pursuits to persuading an attentive Parliament about the necessity and merits of legal codification. Given Macaulay's unwavering belief in the superiority of Britain (and Europe)—most clearly articulated in his developmentalist analogy between “Europe then” and “India now”—the most plausible itinerary of law's movements was a unidirectional one: law originated in metropolitan London and moved outward to India and elsewhere. However, in advancing his case for codification, Macaulay inadvertently exposed many other laws and their respective circuits of travel. India was difficult to govern precisely because it was a terrain of legal mobility; the residues of other people, places, and times produced a polyglot existence of “Hindoo law, Mahometan law, Parsee law, English law, perpetually mingling with each other and disturbing each other.” What India needed most, Macaulay urged, was a systematized, standardized, and codified rule of law that was to be introduced and imposed by the British: “A code is almost the only blessing, perhaps it is the only blessing, which absolute governments are better fitted to confer on a nation than popular governments.”

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Sudipta Sen , “Unfinished Conquest: Residual Sovereignty and the Legal Foundations of the British Empire in India,” Law, Culture and the Humanities 9 (2013): especially 239242

U. Kalpagam , “Temporalities, History and Routines of Rule in India,” Time and Society 8 (1999): 141–59

Tony Ballantyne , “Race and the Webs of Empire: Aryanism from India to the Pacific,” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 2 (2001): 39

Sukanya Banerjee , Becoming Imperial Citizens: Indians in the Late Victorian Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)

Renisa Mawani , “Specters of Indigeneity in British Indian Migration, 1914,” Law and Society Review 46 (2012): 369403

Bhavani Raman , Documenting Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012

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Law and History Review
  • ISSN: 0738-2480
  • EISSN: 1939-9022
  • URL: /core/journals/law-and-history-review
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