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A Search for Sovereignty
Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900


  • Date Published: February 2010
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9780521707435

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About the Authors
  • A Search for Sovereignty approaches world history by examining the relation of law and geography in European empires between 1400 and 1900. Lauren Benton argues that Europeans imagined imperial space as networks of corridors and enclaves, and that they constructed sovereignty in ways that merged ideas about geography and law. Conflicts over treason, piracy, convict transportation, martial law, and crime created irregular spaces of law, while also attaching legal meanings to familiar geographic categories such as rivers, oceans, islands, and mountains. The resulting legal and spatial anomalies influenced debates about imperial constitutions and international law both in the colonies and at home. This study changes our understanding of empire and its legacies and opens new perspectives on the global history of law.

    • The book will appeal to historians, geographers, political scientists, and legal scholars. It treats several topics of broad and current interest, such as the history of piracy and of island prisons
    • Case studies, some of which are told in a narrative style, are accessible to non-specialist audiences and undergraduates
    • The chronological scope and geographic sweep is broad, including case studies set in Paraguay, Virginia, the Indian Ocean, Norfolk Island, Puerto Rico, India, and Lesotho
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'Lauren Benton's book is sure to remap how we think about the geography of world history. Elegantly written, theoretically sophisticated, and impressively documented, this book challenges the common view of sovereignty as the result of spreading laws and extending territorial claims, as if the world rested on a divide between lawful and lawless lands.' Jeremy Adelman, Princeton University

    'The novel topics and surprising juxtapositions in this strikingly original book comprise a vision of world history that is as convincing as it is unsettling. Its achievement confirms Lauren Benton's stature as one of the most creative historians writing today.' David Armitage, Harvard University

    'Lauren Benton has shown, with immense erudition and considerable flair, how central the concern with sovereignty was for all the European overseas empires throughout their long and complex histories … A Search for Sovereignty is a brilliant, innovative, and timely book.' Anthony Pagden, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and History, University of California, Los Angeles

    'This is a superb book that will make a splash among historians, geographers, and social theorists alike.' Kären Wigen, Stanford University

    'Lauren Benton's deeply imaginative monograph rethinks the relationship between law, geography, and jurisdictional politics in European overseas empires … Readers who follow Benton upriver, across oceans, and to islands and mountains with eyes trained for legal posturing and jurisdictional politics will see European empires in a new and arresting way.' Law and History Review

    '… succeed[s] in presenting a compelling set of reasons for questioning teleological accounts of sovereignty … [Benton] provides many points of entry for further elaboration on the ways in which empire disrupts the narrative of a steady convergence of sovereignty and bounded territory culminating in the present international legal order.' Kate Purcell, British Yearbook of International Law

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    Product details

    • Date Published: February 2010
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9780521707435
    • length: 358 pages
    • dimensions: 229 x 152 x 25 mm
    • weight: 0.48kg
    • contains: 4 b/w illus. 6 maps
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. Introduction: anomalies of empire
    2. Treacherous places: Atlantic riverine regions and the law of treason
    3. Sovereignty at sea: jurisdiction, piracy, and ocean regionalism
    4. Island chains: military law and convict transportation
    5. Landlocked: colonial enclaves and the problem of quasi-sovereignty
    6. Conclusion: bare sovereignty and empire.

  • Author

    Lauren Benton, New York University
    Lauren Benton is Professor of History and Affiliate Professor of Law at New York University. Her book Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400–1900 (Cambridge, 2002) won the Law and Society Association's James Willard Hurst Book Prize, the World History Association Book Prize, and the PEWS Book Award from the American Sociological Association, Political Economy of the World Systems Section.

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