March 28, 2012

Law, Politics and the British Empire

International Law was invented, so we are told, in the 17th Century when like a modern Athena it sprang from the brain of Zeus (or Hugo Grotius to be more accurate but poetry is more fun!). Disregarding my flippancy for a second that means it must have had an impact upon the creation of European empires in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. In a recent review, that's exactly what Peter Karsten suggests, though he points out that on occasion colonial officials were not as aware of legal texts as modern historians are! Karsten's review of a book which I have not read points out some interesting facts: he shows for example how important it was for patriarchal English thinkers to make the colonial subject acknowledge the English King as a father. In their thinking this term implied a legal relationship of subjection- in the colonial subject it could or could not obviously. Its an interesting point and deserves amplification. As does the collision between these worlds- obviously as a theorist when your world collides with a world that is strange, you adapt your theory. Sociologically however the distinction Karsten notes between those who theorised and who colonised is interesting- the chain of knowledge and thinking could go both ways. One wonders whether a 19th Century jurist had the same sense of colonial reality as his seventeenth century predecessor or whether he had more or less. One wonders how the 19th Century empire changed his ways of viewing international law, when compared to the political context of his seventeenth century rival.