JCPC Exhibition travels to Tel Aviv University

With the kind permission of the UK Supreme Court and the enterprise of Prof. Assaf Likhovski and Dr David Schorr, both TAU, and both members of this network, the exhibition materials travelled to Tel Aviv University, and were displayed in March-April 2015 in the David J. Light Law Library. Supplementary materials were added in Hebrew. The exhibition was opened in the presence of the Deputy British ambassador, and there were additional lectures by Prof. Yoram Shachar and Prof. Moti Gilani.

For further details, see here.


Exhibition: A Court at the Crossroads of Empire

A free exhibition, ” A court at the Crossroads of Empire: Stories from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council” was held at the UK Supreme Court, London on from July 2014 until 26 September 2014.

The exhibition was curated by several members of the research network, led by Nandini Chatterjee, Stacey Hynd and Charlotte Smith. It was funded by the UK Supreme Court itself, and by several others academic and legal sponsors.

The exhibition was formally inaugurated by Lady Hale, Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court, and the opening lecture on “Empire, Lawyers and Rule of Law” was delivered by Professor David Anderson, University of Warwick.

Within the exhibition, dramatic case studies highlight the personal impact of the JCPC’s colonial era decisions, in addition to their wider political and legal significance. Stories include those of a British doctor working in Ghana in the 1920s, who was charged with the murder of his wife. He was tried under Ashanti regulations without defence counsel or jury, and without right of appeal and his subsequent conviction and death sentence sparked an outcry in Britain. Although the doctor’s appeal to the JCPC was allowed on different grounds and his death sentence commuted, his case drew attention to the harsh nature of criminal procedures for African defendants. This helped encourage the Ashanti government to change due process in British West Africa. There is also the case involving a descendant of Colonel James Skinner,  a Scottish-Indian soldier who recruited a cavalry regiment for the English East India Company and died a wealthy man with a large and complex family. In 1871, the JCPC decided his great-granddaughter should be removed from her widowed mother’s custody because family members had alleged that she had converted to Islam and entered into a polygamous marriage, thereby losing the capacity for acting as guardian to the child of a Christian father.

An interactive ‘globe’ sat at the heart of the exhibition, underlining the geographic breadth of the court’s impact and enabling visitors to find out more about the JCPC’s links with a range of countries.

Coverage was received in The Times, Solicitors Journal and on the Culture 24 and Timeout ‘Things to do’ event websites and in legal magazines. A feature was written on the AHRC website. The exhibition was publicized prominently on the UKSC and JCPC websites and the exhibition’s web page received 3,047 unique visitors who on average spent over 3 minutes reading the information.

Debate days were held with four secondary schools who were invited to debate a historic JCPC case and take on the roles of appellants, respondents and judges. Over 75 students attended over the four days. The days were very successful and the students seemed to enjoy the debates.

Over 26,000 people visited the Supreme Court and Judicial Committee of the Privy Council during August and September compared with 19,600 for the same period in 2013, an increase of 33%. Although many would have come to see the court, a proportion of visitors came specifically to see the summer exhibition.

361 visitors chose to submit a feedback form. Respondents were asked to rate the exhibition overall with 1 indicating it needs some improvements and 5 being excellent. 84% gave a favourable response of either 4 or 5 out of 5.

For further details, see A Court at the Crossroads of Empire.

Poetics of Law, Politics of Self

Venue: Plymouth University and Mount Edgcumbe House

Dates: 5-6 September 2013

This conference seeks to explore the ‘meaning-making’ functions of law and examine the role played by imperial law in the fashioning of cultural identities.

Conceived within the broader thematic of colonial law and cultural change, this conference is the final academic event planned within the AHRC funded research network – ‘Subjects of law: rightful selves and the legal process in imperial Britain and the British empire.’

While the transformative effects of colonial legal governance are widely acknowledged, scholars no longer agree that this was solely a matter of the transference of the concept of the individuated, possessive, egalitarian and reflexive self from post-Enlightenment Europe to other regions of the world through the instruments of private property, rule of law and an adversarial concept of rights. Research has shown that inequality and hierarchy, communitarian and special interest claims, discretionary rule and the circumvention of due process, were not merely the result of occasional accommodation of local culture or deviation from true British standards, but the very substance of colonial rule itself. Moreover, law may itself have imposed or incited statements of cultural alterity, not merely accommodated or contended with it.

While admitting the mutual tainting of narratives, recent literature related to law and empire highlights the agency of those that learnt to speak in and through the language of law. It also points towards the intertwining of multiple representative genres –legal, political, anthropological, literary and dramatic – in creating, sustaining and subverting the meanings of legal events and subjects.

Conscious of that multi-disciplinary realm of study, we invite colleagues to explore:

How far and in what ways were occasional and stylised legal representations related to other modes of conceiving of oneself and others, for example, in religious and philosophical thought, social commentary, and political campaigns?
How significant are legal events themselves in the process of generating durable conceptualisations of individual and collective identities?
How do we use, discard or qualify the concept of agency in explaining how and why people engaged with imperial law?
How do we read legal texts and other texts about law – do we, for example, continue to quarry the genealogies of particular cross-genre discursive forms, or should we pay specific attention to the conventions of each form?
And finally, what exactly is colonial or imperial about this process of cultural translations through law?
While the principal aim of the network is to investigate the contours and processes of cultural and legal change within the British empire, comparative insights from other imperial/colonial contexts would be very warmly welcomed.

Deadlines: For proposing panels/papers: 31 May 2013.

Please send 250-word panel proposals and/or 150-word paper abstracts to Panel proposals should preferably be accompanied by 3 paper abstracts, although papers may be subsequently assigned to panels with the consent of panel organisers. Notifications of acceptance of proposals will be communicated by 17 June 2013. Conference registration will begin thereafter. Conference fees are £70 (including conference dinner) and £40 (for graduate students). There might be opportunities for fee waivers for up to 2 graduate students. We will not be able however to cover any travel or accommodation costs.


Spaces of law: territories, boundaries, corridors and beyond

Workshop at CSSSC, Kolkata, 11-13 December 2012

Organisers: Lakshmi Subramanian, Nandini Chatterjee

This event sought to examine the role of space – geographical, imagined and claimed, in shaping ideas and practices of imperial law, and those subject to that law.

The workshop was jointly organised by the Centre for studies in Social sciences, Calcutta and the Research network co-funded by the network and by the Indian Council of Historical Research with supplementary support by CSSSC. It emerged as part of an older conversation around the importance of deepening an emerging historiography on law and empire on the one hand and on space and representation of legal regimes on the other.

The call for papers noted that historiography of imperial law and space has developed along multiple lines. Scholars have noted and contested both the expansive claims to universal law and the imagination of Europe as the sole and exceptional locus of lawfulness. At the same time, there is a growing interest in parallel perceptions of moral right and legality that can be studied through different disciplinary lens and vantage points. It is from this vantage point that the conference organisers prepared a concept note and solicitied papers addressing one or other of the following themes:

How did ‘empire’ and ‘colony’ as spatial entities shape the theory and praxis of law in discrete contexts?
What other spatial and non-spatial categories challenged or endorsed such claims and legal geographies?
How were such spaces inhabited by historical subjects and what practices did these involve?

Originally planned for two days, the workshop spilled over to a third day. The format that was used was to pre-circulate papers to designated discussants who initiated the discussion for the panel. The result was remarkably fruitful; each panel saw vigorous and incisive discussion, which refused to be bound by deadlines! The panels themselves were organised around thematic issues which did not necessarily follow a chronological order but which addressed some of the principal concerns that animated the workshop. In line with the introductory note by Dr. Nandini Chatterjee made clear, the workshop tried to adopt a spatial approach to the study of the regimes of law, its dynamics and its conversations with local pragmatics, custom and practices within the broad framework of empire, colony and post colony. It looked at litigation practices that stretched across unusual geographies, at technologies of power and governmenality in defining and containing regions and borderlands, at the very nature and constitutive elements of law and regulation, at court ethnographies and the workings of Islamic law. A number of broad themes emerged and it was generally felt that the workshop proceedings could make up a coherent volume.


This was the first international event organised by the research network after the receipt of a networking grant from the AHRC. The network organised three panels within the Conference on the Legal Histories of the British Empire, held at the National University of Singapore on 5-7 July 2012 around the theme of Authorities and Interpreters.

Papers were proposed and presented in response to an advertised Call for Papers.

Authorities: Call for Papers

Nine papers were presented within the three panels organised by the network. Every one of these panels was very well received, and saw vigorous discussion with specialists in the field, which added to the achievements of the network.

Sub-panels and papers presented

In addition to the panels presented within the conference, the network organised a roundtable discussion on the evening of 6 July 2012, at Park Hotel, Clark Quay, Singapore. Participants in the discussion included the speakers on the three panels and
other scholars invited by Dr. Chatterjee.

Roundtable proceedings


‘Communities-in-law’: social identities and imperial rule

A conference held at the University of Reading, UK, 21 September 2011

Organisers: Dr Charlotte Smith, Dr Nandini Chatterjee

This conference examined the role of colonial governance, and legal governance in particular, in shaping communities of affect within the British Empire. It brought together scholars from a broad range of disciplines, united by their common interest in the role of law in the historical processes of identity-formation, and by their use of ‘legal’ sources, broadly defined, in their research.


09:00 – 09:30: Coffee and Welcome

09:30 – 11:00: Session One – Governing Empire

Bonny Ibhawoh (McMaster University): “Repugnant to Equity and Good Conscience”: Law, Custom and the Construction of Colonial Difference in British Africa

John Strawson (University of East London): Making Imperial Law: the Case of the Palestine Mandate

Richard Huzzey (University of Plymouth): Parliamentary Sovereignty and the Moral Geography of Imperial Slavery

11:00 – 11:30: Morning Coffee

11:30 – 13:00: Session Two – Encounters in the Colonial and Imperial Courts

Stacey Hynd (University of Exeter): R v Benjamin Knowles: Race, Respectability and Murder in the Gold Coast, 1928-30

Diana Paton (Newcastle University): Law, Healing and the Formation of Religious Communities in Early Twentieth Century Jamaica

Charlotte Smith (University of Reading): Defining the Church of England in the Colonies: Bishop of Natal v Gladstone (1866)

13:00 – 14:00: Lunch

14:00 – 16:00: Session Three – Religion, Pluralism and Empire

Nandini Chatterjee (University of Plymouth): Pursuing Muhammad Reza Khan: Law and Religious Toleration in two Empires

Soumen Mukherjee (Centre for Modern Oriental Studies, Berlin): The Legal Definition of a Shiite Sub-sect: Ideas of Community and Social Reformism among the Nizari Khojas in Colonial Bombay

Justin Jones (University of Exeter): Competing Jurisdictions: Multiple Shari‘as and Claims to Authority in Colonial India

Riyad Koya (University of California at Berkeley): Community and Citizenship in Colonial Fiji: The Application of the Shari`a for Fiji’s Muslim Minority

16:00 – 16:30: Afternoon Tea

16:30 – 17:30: Session Four – Obligations and Identity

Stephanie Jones (University of Southampton): Legal geographies of the Malay Archipelago and the ethics of obligation in the work of Joseph Conrad

Leigh Denault (Churchill College, Cambridge): Belonging and Urban Governance in late Colonial North India: The ‘Private Sector’ and the ‘Private Sphere’

17:30 – 18:00: Round Table – the Future of the “Subjects of Law” Network


Conference proceedings

As noted by Nandini Chatterjee

This conference proposed to examine the role of colonial governance, and legal governance in particular, in shaping communities of affect. It brought together mainly legal scholars and historians, and one outstanding literary critic, with specialist interests ranging from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia – a vast range of territorial specialization that also encompassed the oceanic worlds of the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. During the course of the day, there were outstanding presentations on the intertwining of the self and the law under conditions created by the British empire in Jamaica, Britain, Nigeria, Ghana, East Africa, Palestine, India, the Malay archipelago and Fiji. While the rich and unique texture of each of the stories told was one of the principal attractions of this conversation, some key points emerged during the presentations as well as the brief roundtable at the end of the day, which may provide creative connections between our work, and justify formal union through one or more collaborative publications in the near future. These points are summarized below; participants as well as others are warmly invited to comment and add to the conversation.

Defining the subject

A critical point, raised by Stephanie Jones (with reference to Raymond Williams’ 1976 critique) was about the ‘warm’ conceptual fuzziness of the term ‘community’ which, as Williams noted, is never associated with a negative sense. With its implication of benevolence and even sacredness, ‘community’ may obscure the exclusions and coercion involved in the construction and maintenance of its boundaries. How indeed do we conceptualise that which we are studying? Do we begin with a nominalist approach – that is a community which people call it thus – or an analytical one, attempting to finesse existing sociological models to fit very different entities? There are several difficulties with the first approach.

Firstly, it appeared from Justin Jones’s presentation on the debates between Maulana Madani and Muhammad Ali Jinnah that these two very different Muslim community leaders of twentieth-century India were in relative agreement that a) Muslims could be discussed in communitarian terms, and b) that this community needed full jurisdiction over its own legal affairs. However, they disagreed radically over the implications of such a community identity. While Jinnah worked within a colonial legal system, using colonial courts and categories of personal laws as a way of constructing Muslim legal autonomy, Madani seemed to be looking towards forms of jurisdiction drawn from within the Islamic tradition rather than from the colonial setting: for instance, networks of ‘Islamic’ courts, or a class of religiously-educated adjudicants. When one recalls that the political substantiation of community that these two men sought was completely different – Madani offering little support to the Muslim League’s aim of a territorial nation-state, it is obvious that community implied radically different visions of collectivity for these two men.

Secondly, there arises the question of whether the project of a community may also be taken to be a community. Even if such a project was a historically successful one, how do we escape teleology in our definition? Many of the communities that emerged from the presentations were indeed projects or proposals rather than socially substantial entities for significant periods of time. Whether we speak of Indian Muslims in Fiji (Riyad Koya) or white settlers in colonial Ghana (Stacey Hynd) – it appeared that the desire for and consciousness of religious or racial community was one that emerged at historically specific moments of time, often in relation to a legal event and in support of a legal demand. Of course the narrative of community formed the basis of such claims, but it might be important to ask why such narratives become popular at particular moments of time, and what other narrative sources they drawn upon – eg. legal narratives but also Scriptural traditions.

Thirdly, there arises the inevitable question of discipline – which in community narratives is presented as authoritative and consensual, but which has to rely, at least sometimes, upon the state or its judicial arm to substantiate this reality. As Charlotte Smith showed in her paper on the insubordinate Bishop Colenso of Natal, the Church defendants of Anglican orthodoxy felt it justified not only to resort to financial blackmail but also extreme legal niceties which had the potential for undermining the sanctity and authority of the Anglican episcopate worldwide. Was this still a community?

Finally, there is the problem of the community that does not give itself that name. It appeared from Diana Paton’s beautiful retelling of the Jamaican spiritual healers’ or obeah practitioners’ encounter with colonial law – which prohibited such activities- that a sense of community may have emerged precisely from this coercive experience. Perhaps such a community even transcended the boundaries of church-membership and flowed into a more pervasive and subversive sense of Jamaican subaltern religiosity.

While problem of the unarticulated community (such as Paton described) may be addressed by taking the second approach, that is, the sociological and objective one – there is the obvious criticism that this is an analytical method which ignores the points of view of the protagonists themselves, imposing artificial unities and limits where there were none such in the view of the historical actors themselves.

Governance and identification

While acknowledging the difficulties with the definition of the subject-matter and recognising the potential richness of these analytical difficulties, the most productive part of our discussion consisted of exploring the very concrete ways in which modern legal governance has been implicated in the shaping of collective identities that claim authenticity, autonomy, and (frequently) very ancient pedigrees for themselves. From the papers presented, both the role of the law and what was encompassed within the rubric of ‘law’ appeared to be very diverse, and Diana Paton, among others, alerted us to the importance of recognising the contextual specificities.

The following is one possible way of categorizing that range of historical instances:

The law as a tool of community cohesion/disciplining

Stacey Hynd’s paper explored a public and political furore created among the settler community in present-day Ghana following a white man’s conviction for murder in an Ashanti court, and the subsequent appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Apparently, this judicial decision occasioned an acute crystallization of racial identity because it violated a strongly held, and deeply racial sense of entitlement to judicial appeal – which the Ashanti court, with its normally black African clientele did not permit. The discussions and negotiations that followed revealed such rights claims were not necessarily based on a secure identity – being ‘white’ was among things a deeply gendered and class-inflected norm, and there were anxieties expressed about the potential non-compliance of members, especially female members of this racial community, with its disciplinary regime.

At the same time, the complicated legal arguments over one judgment from a court that otherwise proceeded to try and convict Africans without the luxury of appeal, appeared to compare very well with the over-use of law by the Church of England office-bearers (Charlotte Smith) and begs the question: what do forms of legal action show us about motivations and ideologies?

Ironically, Bonny Ibhawoh’s paper on formalization of racial difference through the separation of legal jurisdictions in Nigeria and the Gold Coast, warned against reading monolithic ideologies, such as the ‘rule of colonial difference’ into colonial law. Ibhawoh’s paper focussed on the ‘repugnancy’ doctrine, according to which elements of ‘native’ i.e. African customary law, which were deemed ‘repugnant’ to justice, equity and good conscience, were to be disallowed in the colonial courts. As such, this universalist doctrine may have served to undermine colonial difference. However, as Ibhawoh showed, the treatment of customary law varied – while it was indeed disallowed on the basis of repugnancy in a Nigerian case in 1902, it was recognised by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1962 – demonstrating, according to Ibhawoh, a certain fluidity in the British legal approach to the question of racial difference.

Fluidity is indeed what was highlighted in connection with the Khoja Ismailis of India (Soumen Mukherjee) – who repeatedly encountered the colonial legal system in high profile legal disputes over the identity and rights of this Shia sub-sect and its individual members. Questioning earlier works which posited a closure, Mukherjee traced a continuing process, whereby legal, scholarly (Orientalist) and communitarian narratives continued to interact and produce evolving definitions of who the Khoja Ismailis were.

Even though the story of the demand of Fijian Muslims for the application of Islamic law as a religious right (Riyad Koya) may be read as an opposing story of increasing sectarian rigidity, the international discussions over what Islamic law consisted of for Fijians in particular revealed a self-aware community in the making.

The moral community and law

From Fijian Muslims, to Indian Muslims, to British Parliamentarians and novelists – law appeared in several instances as both a failure and a valued object. Justin Jones’ paper on the differences between the ‘Muslim’ identities delineated by the Islamic scholar and the secular Muslim political leader highlighted how different historical actors contrasted the morally vacuous or insufficient world of modern law and politics with the idealized notion of just law, inseparable from religion and morality. In the case of Indian Muslims, sharia thus served as a referent for an aspiration for a good world, and a moral way of being in that world.

A similar sense of frustration pervaded Conrad’s historically accurate narrative of the trial of a captain who jumped ship, abandoning his charges. Lord Jim, Stephanie Jones, told us, is an evocative denunciation of modern law and its incapacity to comprehend the ethics that existed among such seamen. It is to that world of ethics in action that Conrad indicated when depicting the Indian Ocean as a possible moral world. And yet, said Jones, that idealized moral world had its own exclusions – being especially obtuse to the injustice suffered by the ‘shadowy lascars’ who did not appear to figure as moral agents in Conrad’s imagination.

Enslaved Africans, on the other hand, were central to the British abolitionist denunciation of the law-as-it-was and in their demand of law-as-it-should-be, albeit once again as moral referents rather than as moral agents. Richard Huzzey pointed out that the abolitionist definition of slavery as collective national sin, and their embrace of a national liability for atonement had very concrete implications – for enslaved Africans, slave-owner-planters, and the British public as a whole, instead of individual criminals, planters were treated as property-owners to be compensated by the British public, repentant for the sin of slavery in abstraction.

If moral codes can been shown to have such substantive legal effects – it is not equally obvious which exactly are the moral codes that explain judicial practice in the early modern world, said Nandini Chatterjee. Especially confounding are those legal decisions in early modern Islamic empires which cannot be easily explained with reference to well-known treatises of jurisprudence or fiqh – especially those that later acquired canonical status under colonial rule. Pointing to a number of reported decisions of state appointed courts in Mughal India, Chatterjee showed that such courts (of Qazis and other officials) routinely admitted non-Muslims and their disputes, and moreover, that they appeared to frequently ignore the rules of legal distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims (eg. those of evidence). In attempting to explain why this may have been so, Chatterjee speculated whether this was because Mughal political theory of transcendent kingship and universal subjecthood had acquired ethical value in its own right.

Empire and law

As John Strawson pointed out, the answer to this question has to be necessarily speculative, since Muslim judges are not unique in omitting explanations from their decision. In the case of Mandate Palestine however, it is possible, as Strawson demonstrated, to trace the personal orientations of the judges through other readily available sources – such as their legal works, but also their somewhat unguarded writing in publications meant for entertainment, such as Palestine Parodies. Connecting such sources with the judicial decisions allows one to understand why and how the inevitable discretion available in hybrid imperial legal systems, came to be utilized in specific contexts – such as land rights in Palestine.

But is there such as thing identifiable as imperial law? Diana Paton’s description of the aggressive legal hunting of a certain category of Jamaican spiritualists and faith-healers – the obeah practitioners – was contrasted by her to the far more tolerant attitude taken by the British government of India towards indigenous healing practices, such as Ayurveda. Indeed, in the Jamaican case, neither cultural difference nor gender distinction per se appeared to explain the motivation behind this culturally blunt legal approach. What appeared clearer is the distance between Jamaican cultural practice and colonial law’s morality – and that, ironically, the law may have created the subversive community it feared, united by common suffering and proscribed spirituality.