Law, Politics and Society across the British Empire, 1750-1960: Context (HIH3299)

StaffDr Nandini Chatterjee - Convenor
Credit Value30
ECTS Value15
NQF Level6
Pre-requisitesAt least 90 credits of History at Level 1 and/or Level 2.
Co-requisitesHIH3298 Law, Politics and Society across the British Empire, 1750-1960: Sources
Duration of Module Term 1: 11 weeks; Term 2: 11 weeks;

Module aims

This is a module about the historical role of law in the British empire. Students will be encouraged to appreciate the central but complex role of law in the running of the British empire between the mid-18th to the mid-20th centuries, paying attention to the ideological role of law in justifying empire, in re-structuring markets, economies, social systems and private lives, and in affording a language and means of resistance to colonized populations. The module is organized thematically rather than chronologically. Each theme will be studied with reference to a specific location and context within the British empire. As such, students will encounter a vast range of geographical locations, about which they will have to form clear, historically accurate ideas before proceeding to analyse the role of law in that context. 
‘Law’ itself is conceived of very broadly for purposes of this module. Students will study the traditional themes of litigation, trials, adjudication and legislation. They will learn about formal processes and politics of law-making by elected or unelected authorities, and adjudication by and in a variety of tribunals, from local executive officers’ courts to the final court of appeal for the British Empire. The module will also introduce students to the imperial phenomenon of ‘legal pluralism’, whereby diverse bodies of non-English law – including civil (Roman) law, Islamic law, Hindu law, customary law, as well as specific colonial laws – were incorporated within the legal systems of the British empire. Students will also look at diplomatic negotiation over treaties and agreements, for example between the British and Native American, Chinese, Indian and Maori authorities, and the claims and practices of extra-territoriality beyond the formal British Empire. Students will be constantly encouraged to think beyond the letter of the law in order to understand the social relevance of laws; the importance of alternative moral codes, and the significance of systematic breaches of the law.  Being inter-disciplinary, the module will introduce the student to analytical and methodological approaches from law, history, anthropology, and literary criticism, and being very broad in geographical scope, to contexts from North America, the Caribbean, West and East Africa, Turkey, India, China and Australia.
By using a combination of tutor-led seminars and lectures, student-led seminars and independent study, the module will enable students to reflect independently upon research questions related to law and empire, and judge between the value of different analytical and methodological approaches, while making direct use of a large array of primary sources. In this way students will learn to draw thematic and strongly analytical comparisons between material from different sources, show awareness of contrasting approaches to research, and demonstrate an enhanced understanding of some of the philosophical and ethical questions arising from research into large historical themes of continued relevance in the present day.  They will also learn to present some of these complex issues to the rest of the class by leading a seminar in the second half of the course.  

ILO: Module-specific skills

  • 1. Ability to evaluate different complex themes in the history of law across the British Empire, from the mid-18th to the mid-20th centuries, with proper attention to the precise context.
  • 2. Ability to make close specialist evaluation of the key developments within that context, developed through independent study and seminar work.

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

  • 3. Ability to analyse the historical role of law in an imperial context, with attention to its many forms and functions.
  • 4. Ability to understand and analyse key developments in complex and unfamiliar political, social, cultural or intellectual environments.
  • 5. Ability to understand and deploy relevant historical terminology in a comprehensible manner.
  • 6. Ability to read and understand legal sources, and write with accuracy about legal institutions, codes and practices.

ILO: Personal and key skills

  • 7. Independent and autonomous study, research and group work, including presentation of material for group discussion, developed through the mode of learning.
  • 8. Ability to digest, select and organise material to produce, to a deadline, a coherent and cogent argument, developed through the mode of assessment.
  • 9. Ability to present complex arguments orally.
  • 10. Ability to lead, as part of a team, a group discussion of a historical topic.

Syllabus plan

Some of the themes that we are likely to address are:
• Legal history – concepts and debates
• Diplomacy and treaties
• Extra-territoriality and concessions
• Land rights and indigenous communities
• Law and the environment
• Piracy
• Slavery
• Indentured labour
• Prostitution
• Wives, children and families
• Sexuality and its regulation
• Armies and martial law
• Crime and punishment
• Constitutions and sovereigns
• Universal and international law

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching activities44Seminars (22x2hr)
Guided independent study256Reading and preparation for seminars, coursework and presentations.

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Seminar discussionOngoing through course1-7, 9-10Verbal from tutor and fellow students.
Worse of two essay marks3000 Words1-8Verbal and written.

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Better of two essay marks333,000 Words1-8Written and verbal
Exam672 questions in 2 hours1-8Written

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Better of two essaysBetter of two essays1-8Referral/deferral period
ExamExam 1-8Referral/deferral period

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Clare Anderson, The Indian Uprising of 1857: Prisons, Prisoners and Rebellion (London: Anthem Press, 2007).
Lauren Benton, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
Lauren Benton and Richard J. Ross (eds), Legal Pluralism and Empires: 1500-1850 (New York: New York University Press, 2013).
Martin Channock, The Making of South African Legal Culture, 1902-1936: Fear, Favour and Prejudice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
Ronald Dworkin, Law’s Empire (London: Hart, 1986).
Wael B. Hallaq, Authority, Continuity and Change in Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
Nasser Hussain, The Jurisprudence of Emergency: Colonialism and the Rule of Law (Ann Arbor: Duke University Press, 2003).
Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
Philippa Levine, Prostitution, Race and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (New York: Routledge, 2003).
Lydia Liu, The Clash of Empires: the Invention of China in Modern World Making (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004).
Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions: the Debate on Sati in Colonial India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
Kristin Mann, Richard Roberts (eds), Law in Colonial Africa (Portsmouth, N.H.: Currey, 1991).
Sally Merry, ‘Courts as performances: domestic violence hearings in a Hawai’i family court’, in Susan Hirsch and Mindie Lazarus-Black (eds) Contested states: law, hegemony and resistance (London: Routledge, 1994).
Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire: the Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).
Henry Reynolds, Frontier: Aborigines, Settlers and Land (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1987).
Lawrence Rosen, Law as Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).
June Starr and Jane F. Collier (eds) History and Power in the Study of Law (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).
Richard White, The  Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
Martin J. Wiener, An Empire on Trial: Race, Murder, and Justice under British Rule, 1870-1935 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Module has an active ELE page?


Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Web based and electronic resources: (on India) (on Australia)
House of Commons Parliamentary Papers
Times Digital Archive

Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date


Key words search

Law, Politics, British Empire, Colonialism, India, North America, China, Africa