Course description

What does it mean to maintain law and order—and what does it take? How have plural legal systems and ideas of social order shaped societies and politics? What is the legacy of colonial law today? This course will explore these questions by examining the colonial histories behind the rule of law.

From the sixteenth century, European actors imposed laws on societies in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Indigenous legal systems in turn shaped colonial administrations and judicial systems. The nineteenth century saw imperial states assert legal dominance in new ways, recognizing indigenous systems while subordinating them as subject to colonial intervention. Local intermediaries, indigenous resistance, and cross-cultural negotiations redefined sovereignty in the process. Tensions between the claims and the realities of law and order in colonial states laid the foundations for international law and politics today.

We will explore these dynamics by focusing on the last two centuries of law and order in colonial settings, with a particular emphasis on those in Africa and under British imperial regimes. Major themes will include conquest and colonialism, sovereignty and states of exception, legal pluralism and human rights. Students will engage with primary sources throughout, including court cases, photographs, petitions, treaties, and personal accounts. By the end of the course, students will have a nuanced understanding of the evolution of plural legal systems, the development of international law, and the history of colonial legacies alive in the present. Students will be able to evaluate the stakes and stakeholders involved in the development of colonial legal systems. They will have an informed perspective on the meanings of “law and order,” the ways colonial regimes have leveraged legal structures, and the ways colonial subjects have responded.