Annual Distinguished Lecture on Europe. “‘Under British Protection’: Imperial Law and the Enemies of Order in the Early Nineteenth Century Empire.”
In recent years, as international lawyers have debated justifications for humanitarian interventions, the history of protection has attracted new attention. Some accounts run from Grotius, whose arguments about the right to punish violators of natural law are seen as foundational, to the nineteenth-century campaign against the slave trade and to twentieth-century declarations against genocide. Some accounts highlight the late-nineteenth century imperial origins of protection, noting that “protected states” and “protectorates” were formally defined in this period in ways that helped to shape a European-dominated international legal order.
Conflicts over colonial governance in the early nineteenth century represent important, and understudied, contexts for the development of ideas about protection. In the British Empire, colonial legal reform projects were ubiquitous and influenced the way British authority was constructed, imagined, and opposed in newly acquired colonies. The legal politics of Ceylon and the Ionian Islands show that discourses of protection were central both to colonial judicial reform projects and to expansionist schemes for the empire, supporting a vision of global order centered around imperial law.
Lauren Benton is Professor of History, Affiliate Professor of Law, and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University. Benton’s research focuses on the comparative history of empires and the relation between imperial law and global order. Benton’s books include an edited volume published this year (Lauren Benton and Richard Ross, Legal Pluralism and Empires, 1500-1850 and two books on law and empire: A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900 (2010); and Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400-1900 (2002), which was awarded the World History Association Book Award and the James Willard Hurst Book Prize. Benton is currently working with Lisa Ford on a book about legal politics in the British Empire in the early nineteenth century.
Part of Rethinking Sovereignty, a multi-disciplinary lecture series that explores the tension between the powers of centralized states in the modern world and their uncertain political and geographical peripheries.
Lauren Benton, professor of history and dean, Graduate School of Arts and Science, New York University