Legal History, Slavery, Colonialism

The last few weeks have been full of news of protest and direct action relating to racism, slavery and colonialism. As no one in Bristol can have failed to notice, it has been the week when the most prominent statue of slaver Edward Colston finally fell.

At the place where I work, the University of Bristol, this has brought to the forefront of minds  various issues to do with naming of buildings, and the University logo. The names of families whose wealth derived from slavery are prominently commemorated here, and the emblem of Edward Colston, a dolphin, is included in the University logo. These names and the logo are under review now – and quite rightly (though possibly putting out a tweet to announce this and … using the Colston- commemorationg logo to do so … was not the best call). Both the University and excellent and doughty scholars within it, as well as committed historians outside academia, have been looking at these issues for some time, but recent events have lent it all a particular urgency, and have also drawn in a much wider group of academics who know that we should be doing more, and faster, to try and make the education we offer both inclusive for all students, and also sufficiently energising and mind-expanding to cause positive change in the local community and the wider world.

I have, for many years, run a unit on Legal History for our Law undergraduates. It has always attracted excellent, sparky students who are alive to injustice, including racial and gender injustice, in the world. We have plans to include more on this in the next academic year. I dare say the issue of statues, putting them up, pulling them down, will feature. At the moment, though I am thinking about a couple of other issues: how the common law and common lawyers were implicated in slavery and colonialism, and how Legal History itself has been affected by having been developed as a discipline in the heyday of colonialism and racism. There is a lot to think about, and to do – and, as a medievalist rather than an expert on later periods, I am going to be synthesising the work of other, expert, scholars where I can find it – but it feels as if Legal History needs to put its metaphorical shoulder to the wheel.

Some of the questions which occur to me straight away:

  1. Is there a general survey of lawyers (or legal institutions) as slave-holders? I have put out a Twitter bat-signal to try and see what there is ‘out there’, having drawn something of a blank in my own preliminary searches – I suspect that there might not be, though there are sections and statements in various, disparate works. If there is not such a general survey, how can a start be made on this? Individual biographies are one way to go, I suppose, as well as checking the writings of lawyers themselves. It would be particularly interesting to make a start on lawyers in Bristol …
  2. In what ways has common law doctrine been implicated in slavery, racism, colonial projects? (Huge – obviously – and equally obviously there is excellent work here by historians, but it also seems that there are gaps with regard to more doctrinal (‘dry’?) parts of law, and areas in which a bit of imagination, and consciousness of the issue, might bring up a wider set of connections).

This morning, a cross check in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has shown me some interesting lawyer/slavers, which is a start for no. 1 at least

[And on the Bristol-Colston front, I just came across another example of his ‘philanthropic’ ubiquity in Bristol – there is a charitable foundation called the Dolphin Society, which might want to be a little firmer in its dissociation from Ed and his murderous works … https://www.dolphin-society.org.uk/history

Also the ODNB (updated 2008?) has EC article entitled  ‘Colston, Edward (1636–1721), merchant and philanthropist‘. Very neutral…]

12/6/2020

13/6

There is more ‘Colstonalia’ in Bristol – and more websites which might want to consider saying something stronger about the wrongness of slavery. Today’s example (accessed 13/6) is this one https://www.about-bristol.co.uk/chu-04.asp

17/6

A programme which those who are not regular watchers of Welsh language TV might have missed …

https://www.s4c.cymru/clic/programme/532330299

Dylan ar Daith – S4C programme (Welsh – with subtitles!) on Thomas Picton, governor of Picton, cruel even for the times. Interesting to see the Welsh coming to terms with not having been pure with regard to slavery. Some stories I had not heard here – worth a watch to see what you think of its tone.

 

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