Cartoon from High Commission for South Africa Correspondence

Legal Histories of the British Empire Conference
sponsored by National University of Singapore Faculty of Law and the University of Victoria's Faculty of Law and Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives

Law, Spaces, Cultures & Empire: Engagements & Legacies

5–7 July, 2012 Singapore


The Conference

In recent decades there has been an impressive growth of research and writing on the legal history of various former British colonies. These include settler colonies, such as those that became Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, and multi-cultural territories such as those in the Caribbean, Southern and South East Asia and Africa. The result is a developing body of scholarship on a variety of legal historical topics, embodying cultural, institutional, substantive, procedural, theoretical and biographical themes, that provides a strong basis for comparative scholarship within the Empire, and so, imperial legal histories.

The recent emergence of comparative colonial legal historical research provides important examples of the value of this form of analysis, commentary, and critique, and pointers for future work in the general field. To date this scholarship has included research and writing on: the treatment of Aboriginal and Indigenous populations; property rights; the treatment of the unfree - slaves and convicts; the law and practice of indenture; the administration of justice and the rule of law; master and servant law and labour regulation; martial law in colonial settings; crime and criminal justice; formal and informal resolution of private disputes; the law and gender; the colonial judiciary; the legal professions; the law of libel and press freedom, to name but some. There has also been an developing body of important scholarship on the connections between colonial rule and law and the governance and law of post-colonial states. Some scholars have taken the further step of making comparisons between the approaches of different imperial legal systems to common problems.

The growth of interest in colonial, and by extension imperial, legal history has occurred during a period when there has been a discernible renewal of interest among historians in cultural, political and economic histories of empire. Too often this general history of empire has ignored or downplayed legal developments within the imperial system.

In recent years a historiography of connections not only between the metropolis and various colonies, but also between colonies has taken root that looks at the transference of ideas about governance and society that was assisted by the movement of individuals to and within the Empire. A well-known example is the colonial ideologue, Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Although this work has not focused to any great extent on legal players in the colonies, they provide an obvious focus of interest. Several pioneer biographies of peripatetic colonial judges and studies of the translation of doctrine, legislative schemas and institutional models within the Empire provide a sense of potential of this type of research in a legal historical context.

Together these factors point to the value of mounting an International Conference on the Legal Histories of the British Empire.

The Conference is designed with three purposes in mind:

  1. As a vehicle for a wide ranging sample of current scholarship on imperial and colonial legal history – cultural, institutional, social, biographical, doctrinal, and theoretical. The Conference will bring together scholars at various stages in their careers who are working in the fields of imperial and comparative colonial legal history, to share the work that is already underway, and to encourage those with an incipient interest in these fields and others to join in scholarly endeavour and expand the field.
  2. To produce a scholarly publication in the form of a book of essays developed from papers selected from amongst those delivered at the conference. The book will be published through a major university press, and will represent an original and innovative contribution to scholarship.
  3. To create a permanent network of scholars in the field of imperial and comparative colonial legal history that will ensure a lasting interest in this field, provide the basis for further collaboration in the future and constitute a platform for links with scholars examining the legal dimensions of imperial and colonial rule by states other than Great Britain. This will be the enduring legacy of the Conference.

The Conference is a joint project of the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore, and the Faculty of Law and Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. The American Society for Legal History and the Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University have provided both encouragement and funding. The Australian and New Zealand Law and History Society; The Francis Forbes Society for Australian Legal History and the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History have encouraged and publicized the conference.


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Presenters & Papers

Conference Program

Keynote Speakers

Conference Venue


Travel & Accommodation