Lauren Benton and Lisa Ford: Rage for Order: The British Empire and the Origins of International Law, 1800–1850

Publication Date01 Dec 2017
AuthorUpendra Baxi
(Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2016, 288 pp., £31.95)
Lauren Benton and Lisa Ford seek to provide a fine narrative of how
emerging legal consciousness assisted the `origins' of international law
during the first half of the nineteenth century. `Law was everywhere', they
say as `the medium of multiple, parallel projects of imperial change',
providing `the text and the subtext of numerous colonial controversies,
including debates over colonial legislative powers and crown prerogatives'
(p. 5). It was law in books, and yet also law in action and law also in the
making. This work can be read as offering lessons in colonial historiography
and the role of law in the making of an empire. In the background of the
worldwide project of building an empire hovered `global' law or `inter-
national law' which was, however, the `ghost in the machine'. Central to this
narrative is the British abolition of human chattel slavery and slave trade
which `epitomised British humanitarianism' (pp. 138, 138±97, 19±27).
In a work of refreshing originality, they present the concept of `middle
power' (first articulated by Governor Thomas Maitland in Ceylon) as a
mechanism of imperial governance arrayed against colonial despotism.
`Middle power' really signified `the careful empowerment of loyal men in
the middle' and `stood between legitimate species of autocratic rule and
illegitimate tyranny' (p. 10). This reminds me of the much later conceptions
of global justice, such as `benevolent despotism' and `decent hierarchical
society' which had the potential to respect some human rights within its
civilizational and cultural traditions: according to John Rawls,
autonomy was to be respected compared with `outlaw' societies of peoples
(who denied altogether the idea of human rights).
However, the concept of
`middle power' was not emancipative of the colonized peoples; rather, it was
an administrative tool of creeping imperial governance against the `control
of petty despots' and turned `authoritarian impulses into institution building
or reform agenda' as `instruments of imperial power' (p. 11).
Both the battles against local despotism through imperial commissions
and later through the law for colonies (pp. 56±84), and the `ordering of
Oceans' (pp. 117±47) speak to the imperial `rage for order'. But we hear
different governance, development, rights, and justice accents in each
domain. Clearly, the Eurocentric notions of justice and human rights were
then not fully developed in the world that gave birth to Euro-enlightenment
values. And that poses a puzzle in the British abolition of slave trade and
despotism of law. How does it happen that a `superpower' like Great Britain
1 J. Rawls, The Law of Peoples (1993).
2 U. Baxi, `The Failure of Deliberative Democracy and Global Justice' in Democracy
Unrealized: Documenta 11_Platform 1, eds. O. Enwezor et al. (2001) 113.
ß2017 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2017 Cardiff University Law School

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