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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.4 (2003) 599-600

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Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400-1900. By Lauren Benton (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2001) 285pp. $65.00 cloth $20.00 paper

The legal dimensions of the development of modern state systems, colonial regimes, and the emergence of the modern international system are often ignored. Benton works to correct this tendency in a broadly conceived analysis of the "contested historical movement from truly plural legal orders to state-dominated legal orders" (28). Benton calls for the effort to "reimagine global structure as the institutional matrix constructed out of practice and shaped by conflict" (4). This analysis shows "modern state-centered legal pluralism as historically recent and contingent" (30), and that "legal conflicts in the long nineteenth century contributed to the formation of a global interstate order" (29).

The heart of the analysis is an examination of changing conditions of legal pluralism, a context with more than one basic legal regime or authority. Benton distinguishes between multicentric legal orders, "in which the state is one among many legal authorities" (11), and more state-centered legal orders. His first multicentric context is "law in diaspora," concentrating on legal regimes in the early modern Atlantic world. Benton argues that these regimes, taken together, show that "a single international legal regime" already existed between the fifteenth and the end of the eighteenth century (79). Though not a unitary structure, the institutional order in culturally diverse areas was "mutually intelligible for travelers and traders," because relationships were shaped by the same matrix of legal issues (79).

Benton then examines legal pluralism in the Spanish New World, Portuguese Goa, and the Ottoman Empire, with an emphasis on "the unstable relationship between religious and state law" (124-125). Next follows a chapter that discusses "the transition from a more fluid legal pluralism to the more planned pluralism of 'high' colonialism in British India and French colonial Africa" during the nineteenth century (129). An analysis of legal hierarchies in the Cape Colony and New South Wales shows the legal status of indigenous peoples as a central issue in defining the powers of the colonial state. The final case study is the definition of extra-territoriality as a separate legal status for foreigners (211), implicitly recognizing "hegemonic state legal authority" (252). Specifics are presented in a detailed analysis of Uruguay, with comparative [End Page 599] conclusions about Ottoman and Chinese developments. All of the cases support Benton's basic theme that "formally plural legal orders were transformed into state-dominated legal orders" by the end of the nineteenth century (209).

Given the importance that Benton gives to the concept of an emerging global interstate order, it is surprising that she does not give more consideration to the beginnings of "international law." Her approach would be well suited to it; specific legal contestations played an important role in defining the nature and boundaries of the modern state. One can hope that Benton has left this as an issue for a later study.

This study makes effective use of anthropological, legal, and archival sources, blending the needs of precision and detail in complex case studies with a clear statement of the broader implications of the analysis. Benton effectively shows "the importance of demonstrating the interconnections between small conflicts in particular historical settings and the revision of 'master narratives' about global change" (28). All who are interested in the "master narratives" of the development of the modern state, modern political society, and the global state system should find this book at least useful, if not essential.


John O. Voll
Georgetown University



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pp. 599-600
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