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  • An Empire on Trial: Race, Murder, and Justice under British Rule, 1870-1935
  • Patricia F. Watkinson
An Empire on Trial: Race, Murder, and Justice under British Rule, 1870-1935. By Martin J. Wiener . New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 270 pp. $85.00 (cloth); $25.99 (paper); $21.00 (e-book).

Although the British Empire offers a nearly infinite variety of fields for study, Martin Wiener has teased out a trans-territorial pattern that emerged when he investigated seven imperial territories that offered different demographics, economies, and forms of colonial government, for one crucial issue. In this monograph he uses criminal proceedings for interpersonal interracial homicide as the measuring rod for a less tangible problem—the administration of British justice in the imperial possessions through its most outward and visible sign, the treatment of racial difference. The record of this administration of equality before the law serves as a key to what Wiener calls the "contradiction" (p. 1), or as historian Ranajit Guha names it, the "paradox" (p. 2), at the heart of the British Empire—a necessarily authoritarian empire constructed and governed by one of the most liberal, even democratic, European states of its time.

Adhering to neither the celebratory nor the accusatory schools of [End Page 632] modern imperial history, Wiener's work is an example of research at its finest, first because he lets the many horrific case files, convictions, and sentences he cites from throughout the empire speak for themselves. He is an engaging and organized writer who once again has turned to criminal and, specifically, homicide trials, this time to demystify the often ephemeral concept of British justice. He demonstrates through multiple examples that the interracial murders and their legal outcomes were determined by a complex mixture of economic, political, social, and racial motives whose relative weights in the minds of the participants shifted over time. This complexity belies celebration or accusation. Moreover, from this wealth of material Wiener concludes that although there were many exceptions, some of which were quite flagrant, the imperial government's goal was for the rule of law to prevail in British imperial courts.

He points to the ubiquitous issue of racial difference as the greatest obstacle to establishing the rule of law in the imperial possessions of Queensland and Fiji, Trinidad and the Bahamas, Kenya, India, and Honduras, and on the high seas. Whether the indigenous people were red, black, or brown, they were separated and judged inferior to the white Europeans. Wiener quotes an 1899 observer in India: "The humblest trooper is a white sahib" (p. 139). He correctly notes that even more than the officials, the European community was dependent on the maintenance of "European prestige" (p. 132). The majority lived in isolated tea gardens, "stations," or plantations and had face-to-face relationships with indigenous people every day. According to Wiener, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, as courts clamped down on settler violence, the indigenous peoples began to accord them less respect. As an isolated minority, the settlers, planters in particular, viewed each sign of lessening respect or obeisance as dangerous, and out of fear and anger were more likely to respond with violence, which often ended in death.

A second obstacle to the smooth and equal administration of justice in the territories was the class divisions among the Europeans themselves. The narrow gradations of British social classes were shipped lock, stock, and barrel from the home country to the ends of the empire. This was most clearly seen in the tense relationships between the official community—that is, members of the colonial government, the ICS, and the officer corps—and the non-official European community, a host of farmers, planters, other ranks, merchants, retail workers, clerks, visitors, journalists, and remittance men. The two groups had little in common besides race; their views on culture, behavior, work, and wealth differed significantly, and they resented each other. Settlers [End Page 633] in the colonies who had become successful through their own hard work, and the labor of those servants and "coolies" (p. 79) who worked for them, would not stand for second-class treatment or open contempt from officials whose bank accounts...