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Hispanic American Historical Review 83.4 (2003) 775-776
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Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400-1900 . By Lauren A. Benton. Studies in Comparative World History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Bibliography. Index. xiii, 285 pp. Cloth, $65.00. Paper, $20.00.
Law and Colonial Cultures, a comparative legal history that focuses on five centuries of "global legal regimes" (p. 3)—particularly the global legal order linked to colonial rule in the Americas, Asia, and Africa—should become an influential book. This challenging study touches on a broad range of topics, including the relationship between ecclesiastic and secular law in the Iberian peninsula, European relations with Africans in the early modern period, legal pacts between maroon communities and imperial authorities in the Americas, the legal regime for slave captivity and redemption in the Atlantic world, the legal status of indigenous peoples in nineteenth-century South Africa and Australia, and state building and the [End Page 775] legal status of foreigners in nineteenth-century Uruguay. The work insightfully combines a relatively traditional, though comparative, emphasis on institutions with postmodern elements of discourse analysis and cultural history.
This global legal regime is understood to have been institutional and multijurisdictional in nature. It was also a highly contested, multicultural arena. Benton seems most concerned with its shift from a series of strong and fluid plural legal orders (with overlapping authorities and forums) to weaker and more rigid plural legal orders dominated by the nation-state, a phenomenon that began in the late eighteenth century. She dedicates most of her theoretical observations to jurisdictional politics ("conflicts over the preservation, creation, nature, and extent of different legal forums and authorities" [p. 10]), cultural/legal intermediaries, and property rights. These key issues allow the author to provide a more complex and dynamic view of historical processes, especially colonial experiences, than those provided so far by other scholars.
For instance, Benton debunks some still-current Eurocentric historical myths by showing the active role played by indigenous legal systems in the making of the modern world. Similarly, her research demonstrates the complex repertory of responses (accommodation, advocacy within the system, delegitimation, rebellion) that conquered groups displayed when faced with the imposition of law by colonial powers. Her study shows too the structural similarities between, for example, the Iberian and African legal orders. Furthermore, the broad scope of Benton's work—the Spanish and Portuguese empires, Uruguay, West Africa, the British Empire, India, the Islamic empires, the Cape Colony (South Africa), and New South Wales—complements world systems approaches that tend to emphasize the Americas and Europe while downplaying connections to Asia and Africa.
As is usually the case with ambitious and comprehensive comparative works, Benton's book relies heavily upon secondary sources. It is, in any case, original in its interpretation and displays a creative comparative design. One of its major virtues is that, in spite of its ambitious chronological and geographical coverage and its postmodern approach, it is clearly written and well documented. This will be a valuable text for, among others, graduate seminars in comparative, Atlantic, and world history, legal history, and the history of race relations and colonialism. It is an indispensable acquisition for any research library.
Florida International University