Law, Authority, and Colonial Rule

Sandra den Otter

in India and the British Empire

Published in print October 2012 | ISBN: 9780199259885
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191744587 | DOI:

Series: Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series

Law, Authority, and Colonial Rule

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)


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The chapter examines law and empire in colonial India. It explores the tensions between a bold civilizing and universalist ideology of imperial law, and a much more cautious imperium which sought to preserve communities, customs, and traditions, engulfed in a despotic state which used the rule of law to consolidate its dominance and stifle dissent. The ideological roots of imperial law-making lay in unstable, sometimes contradictory thinking about law, shaped by indigenous legal cultures and by such metropolitan theories as the Scottish Enlightenment, Tory paternalism, or liberal utilitarianism. From the outset, administering law in colonial India depended on a complex negotiation with indigenous law and practice. Colonial courts and their technologies of rule made a marked incursion into indigenous society; they were also much more partial, more ambiguous, and more likely to be resisted and manipulated than acknowledged by liberal ambitions to civilize India through the law. Legal interventions descended into the fabric of indigenous society, and the court-house, and law books powerfully shaped imperial and indigenous identities by patrolling the boundaries of public/private and articulating new and often contested meanings of subject and citizen. In so doing, imperial jurisprudence generated those formidable powers of opposition that generated the disintegration of the imperial rule of law.

Keywords: law; custom; codification; coercion; criminal tribes; inheritance; marriage; property; sedition; utilitarianism

Chapter.  9681 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945)

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