Legal Crossroads of Empire: Exeter Historians’ Exhibit Opens This Week

Dr Nandini Chatterjee
History Department, University of Exeter

Mughal Emperor, seated, handing the Grant of Diwani to Lord Clive, 1765. © The British Library Board, Foster 29
Mughal Emperor, seated, handing the Grant of Diwani to Lord Clive, 1765. © The British Library Board, Foster 29

On 31 July, the exhibition titled “A court at the crossroads of empire: stories from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council” will open at the UK Supreme Court, London. You won’t want to miss it. There is colour and drama, and stories that range from murder to child custody, and from Australia to the Caribbean. And there is going to be a very cool touchscreen map of the world, offering more for those who want to go deeper into the areas of the world that the stories told in the exhibition relate to.

Together with my colleague in history, Dr Stacey Hynd, and Dr Charlotte Smith, School of Law, Reading University, I have had the privilege of leading a team of outstanding scholars for curating this exhibition. I would like to encourage everyone who happens to be (or can be) in the vicinity of Parliament Square, London, this summer, to go and take a look; there is certainly a lot to interest anybody with even a casual interest in world history and empires.

Preparing an exhibition on law and empire for the once final court of appeal for the British Empire has been a demanding but rewarding experience. The two main challenges have been, firstly, mobilising sufficient expertise to do justice (pun intended) to this, possibly the first real international court of justice. In this, we were fortunate to have at our disposal the knowledge and generosity of the many members of a research network on law, culture and empire called ‘Subjects of Law’.

Funded by the AHRC, this network ran 2012-14, and I was its P-I, Dr Charlotte Smith the Co-I. Relying on the expertise of colleagues who work on themes ranging from water law in Mandate Palestine to torture in the Caribbean, we were able to ‘do’ imperial history without losing the contextual richness of area studies. The second challenge was finding a narrative thread that could tie all this material together in a way that did not overwhelm visitors and viewers. We found the solution for this through a dramatic device – we decided to depict key legal actors associated with specific historical JCPC cases as certain kinds of dramatic personality types.

Thus we have the ‘killer’, the ‘pirate’, the ‘tortured’, the ‘child’ and many others. Our point in doing this was, on the one hand to insist upon the very intense and real effect of law on people’s lives – both individually and collectively. We specifically wished to resist a narrative of law from which people are absent. (This, incidentally, is a methodological approach which has inspired my own research.) We also wanted to embrace the fact that there was no single narrative that could accurately represent what law did in the British Empire, and what the final court of appeal did in that connection.

We have deliberately attempted to present a story with many sides. We have been fortunate and honoured by having a partner such as the UK Supreme Court, which has allowed us full academic freedom to discuss and present themes that remain controversial and legally relevant up to the present day.

We now invite you to come and see the exhibition and let us know what you think.

The exhibition will be open to the public on weekdays between 9.30am and 4.30pm until 25 September 2014. The venue is the UK Supreme Court, Parliament Square, London, and includes a number of associated activities and events. For further information, see also the University of Exeter Featured News.