Congratulations to CIGH’s Prof. Nandini Chatterjee, who has recently won a prestigious book award from the American Society for Legal History for her book Negotiating Mughal Law: A Family of Landlords Across Three Indian Empires (Cambridge University Press, 2020). The Peter Gonville Stein Book Award is given for the ‘Best book in legal history (written in English) outside the field of US legal history, published during the previous calendar year.’
Negotiating Mughal Law is a wonderful combination of philology, imagination, archive sleuthing, and sharp intelligence. Based on a painstakingly collected set of documents in a few languages from a society that lacked a centralized legal archive, it is a micro-history of a family of landlords in central India over several centuries. Chatterjee provides a rich narrative of law as put into practice in the daily lives of a wide range of people. Her attention to methodology is a model of the care and self-criticism that underlies the very best historical research, and for this reason the book is of great value beyond its specific geographical and temporal context.
You can read the official announcement and list of awards and prizes here.
Objects hold a special place in the way we look at the past. Objects travel across borders and have lives. Their meanings and values change across time, and decoding these meanings can help us understand our history better. Museums are repositories of relics from the past. They are one of the mediums through which we form tangible links with our history. But objects in museums did not make it there by themselves.
Many of the South Asian objects in UK museums arrived here during the colonial era. Systematic projects of collecting were organised to serve the goals of museums. British imperial officers organised surveys of India’s landscape, monuments, and antiquities and with the collected artefacts, intended to write a history of and for India. While the life trajectories of these colonial officers are well documented, the role of their Indian collaborators and helpers is often omitted. This has to do with both the tendency to look at British officers as heroic figures who helped uncover India’s “hidden” past and the distorted nature of the archive, which itself tends to obscure the role of indigenous players.
We therefore need to rethink the way we look at museums and understand the urgency of decolonising them. As the movement for decolonising museums gains ground, their responsibility in telling inclusive and fuller stories has become clear. As part of this endeavor, museums are undertaking deeper provenance research. They are researching the histories of the objects that they hold, exploring the exact contours of how the collecting process worked on the ground and who were the actors and institutions involved in it. The findings from this research can then help us better make sense of the contested colonial contexts in which objects were acquired by museums during the height of colonialism.
On 8 June 2020, protestors in Bristol pulled down the statue of Edward Colston, slave-trader, dragged it through the streets, and threw it in the canal. While the protests in Bristol were largely peaceful, there were some conflicts in London and elsewhere, resulting in injuries to a small number of police personnel. In response, Home Secretary Priti Patel said that ‘tearing down of the statue was “utterly disgraceful”, adding that “it speaks to the acts of public disorder that have become a distraction from the cause people are protesting about”. Professor Ian Cook, Department of Geography, Exeter, captured the range of voices on the topic in his film Colston Falls. During these debates, members of the Decolonising Working Group in History, University of Exeter, pooled their knowledge to produce this collectively written essay on how statues of historical figures have been literally ‘de-platformed’ and the various physical and ethical solutions that have been found to deal with such toppled statues.
Last week, we were dismayed to find that the government of UK is proposing to close off the debate with a new law that will sharply raise the penalties for damaging memorials. We responded by submitting evidence to the Parliamentary Committee deliberating on the matter, working in collaboration with colleagues in Law and Geography. We are generally critical and wary of the ‘extremely wide ranging’ Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill, which in our opinion, combines a raft of highly risky and unncessary provisions together with ones that are less controversial. There are other published criticisms of the Bill. Here, for purposes of this post, we are particularly concerned with the way one tiny section of the Bill, tucked into a mammoth text of more than 300 pages, proposes to close off debate on the place of public memorials in present-day Britain.
This is the section in question.
46 Criminal damage to memorials: mode of trial (1) In Schedule 2 to the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 (offences for which the value involved is relevant to the mode of trial), in paragraph 1 (offences under section 1 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971), in the first column, for the words from “any offence” to the end substitute “— (a) any offence committed by destroying or damaging property by fire, and (b) any offence committed by destroying or damaging a memorial (see section 22(11A) to (11D)).” (2) In section 22 of that Act, after subsection (11) insert— “(11A) In paragraph 1 of Schedule 2 “memorial” means— (a) a building or other structure, or any other thing, erected or installed on land (or in or on any building or other structure on land), or (b) a garden or any other thing planted or grown on land, which has a commemorative purpose.
(11B) For the purposes of that paragraph, any moveable thing (such as a bunch of flowers) which— (a) is left in, on or at a memorial within the meaning of subsection (11A), and (b) has (or can reasonably be assumed to have) a commemorative purpose, is also to be regarded as a memorial. (11C) For the purposes of subsections (11A) and (11B)— (a) references to a building or a structure include a reference to part of a building or part of a structure (as the case may be), and (b) something has a commemorative purpose if at least one of its purposes is to commemorate— (i) one or more individuals or animals (or a particular description of individuals or animals), or (ii) an event or a series of events (such as an armed conflict). (11D) It is immaterial for the purposes of subsection (11C)(b)(i) whether or not any individuals or animals concerned are or were (at any material time)— (a) living or deceased, or (b) capable of being identified.” (3) The amendments made by this section do not apply in relation to offences committed before it comes into force.
As the text of the proposed law says, this provision ‘strengthens the courts’ sentencing powers in relation to criminal damage to memorials’. It does so by amending the Magistrate’s Courts Act 1980 and the Criminal Damage Act 1971, increasing the maximum penalty from the existing 3 months’ imprisonment to 10 years, making it an offence more severe than most offences of sexual and physical violence. Women readers, please read that again. A statue of a dead slave trader is worth more than your bones.
In a widely criticised interview with Sky News on 25 April 2021, the IT billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates Jr. responded to a question whether he supported sharing the ‘recipe’ of the Sars-COV-2 or Covid-19 vaccines with manufacturers worldwide, with an emphatic: ‘No.’ No, he said, because there ‘are only so many vaccine factories in the world, and people are very serious about the safety of vaccines.’ Moving the production of a vaccine from Johnson and Johnson’s to a factory in India was already novel, he said, and could only happen because of ‘our grants and our expertise.’ Intellectual property was not holding back anything in this case, he said, because it wasn’t as if there were ‘idle vaccine factories with regulatory approvals, that make magically safe vaccines.’
It would appear from this account that most of the world was a place empty of funds and expertise, waiting for the largesse of saviours such as Bill Gates Jr. and appropriate guidance to be able to protect their own health in a scientific and safe way. Looking at the story of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine with some more attention, however, produces some rather more complicated stories.
On 23 November 2020, an Oxford University-based research team led by Dr Andrew Pollard declared a breakthrough in developing an effective vaccine against Covid-19. The team had been working furiously for months, backed with UK government funding and public donations. Oxford University then announced a permissive protocol for licensing COVID-19 related IP to third parties under ‘these exceptional circumstances.’ Of the 5 points of guidance offered to organisations seeking licences to use Oxford University’s IP (or recipe for vaccine), one was: ‘The default approach of the University and OUI regarding (1) will be to offer non-exclusive, royalty-free licences to support free of charge, at-cost or cost + limited margin supply as appropriate, and only for the duration of the pandemic, as defined by the WHO.’
Such an approach is not unprecedented. In the 1950s polio epidemics swept through the globe, and in the midst of outbreaks two rivaling vaccines were developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, both without patent. When asked about this, Jonas Salk famously remarked ‘Would you patent the sun?’. It seems that the decision for the Salk vaccines lack of patent might have been a practical one, as it would not have been possible by contemporary standards, regardless of Salk’s moral stance. Sabin’s decision was an openly political one: the vaccine was a result of international collaboration between researchers of the two opposing sides of the Cold War, and this scientific exchange was greatly celebrated at the time. Of course, Gates is right that a lack of patent doesn’t automatically mean immediate access and capability of vaccine production everywhere in the world. It took years for many countries, in war-ravaged European states, up to half a decade to establish infrastructure, skill and procure materials (including live animals) for domestic vaccine productions of the Salk vaccine. However, many others had the capability, while standards of production were developed by the WHO, and this, in the end, dampened the dire global vaccine shortage in both the short and long run. More importantly, the lack of patent did not hinder national or global vaccination efforts.
Nandini: Hello Annie, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me about Decolonising the library and archives and your engagement with it. Will you please tell me a bit about yourself – your education and your work?
Annie: Hello! It’s a pleasure, thank you very much for inviting me to talk with you. I’m Annie and I currently work as a project archivist at the University of Exeter Special Collections, which is part of the University Library. I didn’t always want to be an archivist or even know what an archivist was! History was the subject I most enjoyed at school, so I studied for a degree in History and German at the University of Liverpool. I became interested in the heritage sector and, following graduation, I volunteered and worked in several archive repositories and museums in England and Germany, gaining valuable experience in caring for archives as well as engaging with the public. I then returned to the University of Liverpool to qualify as an archivist, graduating with an MA in Archives and Records Management.
Since joining the small and friendly team at the University of Exeter Special Collections, I have worked on projects to catalogue the Syon Abbey archive and the Common Ground archive. My main responsibility as a project archivist is to arrange, repackage, and describe the different components of an archive. This is done by creating a hierarchical structure of sections, series, files, and items that provides contextual information about how the records were originally used. Each component is given a unique reference number and the descriptions are added to a database. Users can then search the database via an online catalogue to identify material of interest and request to view it in our reading room. I would just like to emphasise here that archives are available to everyone, and can be used as much for academic study as for general interest or pleasure.
In addition to cataloguing, I like to find other ways to enable access to archives – the essence, really, of what I think being an archivist is all about – including through giving talks, managing the University of Exeter Heritage Collections Twitter account (@UoEHeritageColl), and creating online guides to our collections.
Nandini Chatterjee (NC): Is there a necessary connection between trying to make the university an inclusive place, and decolonising the curriculum?
Richard Toye (RT): Yes, I think there is, but at the same time they are not one and the same thing. That is to say, you could, in theory, have a wonderful, fully decolonised curriculum and at the same time fail to eradicate the various forms of discrimination that staff and students face. On the other hand, you could perhaps do a fair bit to removing those inequalities without having succeeded in adjusting the curriculum. But I do think that the two things go hand in hand, insofar as the messages that we give in the classroom are obviously a very important part of the university experience. If we set the right tone there, both in terms of inclusiveness and intellectual content, that really ought to have some wider benefit. I think there is a dilemma, though. Some people may well have an interest in a particular type of history because of their own ethnic and family history, and why not? But I think that we have to be careful not to assume that because somebody comes from a particular background they will be interested in a particular type or part of history and that ‘inclusiveness’ is achieved by laying on that variety of history. Black people may be especially interested in black history, for all sorts of good reasons, but nobody should expect them to be, or assume that they will be uninterested in other kinds of history. We wouldn’t expect white people only to be interested in white history, in fact I think we would look upon that as positively dangerous. What is your view? Continue reading “Decolonising the curriculum: A conversation”→
Fees: Participation in the workshop is free, but spaces are limited, so prior enrolment is essential. There are no funds available for supporting travel or subsistence needs of participants.
Content: The principal aim of the workshop is to train potential teachers of Exeter Foreign Language Centre’s new Hindi-Urdu programme, which will begin in October 2017, subject to sufficient enrolment. We are aiming to develop a curriculum capable of teaching Hindi and Urdu together, that is, one language in two scripts. This is unique in the UK, but successfully trialled in the USA, most eminently byUT Austin’s Hindi-Urdu Flagship programme. As such, teachers of both or either language are very welcome to attend the workshop, which will include multiple sessions dedicated to developing teaching materials – text, videos, audio material, customised lesson plans, assessment tools and also mock teaching sessions. A range of classroom situations and student demographics will be taken into consideration, ranging from weekend classes for children in the community to university students. Actual sessions will depend on the stated interests of the participants, subject to the overall aims of the workshop.
The recent surge of interest in imperial history has been cross-fertilised by work on a number of other themes, such as knowledge formation, law and governance and trans-national connections. This collected volume of essays very usefully brings together a number of these trends to bear upon the crucial area of colonial medicine. Self-consciously aiming to be a comparative work and taking material from India and South Africa, it takes its cue from earlier works that aimed to ‘de-centre’ the metropolis-periphery model of conceptualising empire and colonialism. While re-asserting the centrality of medical knowledge and practices to colonial rule, and the importance of the bodies of the colonised as sites for the exercise of colonial power, the book aims to move beyond a model of hegemony, domination and control. Instead, as the introductory essay outlines, the book’s trans-national methodology is intended to highlight ‘policies of European adaptation and resistance to initiatives of the colonized’ and the ‘transfer of ideas and knowledge in mutual engagements.’
The London exhibit on law and the British Empire, spearheaded by the Centre’s own Dr. Nandini Chatterjee, has had more than 25,000 visitors so far, and is open to the public until September 26th.
[…] The exhibition – A Court at the Crossroads of Empire: Stories from the JCPC – opened for a two-month run at the beginning of August 2014. Curated by a team of academics related to the “Subjects of Law” network, led by Charlotte, Nandini, and Dr Stacey Hynd (also from the University of Exeter), it traced the JCPC’s evolution from its foundation in 1833 to the emergence of the Commonwealth in the 1950s, largely through the stories of individuals whose cases often had a direct impact on commerce and legal practice, as well as the appellant’s own future – for better or, as it occasionally turned out, worse. Continue reading “At the ‘Crossroads of Empire’”→
International Law and Legal Pluralism, British Style
In 2008, the then Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams courted controversy. He stated that recognition of certain aspects of Islamic law, Shari‘a, was essential for Britain in the interest of community cohesion. ‘As a matter of fact’, he said, ‘certain provisions of sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law’. The erudite archbishop was referring primarily to religious principles being valid bases for conscientious objections, and alternative marital dispute resolution methods. But had he chosen to use historical material, Dr. Williams would have had far more to go on.
And that is where my new digital archive project would have come in most handy to the archbishop. Shari‘a – alongside Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, Jewish, and African customary laws – has indeed been part of the British legal system for a very long time. It has been administered by the final court of appeal for the British Empire, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. This tribunal, which sat in London, was originally an expression of royal prerogative. Then, in 1833, it was given its modern form. Between then and 1998, it has heard around 9,000 appeals from all over the British Empire. Continue reading “New Digital Resource: The British Empire’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council”→