Rage for Order: The British Empire and the Origins of International Law, 1800-1850.

Author:Duffield, Blake
Position:Book review

Benton, Lauren, and Lisa Ford. Rage for Order: The British Empire and the Origins of International Law, 1800-1850. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016. vi + 282 pages. Hardcover, $39.95.

Britain's obsession with order is a theme well-established in the pages of its imperial historiography. Yet, in their recent work, Rage for Order: The British Empire and the Origins of International Law, 1800-1850, historians Lauren Benton and Lisa Ford offer a nuanced and refreshing interpretation of Britain's imperial ideology in the first half of the nineteenth-century. Charting the often dizzying interplay among a diverse array of metropolitan and peripheral characters from Trinidad to Ceylon, the authors argue that imperial law was at the center of Britain's attempts to shape a world order and, indeed, laid the basis for international norms and standards to come in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Furthermore, Benton and Ford maintain that Britain's preoccupation with orderliness constituted no less than a "global transformation" and a massive, conscientious undertaking of imperial legal change (p. 3).

Often the catalyst for these undertakings, the authors contend, was the British abhorrence of despotism, which the authors define as "arbitrary justice" in the colonies (p. 7). The British compulsion to eradicate what they viewed as despotism in their empire entailed the abolition--or, early on, the regulation--of slavery, veritable wars on piracy, challenges to corruption, elitist abuses across the empire, as well as many other forays. Here, a predominant theme of the book comes to light: whereas some historians have emphasized the importance of humanitarian movements of the early nineteenth century, such as the effort to abolish the slave trade, Benton and Ford establish that these measures "had less to do with universal principles than with efforts to remake the interface between imperial and municipal structures of authority" (p. 5). As evidence for their contentions, the authors point to the slew of investigative commissions sent out from the metropole during this period.

Expanding on these themes, Benton and Ford also explain their view of some of the prime drivers of British imperial expansion in the post-Napoleonic era. Combined with their desire for order and a self-described loathing of despotism, British imperialists also used the concept of 'protection' to justify annexation or political overthrows of territory at the...

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