Two gruesome legal topics: the law of slavery and the law of torture

19 October 2020

As a solicitor in practice I tend to specialise in commercial, media and communications law, and as a commentator I tend to explain public and international law.

(And as a historian of sorts, I am interested in law and anthropology and how complex societies can develop oral and written systems of law.)

But in addition to these areas, there are two special legal topics which fascinate and appal me.

Fascination: because I find it hard (as a western liberal writing in 2020) to believe that my own species has used and still uses the concept of law for such purposes, and so I want to understand why.

Why would and do people do these things?

Appalling: because both deal with the worst of human nature.

The first is the law of slavery: the extraordinary notion that there can be property rights for one human being in another human being.

By reason of the Black Lives Matter movement, I have recently published a few things on this (see here, here, here and here).

The second is the law of torture: the regulation of the deliberate and involuntary infliction of cruelty by some human beings on other human beings.

This second horrible subject has come up because of the United Kingdom government now seeking to make it harder to prosecute former and serving service personnel for war crimes and torture.

On this, I have done this video for the Financial Times.

And I have now done this podcast.

Not a pleasant thing to talk about, or to listen to others talking about, but important still the same.

Please watch and listen if you can.

Thank you for taking an interest.

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Law, history, slavery

15th June 2020

Many people – even those who have studied law and history – know almost nothing about how the law was used to facilitate slavery in English history.

People may have heard of Wilberforce and that the slave trade was abolished in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833.

They will therefore know a bit about how slavery ended but not how it was kept in place.

Over on Twitter I have recently done a couple of threads on law, history and slavery.

The first is on the Yorke-Talbot Opinion of 1729.

The second is on the Zong case of 1783.

I also did a thread in response to a former Member of Parliament who had invoked the jurist William Blackstone to suggest slavery had been abolished in 1753.

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The point of these threads is to show that slavery was, at the time, commonplace and was facilitated by the law, as well as by insurers and so on.

Slavery was not just Edward Colston of Bristol going off on a frolic of his own.

There was an immense legal, commercial and administrative apparatus in place to enable slavery.

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Slavery is about property in human beings, and the slave trade is about transactions in respect of that property.

Slavery was managed from afar: few slave merchants and very few domestic owners of slaves ever saw the enslaved face-to-face. Slavery was thereby dealt with by correspondence: with crews, agents and estate managers.

And so, because it was about property and transactions and done from afar, there are lots of records.

Lots and lots of records.

And so like that modern horror, the Holocaust, you can see the dealings with slavery in record after record.

For those involved, it was mundane.

Slaves bought and sold, and managed, by ink and paper, by everyday people on an everyday basis.

Great Britain’s very own banality of evil.

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Nowhere has this been shown so well as in the BBC documentary on Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners.

In this documentary David Olusoga uses the detailed records of the immense compensation paid to slave owners in 1833 to demonstrate just how far and wide slave ownership was in British society.

Slave ownership was like owning a time-share in Spain or a special savings account.

The import of all this should be to correct the skewed cod-history of British nostalgic exceptionalism and to remind us of the extent to which Britain was involved in (and benefitted from) slavery and the slave trade.

And a rounded, more accurate understanding of our past is a good thing in itself.

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Thank you for visiting this independent law and policy blog.

Please support the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary on this blog and my Twitter account either by the Paypal box above or by becoming a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe to this blog at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

**

Comments are welcome but pre-moderated, and so comments will not be published if irksome.