Responsible Researcher

Justine Collins
Justine Collins
Doctoral Student

Phone: +49 (69) 789 78 - 292

Research Project | Department I

A Legal Historical Analysis of the Constitutional Trajectory of the British West Indies from 1500 to 1900

The “Caribbean Oikoumene” or societal region is a great historic world area, unified by its common history as the oldest colonial sphere with the most extreme experience of colonization and the most remarkable drama of culture-building in the modern world”.[1] This historic creation was a result of the acquisition of indigenous territories by Europe, following the overseas expansion of the Portuguese nation-state in the early and mid-fifteenth century.

European expansionism was reinforced by legal domination of indigenous land beginning with the Spanish and the Portuguese in 1494. Not until the 1600s did Britain play an active role in challenging the other European powers for the control of Caribbean indigenous territories. Many Caribbean colonies changed ownership a number of times amongst the various European powers, in competition to acquire indigenous territories. However by the time of the Treaty of Paris in 1815, Britain was the dominant naval power and controlled most of the Caribbean colonies, thus consolidating the British West Indies.

From the advent of the plantation economies, the British instilled the concept of Parliamentary sovereignty within the British West Indies signifying the imperium nature of Parliament over colonial legislature and its concurrent power to legislate for the colonies.

It is not possible to comprehend the process which paved the way for the implementation of the common law within the British West Indies without recourse to the historical conjuncture which shaped the evolution of the system under review.

Therefore this research will consider how the British shaped West Indian legal systems firstly in terms of slavery, then within the context of post emancipation society which ultimately became further complicated due to the schisms in race, class and colour. Notably, the enactment of the Amelioration Act of 1798 had quite an impact on the legal makeup of plantation societies (particularly that of Trinidad) and on the constitutional arrangements. The extent and context of this impact will be examined.

The transplantation of English land law for instance was used as an instrument of domination and control and additionally defined the identity of colonists firstly as English then British after 1707. The metropolitan/colonial legal system which upheld the right of British men to property and freedom justified such rights and the slave trade on racist dogmas. Such dogmas portrayed ‘Negroes’ as separate species. There was a notion at that period that blacks were of a sub species akin to animals since they both showed great resistance to yellow fever. Furthermore, such racial attitudes and perceptions can be argued to have been escalated by the then dominant enlightenment thinking which focused on different types of people and their physical appearances.

The development of plantations was based on English land law and land tenure regimes which gave way to the legal creation of precincts and parishes. Inheritance of land and property such as slaves was precedential on the male line especially the oldest legitimate son. Therefore based on such laws and policies the planter class emerged in the British West Indies to the exclusion of all others; i.e. free blacks or mixed persons who would be the illegitimate offspring of said planters. Such laws hence did not just create a class system but also racial schisms based on property rights and evidently colour.

[1] Sidney Mintz (1996) Enduring Substances, Trying Theories: The Caribbean Region as Oikumene, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2, no.2, pp. 289-311.

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