Mobile subjects: How border-crossing people used borderlands and shaped imperial law in the Caribbean and Asia.

Abgeschlossenes Forschungsprojekt

This project examined the central question: how did people who crossed imperial borders, use borders to their advantage, and how did they understand borderlands? It placed importance on understanding how people perceived, used and thought about borders, that were often at odds with imperial-defined policy and rhetoric. For centuries, people crossed British imperial borders to trade, live, and, for some, to flee from justice. British imperial officials of the 19th and 20th centuries often saw such imperial borderlands as poorly demarcated and border crossers as security threats to state power. This resulted in array of laws to try to govern people and goods moving across borders, such as robust laws to catch fugitives as well as border-demarcation efforts to outline tax claims on British-claimed land and goods to clamp down on tax evasion. Despite this, people who defied these imposed laws continued to shape how trade, society and law was understood. This project therefore uncovered how mobile individuals imagined borderlands for themselves, and how they navigated imperially-made borders. From convict fugitives in Trinidad finding ways to cross borders to find refuge, to local Kachin people on the Burma-China borderland who found new salt-smuggling routes, people were at the centre of redefining borderlands and key to understanding imperial economies and social identities that we see today. In turn, the research has also shown how legal officials redefined key legal values and ideas, such as subjecthood and territoriality, to better fit the realities of the borderlands created by such border-crossers. It also led to altered international relations with Russia and China in the case of Asia and, in the case of British Trinidad in the Caribbean, with France.

The project also examined similarly how judges moved across borders in the British Empire and were integral to the movement of legal ideas across many parts of the globe. By tracing the lives of individuals through biographical methods, the research demonstrated how gaining a deep understanding of the thoughts and actions of these key legal stakeholders, is important for understanding the role of British legal governance, and their role judges outside the courtroom. The research examined a rich array of sources, including key legal documents, diaries and private papers, and numeric data in archives. It also included engaging with a local heritage site, and piecing together a history of an individual, Havilland de Sausmarez, who was important in the Channel Islands as well as in parts of the informal British Empire across Africa and Asia. The research emphasised the importance of understanding a subjective experience of individuals to understand the ‘why’ in legal decision-making and wider changes in policy.

The published research through this project included:


Whewell, E.: Law Across Imperial Borders: British Consuls and Colonial Connections on China's Western Frontiers, 1880-1943. Manchester University Press, Manchester (2020), 216 S.


Bajon P.; Barnes, V.; Whewell, E.:
Global Legal Biography, Comparative Legal History, 9 (2), (2021) pp. 127-153
Full article: Global legal biography (
Barnes, V.; Whewell, E.: Judicial Biography in the British Empire. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 28 (1), S. 1 - 27 (2021)
Whewell, E.: Legal Mediators: British Consuls in Tengyue (Western Yunnan) and the Burma-China Frontier Region, 1899–1931. Modern Asian Studies 54 (1), S. 95 - 122 (2020)
Whewell, E.: Seeking Refuge in Hostility: The Caribbean 'British Isle of Freedom' and the Right to Remove Fugitive Convicts. The journal of Imperial and Commonwealth history 48 (1), S. 149 - 167 (2019)
Whewell, E.: Deporting Indian Political Suspects: Treaty Port China's Legal Connection to India, 1914-30. Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 20 (3) (2019)
Barnes, V.; Whewell, E.: English Contract Law Moves East: Legal Transplants and the Doctrine of Misrepresentation in British Consular Courts. The Chinese Journal of Comparative Law 7 (1), S. 26 - 48 (2019)
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