Centre for Law and Social Justice Annual Lecture - The Ship, the Slave, the Legal Person

Professor Renisa Mawani (University of British Columbia, Vancouver) will be the speaker at the Centre for Law & Social Justice Annual Lecture "The Ship, the Slave, the Legal Person".

Speaker bio

Renisa Mawani is Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Law and Society Program at the University of British Columbia. She works in the fields of critical theory and colonial legal history and has published widely on law, colonialism, and legal geography. She is the author of Colonial Proximities (University of British Columbia Press, 2009) and Across Oceans of Law (Duke University Press, 2018), which was a finalist for the U.K. Socio-Legal Studies Association Theory and History Book Prize (2020) and won the Association of Asian American Studies Book Prize for Outstanding Contribution to History (2020). With Iza Hussin, she is co-editor of “The Travels of Law: Indian Ocean Itineraries” published in Law and History Review (2014); with Sheila Giffen and Christopher Lee she is co-editor of “Worlds at Home: On Cosmopolitan Futures” published in Journal of Intercultural Studies (2019); with Rita Dhamoon, Davina Bhandar, and Satwinder Bains, she is co-editor of Unmooring the Komagata Maru (University of British Columbia Press, 2019); and with Antoinette Burton, she is co-editor of Animalia: An Anti-Imperial Bestiary of Our Times (Duke University Press, 2020). She has served two terms on the editorial board of Law and Society Review, was recently appointed to the editorial board of Law and Social Inquiry, and was elected to the Law and Society Association’s Board of Trustees (2019-2022).


In the first decades of the nineteenth century to the first decade of the twentieth century the U.S. Federal and Supreme Courts heard a number of cases on the legal status of ships. During this period, Chief Justice John Marshall and Justice Joseph Story determined that a ship was a legal person that was capable to contract and could be punished for wrongdoing. Over the nineteenth century, Marshall and Story also heard appeals on the illegal slave trade and on the status of fugitive slaves, cases that raised questions as to whether enslaved peoples were persons or property. Although Marshall and Story did not discuss the ship and the slave together, in this article I ask what might be gained in doing so. Specifically, what might a reading of the ship and the slave as juridical figures reveal about the history of legal personhood? The genealogy of positive and negative legal personhood that I begin to trace here draws inspiration and guidance from critical studies of slavery. In different ways, this literature emphasizes the significance of maritime worlds to conceptions of racial terror, freedom, and fugitivity. Building on these insights, I read the ship and the slave as central characters in the history of legal personhood, a reading that highlights the interconnections between maritime law and the laws of slavery, and foregrounds the changing intensities of Anglo imperial power and racial violence in shaping the legal person.

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