Empire and after

The British Empire lasted more than 300 years and spanned the globe. During this time, Magna Carta was used by imperialists to justify global ambition and by indigenous people to demand liberty and justice. Dr Zoe Laidlaw considers the significance of Magna Carta in relation to imperialism.
Britain’s empire was the most extensive that the world has ever seen, and it lasted for more than 300 years. Across that empire, from the 17th century through to the 20th, emigrant Britons, their imperial governors and colonial descendants invoked Magna Carta. Underlining its flexibility and endurance, Magna Carta was used to demand the observance of rights or to highlight their denial. Imperialists cited it in justification of Britain’s global ambitions and sometimes to obscure the abuses that characterised empire. On the other hand, indigenous and subject colonial peoples used Magna Carta to turn otherwise hollow talk of the benefits of ‘Britishness’ to their advantage. Thinking about Magna Carta’s imperial legacy highlights the importance of location and status when seeking the protection of British justice. Although many assumed that British law applied in all of Britain’s territories, and that all were equal before the law, in fact it mattered profoundly whether an imperial subject was white, wealthy or British-born.

Britain’s empire overseas was characterised by its diversity. Some colonies began as trading posts, naval or military garrisons; others relied on slave labour to fuel sugar, tea or coffee plantations; still more provided new homes for the many thousands of Britons who emigrated to North America, southern Africa and Australasia. In each of these colonial arenas, Magna Carta was invoked.

Trading companies conducted Britain’s earliest imperial ventures. Granted royal charters giving them exclusive trading rights, they included the Hudson’s Bay Company, operating in present-day Canada, and the East India Company, whose monopoly stretched from Africa to China. Britons undertaking business overseas were not always content with local laws, while those excluded from the profitable chartered companies viewed their monopolies with envy. Merchants and expatriates asserted that as ‘freeborn’ Englishmen the rights granted to them by Magna Carta were portable, applicable not only in Britain, but also in Britain’s territories overseas. In 1690, such merchants challenged the East India Company’s lucrative monopoly as an ‘infringement of Magna Charta’. Following the challenge, an Act of Parliament allowed private firms to enter the field.

A Scheme or Model for Erecting and Establishing a New National East India Joint Stock or Company

A Scheme or Model for Erecting and Establishing a New National East India Joint Stock or Company

Invoking clause 41 of Magna Carta which protected the free movement of merchants, this anonymous treatise from 1690 tried to challenge the East India Company’s monopoly over trade in South East Asia.

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Magna Carta was associated not only with economic rights, but also with notions of justice and good government. Sometimes, the British government itself propagated this idea of Magna Carta as a portable blueprint for British rule, as in the case of the remote Atlantic island of St Helena. There, the imperial authorities reminded the governing East India Company that it should ‘religiously’ preserve and maintain the various instructions and charters issued by the British government, which formed, ‘as it were the Magna Carta of the Island’. But more frequently during the 18th and 19th centuries, it was expatriate Britons and their descendants, not the imperial government, who asserted rights under Magna Carta. The need of Britons abroad to reiterate this point demonstrates continuing uncertainty about how to resolve clashes between local and English laws in colonial contexts. When Justices in the Supreme Court of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa argued in the 1770s that Magna Carta’s influence was only local — that is, that its protection did not apply in the East India Company’s territories — British residents responded angrily, convinced that their rights had travelled with them to Asia. In this case, as in later examples of colonists making recourse to Magna Carta, assertions of legal rights were mixed together with political demands and aspirations.

The Laws and Ordinances of St. Helena

The Laws and Ordinances of St. Helena

These orders form part of a compilation of laws and ordinances sent to St Helena by the East India Company. They were influenced by and regularly compared to Magna Carta.

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Humble Petition of the British Subjects

Humble Petition of the British Subjects

This petition, from 1779, shows how the Supreme Court was resented by many British expatriates as it was seen to undermine the rights of Magna Carta.

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Observations on the Humble Petition

Observations on the Humble Petition

In 1779, James Creassy, a British citizen in Bengal, was denied the right to trial by jury for the assault, battery and false imprisonment of two Indian carpenters. This petition, sent to the House of Commons in London, called for the re-establishment of the ‘inherent, unalienable and indefeasible’ rights granted to Englishmen in Magna Carta.

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During the 19th century, British settlers both in Britain’s North American territories and across Australasia framed calls for greater self-government, trial by jury and free trade with references to rights granted to British subjects under Magna Carta. In so doing, they invoked not only Britain’s medieval history, but also the more recent violent rupture of the American Revolution. Lord Durham’s 1839 Report recommending a limited degree of self-government for Canada was described later as the ‘Magna Charta of the Empire’, because of its reverberations throughout the settler colonies. New Zealand settlers claimed in 1845 that they could operate any business without a licence because this was a right protected by Magna Carta. In Australia, where the imperial government deemed jury trials inappropriate for penal settlements, the minority of free subjects argued that this blanket denial breached their rights under Magna Carta. The political philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) had already made this argument in 1803. Not only were free settlers’ rights ignored in New South Wales, argued Bentham, but convicts’ rights were also being withheld. In his view, the very idea of penal colonies contravened the British constitution as outlined by Magna Carta, and by the Habeas Corpus Act, the Petition of Right and the Bill of Rights. Bentham thought the whole governance of New South Wales ‘repugnant to Magna Carta’.

A Plea for the Constitution

A Plea for the Constitution

Jeremy Bentham circulated this plea in 1803 arguing against transportation to penal colonies in Australia and advocated the building of ‘Panopticon Penitentiaries’. He emphasized that, as free settlers in Australia were denied jury trials, the liberty promised by Magna Carta was unconstitutionally undermined.

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Many imperial Britons believed themselves to be both providentially blessed and duty bound to export ‘civilisation’ to less developed regions of the world. Liberty and justice, in their British guises, were seen as central components of this civilisation, and they, along with the British constitution, were seen as being guaranteed by Magna Carta. The 1807 Act abolishing Britain’s trade in slaves (although not slavery itself) was described as ‘a Magna Carta for Africa’ by contemporary campaigners who equated slavery and tyranny. Later, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, which established British rule in New Zealand, was seen as securing to the indigenous Maori ‘their Lands, Rights, and Privileges’, and constituting, in effect, a ‘Maori Magna Carta’.

Treaty of Waitangi

Treaty of Waitangi

The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, which established British rule in New Zealand, was seen as securing to the indigenous Maori ‘their Lands, Rights, and Privileges’, and constituting, in effect, a ‘Maori Magna Carta’.

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The idea of an empire enjoying the benefits of British justice and good government was important to those trying to justify empire, especially at times of crisis. Accordingly, the British government responded to the serious uprisings across India in 1857 and 1858 by promising imperial subjects that due regard would be paid to ‘the ancient Rights, Usages and Customs of India’. The rebellions began as a military mutiny, before spreading across large parts of the East India Company’s territories. Some of the rebels’ actions were violent and ruthless, and the response of the British authorities was equally harsh: convicted mutineers were blown from cannons, while religious symbols and iconography were destroyed. In the wake of the rebellions, East India Company rule ended, to be replaced by direct British rule. At the dawn of the British Raj, the government sought to placate India’s people and to win the allegiance of its elites. A proclamation issued in the name of Queen Victoria (r.1837-1901) declared that Indians would receive the same treatment as ‘all Our other Subjects’, and acknowledged their rights to religious freedom and to seek office under the imperial government. But while lip service was paid to some of the Proclamation’s guarantees, and more Indians did become involved in government, in practice Indians continued to be treated much worse than their British counterparts through to independence in 1947.

Proclamation, by the Queen in Council, to the Princes, Chiefs and People of India

Proclamation, by the Queen in Council, to the Princes, Chiefs and People of India

This Proclamation, issued by Queen Victoria in 1857, declared that Indians would receive the same treatment as ‘all Our other Subjects’, and acknowledged their rights to religious freedom and to seek office under the imperial government. In practice Indians continued to receive much worse treatment than their British counterparts.

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The British government was not alone in justifying imperial rule by boasting about the export of justice and good government. Rudyard Kipling’s popular novels, children’s stories and poetry romanticised colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1899, at the start of the war with the Transvaal Republic, Britain’s motivations were contested: the government claimed to be defending the rights of foreign and British miners working the Transvaal’s goldfields, but many critics argued that Britain actually sought control over the republic’s mineral wealth. Keen to combat American criticisms, Kipling (1865-1936) published his poem, ‘The Old Issue’, simultaneously in British and American newspapers. It drew on the legacy of Magna Carta, casting Britain in the role of defender of ‘Ancient Right’, while the Transvaal’s President, Paul Kruger, was depicted as a king, intent — like King John and Charles I — on denying his subjects their rights.

Rudyard Kipling's own copy of his poem 'The Old Issue: October 9, 1899'

Rudyard Kipling's own copy of his poem 'The Old Issue: October 9, 1899'

Kipling’s poem ‘The Old Issue’, used Magna Carta to advocate British military intervention in the Transvaal. It cast Britain in the role of defender of ‘Ancient Right’, while Transvaal’s President, Paul Kruger, was depicted as a king, intent — like King John — on denying his subjects their rights.

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Manuscript of Rudyard Kipling's 'Reeds at Runnymede'

Manuscript of Rudyard Kipling's 'Reeds at Runnymede'

Kipling’s own draft manuscript of the poem ‘Reeds at Runnymede’ which imagines that the reeds in the Runnymede water meadow are witnesses to the meeting between King John and the barons.

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Those battling discrimination at home also pointed, in support of their claims, to the export of British institutions and notions of justice to the empire. For example, Helena Normanton (1882-1957), Britain’s first female barrister and founder of the Magna Carta Society, argued for women’s rights in 1915, by comparing the situation of English women unfavourably to that of the empire’s subjects. Women in Britain were discriminated against, denied the right to vote and treated worse than men in many respects. But Normanton painted an unrealistically rosy picture of the empire as ‘based, not on physical force, but on loyal affection’. Claiming that women’s rights flowed from Magna Carta, Normanton wrote that the principle underlying the empire was that ‘justice should be meted out to all, high or low’. While correctly arguing that for women this was ‘still an idea, not a reality’, Normanton overlooked how accurately this also described the lives of non-white inhabitants of Britain’s empire, male and female.

Article on Magna Carta and women from journal The Englishwoman

Article on Magna Carta and women from journal The Englishwoman

In 1915, to coincide with Magna Carta’s 700th anniversary, the suffragette campaigner, Helena Normanton (d. 1957), published this essay on ‘Magna Carta and Women’. In it she argued that the disenfranchisement of women contravened Magna Carta’s famous clauses 39 and 40.

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As this suggests, the rights that Britons and their colonial descendants associated with Magna Carta were often less than obvious to the empire’s subject peoples. They, and many others, objected to British rule and British imperial aggression. Some invoked Magna Carta to remind their British governors, their fellow-colonised and the British public of the frequent hypocrisy of British rule. In this way, Magna Carta became not only a justification for empire, but also a weapon against imperialism and colonial discrimination. Imperial subjects continually appealed for the recognition of their rights: rights that they believed should be equal to those of white Britons. The history of South Africa, both as a part of Britain’s empire and as an independent apartheid state, provides examples relating to two of the most prominent anti-discrimination campaigners of the 20th century: Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) and Nelson Mandela (1918-2013).

Indians migrated in large numbers to southern Africa during the 19th and early 20th centuries, sometimes as merchants and traders, but often as poor indentured labourers. As the Indian community expanded, white colonists attempted to restrict their influence by curtailing Indians’ civil liberties. Beginning in the 1890s, organisations were created to combat this discrimination, and in 1903 Gandhi founded the newspaper Indian Opinion to defend Indians’ civil liberties in South Africa. From 1906, Gandhi led a campaign of satyagraha (insistence on truth) against discriminatory Registration and Immigration Acts. After long effort, negotiation and non-violent resistance, an agreement was reached with Jan Smuts (1970-1950), the South African statesman. This protected certain Indian rights, and recognised Hindu and Muslim marriages. Gandhi declared this 1914 Indian Relief Act ‘the Magna Charta of our liberty in this land’, marking a ‘change in the policy of the Government’. Gandhi argued that the Act confirmed the rights accorded to all British subjects under the British constitution, including that ‘there should be no legal racial inequality between different subjects of the Crown, no matter how much practice may vary according to local circumstance’. Despite his stirring words, Gandhi recognised the 1914 legislation as only one step in the campaign for racial equality. He referred to Magna Carta to remind his readers of the principle that all subjects should be treated equally, not because he believed their rights had been effectively guaranteed.

Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi's A Farewell Letter in the newspaper Indian Opinion

Mohandas Gandhi's A Farewell Letter in the newspaper Indian Opinion

This letter, published in the South African newspaper Indian Opinion which was founded by Gandhi in 1903, claimed that the Indian Relief Act of 1914 was ‘the Magna Charta of our liberty in this land’.

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50 years on, Nelson Mandela, the most important campaigner against the South African apartheid regime, cited Magna Carta in his famous speech from the dock at the Rivonia trial in 1964. Attacking the racist regime which endured until the free elections of 1994, the African National Congress leader contrasted the ‘independence and impartiality’ of Britain’s judiciary, and the democratic nature of its Parliament, with South Africa, noting that Magna Carta, the Petition of Right and the Bill of Rights were documents ‘held in veneration by democrats throughout the world’.

Nelson Mandela's speech 'I am prepared to die' at the Rivonia trial

Nelson Mandela's speech 'I am prepared to die'

Nelson Mandela, put on trial for his life in 1964, declared from the dock his admiration for western democracy, stating that Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights and the Bill of Rights were ‘held in veneration by democrats’ worldwide.

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After World War II, as decolonisation in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean loomed, the British government became less keen to remind its imperial subjects of the constitutional rights and liberties guaranteed by Magna Carta. Indeed, in 1947 the Colonial Office deemed a plan to celebrate Magna Carta Day throughout the empire unwise, as ‘ill-disposed’ colonial politicians might ‘misrepresent our good intentions’ and ‘cause embarrassment’. Whether or not Magna Carta guaranteed the export of political and judicial institutions to the empire, or the equal treatment of its subjects, it was an important means of discussing, and demanding, rights in that empire from the 17th century through to the 20th. In that sense at least, Magna Carta did prove to be portable.

Proposal to celebrate Magna Carta Day in the British Empire

Correspondance on the proposal to celebrate Magna Carta Day in the British Empire

The British government in 1947 discussed the idea of making 15 June a public holiday, a Magna Carta Day, in the British Empire and the United States. However, it was feared that a celebration of civil liberties might provoke opposition to imperial rule.

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  • Zoë Laidlaw
  • Zoë Laidlaw is Reader in Imperial and Colonial History at Royal Holloway University of London. She specialises in the history of nineteenth-century colonialism across the British Empire. Her publications include Colonial Connections 1815-45: patronage, the information revolution and colonial government (Manchester University Press, 2005) and (co-edited with Alan Lester) Indigenous Communities and Settler Colonialism: Land Holding, Loss and Survival in an Interconnected World (Palgrave, 2015). Zoë Laidlaw is currently researching the relationship between British humanitarianism and colonialism in the era of emancipation.

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