I’ve been up in Sydney for the last couple of days for the Australian and New Zealand Law and History Society conference. You’ll note that the name of the organization is ‘Law and History Society’ and not ‘Legal History Society’. It’s an important distinction: it’s not just lawyers exploring historical cases but historians wading into legal waters as well. The conference reflects this dual focus, as I now realize even more clearly after attending the British Legal History conference last year which is far more lawyer-oriented.
It probably reflects my membership within the historian camp, but the presentations that have remained most clearly with me are those involving people rather than principles. So, just off the top of my head: terrific papers on the wardens watching Jimmy Governor before his execution; taking Nat Turner’s profession of faith seriously, a South Sea Islander petitioning for a lease on an island in the middle of a river in Northern Queensland, and the fascinating case of Eugenia Falleni (the topic of a recent book).
But good papers on historical legal issues as well: vagrancy legislation in NZ and Australia during the 19th century; 18th trials of slave traders in Sierra Leone, and 19th century factory legislation that dared not speak its name in limiting the employment of women and children.
Some sessions I attended just for fun, like the “Literary Traces” panel, which ranged across Rousseau, Dickens, and the concept of “the reasonable man”. Then there were the issues which spilled out of historical straitjackets into current issues: the historical trajectory of international human rights, the concept of marital rape immunity, and immigration law.
Did I give a paper? Yes I did, based on a case that arose out of the abolition of slavery in 1834 in British Guiana featuring Judge Willis (of course). I’m not quite sure what I’ll do with it yet.
Lots to think about and I learned much. Well worth going.