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Bonds of Empire
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Book description

Bonds of Empire presents an account of slave law that is entirely new: one in which English law imbued plantation slavery with its staying power even as it insulated slave owners from contemplating the moral implications of owning human beings. Emphasizing practice rather than proscription, the book follows South Carolina colonists as they used English law to maximize the value of the people they treated as property. Doing so reveals that most daily legal practices surrounding slave ownership were derived from English law: colonists categorized enslaved people as property using English legal terms, they bought and sold them with printed English legal forms, and they followed English legal procedures as they litigated over enslaved people in court. Bonds of Empire ultimately shows that plantation slavery and the laws that governed it were not beyond the pale of English imperial legal history; they were yet another invidious manifestation of English law's protean potential.


‘Employing an original perspective and approach, Wilson provocatively uses her law degree to read new understandings into how slavery transformed African-descended people into forms of property - sometimes chattel, sometimes real estate, sometimes salvage. Importantly, Wilson’s legal history centers the humanity of the enslaved by considering lived experiences, including how captives challenged the variegated methods of their subjection.’

Kevin Dawson - University of California, Merced

‘This is a book that we’ve needed for a long time, for it demonstrates how readily England's legal language fit chattel slavery in early America. Colonial lawmakers did not need to invent new terms, new procedures to exert power over slaves: colonists could rely upon legal words and practices already found in common law, admiralty, and equity. Slave law was part and parcel of the English empire’s legal regime.’

Sally E. Hadden - Western Michigan University

‘Wilson shows how English law facilitated the expansion and perpetuation of racial slavery in America. The book convincingly argues that all law in the plantation colonies was slave law, insulating owners from moral qualms and facilitating economic growth by transforming enslaved people into property. Bonds of Empire is a timely intervention in the lively new literature on Anglo-American imperial history.’

Peter S. Onuf - Thomas Jefferson Professor of History, Emeritus, University of Virginia

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  • Introduction
    pp 1-28
  • 1 - Chattel
    pp 29-68


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