eliga gould on lauren benton’s search for sovereignty


Lauren Benton. A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 340 S. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-88105-0; $26.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-521-70743-5.

Reviewed by Eliga Gould; Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (June, 2012).

For the most part, when Benton talks about empire and sovereignty, what she means is the fiduciary sovereignty of European rulers over non-European subjects; however, Europe also expanded through the outmigration of European settlers, who generally preferred not to govern indigenous peoples but to displace them — often with the assistance of non-European slaves, who also tended to be migrants — and who cared deeply about the territorial sovereignty that Benton cautions against. On this last point, it is worth noting James Belich’s recent argument that “it was settlement, not empire, that had . . . staying power in the history of European expansion.” James Belich, Replenishing the Earth. The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783-1939, Oxford 2009, p. 23. This of course is a contentious point, with which Benton might well disagree. Still, by passing over the settler nations and empires that also proliferated during the period covered by her book, Benton leaves the reader wondering how that part of Europe’s expansion affected the part that is her main concern.

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