Justice in a New World

Negotiating Legal Intelligibility in British, Iberian, and Indigenous America

352 pages

4 illustrations

September, 2018

ISBN: 9781479807246



Add to Cart Available: 8/31/2018

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Brian P. Owensby is Professor in the Department of History at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Intimate Ironies: Making Middle-Class Lives in Modern Brazil (1999) and Empire of Law and Indian Justice in Colonial Mexico (2008).

All books by Brian P. Owensby

Richard J. Ross is Professor of Law and History at the University of Illinois (Urbana/Champaign) and Director of the Symposium on Comparative Early Modern Legal History. He is the editor, with Lauren Benton, of Legal Pluralism and Empires, 1500-1850 (2013).

All books by Richard J. Ross

A historical and legal examination of the conflict and interplay between settler and indigenous laws in the New World
As British and Iberian empires expanded across the New World, differing notions of justice and legality played out against one another as settlers and indigenous people sought to negotiate their relationship. In order for settlers and natives to learn from, maneuver, resist, or accommodate each other, they had to grasp something of each other's legal ideas and conceptions of justice.
This ambitious volume advances our understanding of how natives and settlers in both the British and Iberian New World empires struggled to use the other’s ideas of law and justice as a political, strategic, and moral resource.  In so doing, indigenous people and settlers alike changed their own practices of law and dialogue about justice.  Europeans and natives appealed to imperfect understandings of their interlocutors’ notions of justice and advanced their own conceptions during workaday negotiations, disputes, and assertions of right.  Settlers’ and indigenous peoples’ legal presuppositions shaped and sometimes misdirected their attempts to employ each other’s law.   
Natives and settlers construed and misconstrued each other's legal commitments while learning about them, never quite sure whether they were on solid ground.  Chapters explore the problem of “legal intelligibility”: How and to what extent did settler law and its associated notions of justice became intelligible—tactically, technically and morally—to natives, and vice versa?  To address this question, the volume offers a critical comparison between English and Iberian New World empires.  Chapters probe such topics as treaty negotiations, land sales, and the corporate privileges of indigenous peoples.  Ultimately, Justice in a New World offers both a deeper understanding of the transformation of notions of justice and law among settlers and indigenous people, and a dual comparative study of what it means for laws and moral codes to be legally intelligible.


  • "Justice in the New World is an exciting and timely collection of essays with thinkers who have been at the forefront of research on legal intelligibility in the Americas. The collection brings questions of justice, law, and legality into an imperial and comparative frame, with close attention paid to the differences in the Iberian and North American worlds."

    —Michelle McKinley, University of Oregon School of Law, Author of Fractional Freedoms: Slavery, Intimacy, and Legal Mobilization in Colonial Lima

  • "The essays in this volume unsettle much of the conventional wisdom about the process of colonization, by revealing the staggering complexity of the law’s role in mediating relationships between settlers and indigenous people in the American colonies of Britain and Spain. The essays are richly researched and elegantly written, and they are bracketed by extraordinarily thoughtful introductory and concluding chapters. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in colonial or legal history." 

    —Stuart Banner, author of How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier

  • "What could 'law' and 'justice' mean in the context of the European conquest and colonization of the Americas?   The deeply researched essays in this volume examine illuminating cases where justice was a contested, ever-shifting concept as indigenous peoples and colonizers confronted one another in settings from Brazil and Peru to Florida, New England and Virginia.  Featuring a distinguished roster of scholars, the book’s broadly comparative approach, as well as its insistence on foregrounding indigenous justice, will ensure that it is recognized as a landmark contribution to the burgeoning literature on law and colonialism."

    —Allan Greer, McGill University