Thursday, October 20, 2016

Keally McBride's "Mr. Mothercountry"

Keally McBride is Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco. Her books include Collective Dreams: Political Imagination and Community, Punishment and Political Order, and with Margaret Kohn, Political Theories of Decolonization: Postcolonialism and the Problem of Foundations.

McBride applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Mr. Mothercountry: The Man Who Made the Rule of Law, and reported the following:
From page 99:
The Governor Eyre controversy provoked a national discussion about British colonial governance, and whether it would infect British rule of law more broadly… The honor of the Empire was at stake, but so was the position of the rule of law in the colonies and at home. Who is at fault when regulation of a population becomes force, brute force? The governor who ordered suppression of foment by all means, or those who burned the courthouse down? Should the law be used to protect the citizens against the rulers, or the rulers against unruly citizens? Remarkably, the position of the angry colonial mob was given credence; sometimes the governors were in the wrong and the governed were in the right.
Page 99 of Mr. Mothercountry: The Man Who Made the Rule of Law examines the aftermath of a brutal repression of an uprising in Jamaica in 1865, ordered by British colonial agent, Governor Eyre. The bloodbath caused a surprising moment of collective examination about whether the British were truly serving as a civilizing force in their colonies. This passage is a pivotal moment in the book, describing the ascension of a son, James Fitzjames Stephen, to a position of power and influence in creating a new legal system that was implanted throughout the British Empire through his participation in the trial of Governor Eyre.

His father, James Stephen, was called Mr. Mothercountry by his enemies, and he almost single-handedly ran the British Empire for 30 years until 1847. He truly believed that the law should be a force for good, serving the interests of the less powerful and protecting the most dispossessed subjects of the British Crown. An ardent abolitionist, he wrote the bill ending slavery in the Empire. All laws instituted in the colonies passed over his desk and were subject to his review, and he used his position to curb the power of British settlers whenever possible. Mr. Mothercountry was a critic of colonialism, and upon his retirement expressed the hope that he had contributed to mitigating “the cruel wrongs inflicted by his countrymen on the rest of the world.”

His son, James Fitzjames Stephen, took over the mantle of colonial law, and his codes survive today in places as diverse as Nigeria, Canada and India. But he saw the law in a very different way, and sought to create order and exact obedience, instead of aiming for justice. Mr. Mothercountry reveals the family that was at the origins of international law, the tragic fall of a father, the rise of his son, and the lasting implications of their lives and work in the legal order we have today.
Learn more about Mr. Mothercountry at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue