|Jenny S. Martinez, Sunday, 24 February 2008 [View as PDF]|
In my article Antislavery Courts and the Dawn of International Human Rights Law in the January edition of this Journal, I discuss the role of international courts in the suppression of the transatlantic slave trade in the nineteenth century.
As the article explains, between 1817 and 1871, bilateral treaties between Britain and several other countries (eventually including the United States) led to the establishment of international courts for the suppression of the slave trade. Though all but forgotten today, these antislavery courts were the first international human rights courts. They were made up of judges from different countries. They sat on a permanent, continuing basis, and they applied international law. The courts explicitly aimed to promote humanitarian objectives. Though the courts were extremely active for only a few years, over the treaties’ lifespan, the courts heard more than 600 cases and freed almost 80,000 slaves found aboard illegal slave trading vessels. During their peak years of operation, the courts heard cases that may have involved as many as one out of every five or six ships involved in the transatlantic slave trade.
The history of the antislavery courts reveals a more complex interrelationship between state power, moral ideas, and domestic and international legal institutions than many contemporary theories of international law and relations acknowledge, and has important implications for modern attempts to enforce human rights standards on an international basis.
This companion Pocket Part issue to the main article shares with readers digital images of some of the original court archives. Most of the courts’ decisions and a substantial part of the correspondence between the judges and the British government are summarized in the published British Parliamentary Papers. But the original, handwritten court records are housed at the United Kingdom National Archives outside London. These handwritten records give a more human sense of the courts’ operations, and their impact on individual lives.
One of the criticisms of modern international criminal courts is that they afford too little role and respect for the victims of human rights abuses. The same appears to have been true of these much earlier courts. In the official court records of the antislavery courts, the individual slaves liberated from the captured ships are often almost invisible, described only in raw numbers—so many hundred men, women and children. But elements of these human stories appear here and there in the records—in the logbooks listing each of the tens of thousands of liberated slaves by name, age, height, and description, or in letters describing the work of court officials to ensure the health, safety, and liberty of these individuals.
The following sections connect the reader with a very small sample of the original documents from the antislavery courts.
Jenny S. Martinez is Associate Professor and Justin M. Roach, Jr., Faculty Scholar at Stanford Law School.
Preferred Citation: Jenny S. Martinez, Antislavery Courts, 117 Yale L.J. Pocket Part 160 (2008), http://thepocketpart.org/2008/02/25/martinez.html.