Religion, Race, Rights: Landmarks in the History of Modern Anglo-American Law

Article excerpt

Religion, Race, Rights: Landmarks in the History of Modern Anglo-American Law. By Eve Darian-Smith. Oxford and Portland, Oregon: Hart Publishing, 2010. 332 pp. $38.00 paper.

The English explorer Sir Francis Drake arrived in the San Francisco bay on June 5, 1579 bearing characteristic, eventually parodic markers of modern European civilization. Ignoring the names given to the region by its Miwok Indian inhabitants, Drake declared it Nova Albion ("New England") because the bay's chalk-white cliffs reminded him of the famous white cliffs of Dover. After less than a day spent communicating "by signs" with the local people, Drake was self-satisfied on multiple fronts. He had clothed their naked, "savage" bodies; offered to them the sacred word of his Christian God (by which they were "greatly affected"); and, most importantly, secured from the Miwok king the "right and title of the whole land," turning the Miwok people themselves into subjects of the British Crown. Drake memorialized his triumphant day by planting in the California soil a "plate, nailed upon a fair great post, whereupon was engraved her Majesty's name, the day and year of our arrival there, with the free giving up of the province and people into her Majesty's hands." He then set sail, leaving behind, we can imagine with the benefit of hindsight, a bemused Miwok people (Gunn 1994: 75-77). True: the seamless weaving of the modern discourses of religion, race, and rights according to which Drake's conquest was consecrated was, as the contemporary British comedian Eddie Izzard has it, unrelentingly absurd and even selfparodic. But, as Eve-Darian Smith's Religion, Race, and Rights persuasively argues, that weaving was neither unprecedented nor has it been played with any regularity for comic effect: the prerogatives of modern European civilization, well entrenched in colonial practice a century before Drake's arrival in California and always partially legal in character, have transformed the world in frequently brutal ways.

Darian-Smith's book canvasses the entire span of modern times and is organized chronologically, in three parts, around rich and provocative examinations of eight "legal landmarks"-broadly legal events, sometimes court cases, that illustrate prominent moments in the tangled history of religion, race, and rights. Darian-Smith presents the first of these legal landmarks-Martin Luther's 1517 posting of the "95 Theses" of protest against the Vatican on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany-in a manner representative of the book's method: Luther's protestation amounts to a historical condensation point in which key transformations in matters spiritual, racial, and legal coalesce and become apparent. Luther's intellectual revolution yoked anti-hierarchical Christianity to ethical citizenship and, eventually, to a new, protodemocratic vision of the proper relations between governments and citizens in which reigned the new logic of natural and individual rights. …