Fitzmaurice and Press on the Micro and Macro History of the Scramble for Africa

On November 17th, Duke University hosted two scholars of empire, Andrew Fitzmaurice and Stephen Press.  The two focus on the same historical moment, namely the scramble for Africa and ensuing colonization by both sovereign states and corporate-sovereigns.  However, beyond the historical moment the two scholars diverge drastically.  Fitzmaurice focuses on micro histories of the individuals who formed the intellectual basis of corporate sovereignty in colonial Africa, in particular Sir Travers Twiss.  Alternatively, Press writes on macro issues involved in the formation of, justification for, and eventual dissolution of corporate-sovereigns such as King Leopold II’s International African Association (AIA) and the German corporate-sovereign in Namibia.

In turn, Fitzmaurice expounded on his research into the life, including the fall from grace and redemption, of Travers Twiss.  Twiss began as a well-to-do Vicar General and prominent scholar of International Law whose marriage to a well-known prostitute, Pharailde van Lynseele, led to his social downfall in Victorian England.  Fitzmaurice proposes that through this marriage Twiss came to recognize the ‘metamorphoses’ by which he and his wife “reinvent[ed] her social and legal personality in order to avoid social destruction,”[1] as a model for the “metamorphoses of a person, a private corporation, into another kind of person, a state.”[2]  In so doing, both through his lecture and his writings, Fitzmaurcie took pains to emphasize the transference of Twiss’ background in ‘legitimate’ transformations, such as individuals to vicars, and the ‘illegitimate’ transformations of prostitutes to noblewomen and corporations to states.  Perhaps the most novel point of Fitzmaurice’s analysis, the indispensable role of van Lynseele in this transformation, is also the most questionable.  When pressed on the question of whether Twiss would have reached the same conclusions but-for the experience of crafting a new legal personality for his wife, Fitzmaurice was less than convincing in defending the causation he purports to show.

Whatever the cause, the result was clear and led to the subject of both Press’ recently released book, Rogue Empires, and his presentation at Duke University.  Press seeks through his works to examine what he perceives as “waves of corporate sovereignty”[3] which included the British East India Company and the AIA.  Press is interested in examining the lifecycle of the colonial enterprise, from the inception and spread of colonizing bodies, which was detailed in his book, through their eventual dissolution and winding up, the subject of his seminar paper.  Although yet to reach firm conclusions, Press detailed how International political pressures for European powers including Germany, Britain, France, and Portugal, lead to the consensus reached at the Berlin Conference which enabled the scramble for Africa.  Subsequently, Press described a public discontent with private gains and publicly subsidized losses as leading to the eventual dissolution of Germany’s Kolonialgesellschaft.

The framing of the two authors works tended to reinforce one another’s arguments, describing an aberrant period of international law-making fueled by politics more than principle, whereby rogues and outcasts could leverage international strife prior to the first World War to profit.

[1] Andrew Fitzmaurice, “The Expansion of International Franchise in the Late Nineteenth Century,” 5.

[2] Id., 11.

[3] Andrew Press, Corporations and International Law Lecture, November 17, 2017.

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