Legal Expertise and Polygamy in the British Empire, 1870–1950

Friday, January 8, 2016: 10:30 AM
Room 309/310 (Hilton Atlanta)
Penny Sinanoglou, Wake Forest University
In the nineteenth and twentieth-century British empire, marriage, which some today
would like us to think has been immutable and uncontested for millennia, was in fact
fundamentally unstable in both form and meaning. Some of the most interesting debates
over marriage took place in the legal arena, where judges, Crown Law officers, barristers,
bureaucrats, and imperial subjects attempted to clarify the boundaries of legally
recognized marriages in territories stretching from the Mediterranean to Africa and Asia.
In most cases, discussions over marriage were crucial in resolving claims related to
national or citizenship status, familial legitimacy, divorce, inheritance, pensions and
mobility across the empire.

Utilizing selected bureaucratic and legal cases, this paper considers the role of
legal experts, and the movement of legal knowledge in cases centered on polygamous and
consanguineous marriages. Across the period from the passage of the Naturalization Act
of 1870 to the British Nationality Act of 1948, the national status of many women and
children—and by extension their claims to a host of associated rights and privileges—
depended upon marriage. Polygamous and consanguineous marriages, though null and
void under English matrimonial law, were considered valid in multiple territories of the
British empire. In such a fragmented juridical landscape, where inconsistencies, clashes
and diverse applications of law were actually far more common than any sort of uniform
code determining marital legitimacy, the movement of legal knowledge about precedent
and practice in a wide variety of British imperial territories, and concerning British
subjects around the world, was immensely important. The impact of these cases extended
well beyond a simple determination of marital status; determining marital status was a
way of policing the metaphysical boundaries of the British imperial body politic, and of
establishing the dividing line between legitimate and illegitimate, between subjects and

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