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Dr Edward Cavanagh FRHistS

Dr Edward Cavanagh, FRHistS

Research Fellow

Downing College
Regent Street



My undergraduate degrees come from the Australian National University and Swinburne University (2007-2010). I picked up a Master of Arts from the University of the Witwatersrand (2011), and then became the first Trillium Scholar to be hosted by the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ottawa (2012-2015). I am very much a product, therefore, of the Commonwealth. My global research questions have taken me across the world. I have held visiting fellowships at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, the National Library of Australia, Universität Basel's Institute for European Global Studies, and the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History. I have researched in archives and libraries in southern Africa, Australia, New Zealand, France, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, the United States of America, and elsewhere. 

Subject groups/Research projects

Political Thought And Intellectual History:

Legal thought in the longue durée; British constitutional thought; empire.

World History:

Constitutional history of the British Empire-Commonwealth; European legal and political thought; imperialism and colonialism.

Departments and Institutes

Downing College:

Research Interests


My research profile is interdisciplinary. Within history, I am interested in the history of ideas and world history. Within law, I am interested in legal and constitutional history.

History of ideas

My approach to the history of ideas is partially informed by the fashion of the ‘Cambridge school’: attentive to the stakes of argumentation in context, conscious of the intellectual continuities traceable from Cicero through Machiavelli to Laski, and curious about the modification of key ideas for different ends. I am especially attracted to an approach developed within this field, sometimes called the ‘history in ideas’, recently championed by David Armitage (e.g. Civil Wars: A History in Ideas) and Andrew Fitzmaurice (e.g. Sovereignty, Property, Empire), with important precursors, I think, in J. G. A. Pocock and F. W. Maitland. This entails following specific ideas through a variety of discrete contexts. In my case, I am interested in legal ideas. Currently, I am interested in concepts like conquest, crown, contract, and corporation. Opportunities permitting, the next project I am preparing to develop is called, ‘Time out of Mind: Prescription and the Origins of Global Order, 529-2020’, which shows how time has been used to fortify rights within Europe and across the world. Working with this approach, I have published articles in Modern Intellectual History and Historical Journal, with another under review in the Journal of the History of Ideas.

World history

Increasingly distinct from the World History one finds flourishing at Cambridge, my own approach to global history makes room for Europe within the world, and is interested especially in the movement of ideas and the development of institutions. Working within a particularly long early modern period, I have researched and published extensively on sub-Saharan Africa, Western Europe, Australasia, and Asia, from 1200 to 2000. My PhD dissertation combined equal measures of continental Europe, Africa, and the Americas, omitting additional research material on the Pacific and India for want of space. My current research project, ‘Conquest for the Crown: War and Government in the Imperial Constitution, 1066-1923’, will soon emerge in two articles and one chapter on the modern history of Australia, India, southern Africa, and Canada – and the imperial constitution of Great Britain knitting them together – before culminating in two books. My next project on ‘prescription’ will explore the development of political, religious, and territorial claims within Europe and across the world, culminating in the fortification of boundaries and the acceptance of international legal norms. Working with this approach, I have co-edited the Routledge Handbook of the History of Settler Colonialism, I have published two monographs, besides a number of articles in Itinerario, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, History Compass, Journal of Southern African Studies, and other outlets.

Legal and constitutional history

My approach to constitutional history uses legislation, case law, parliamentary debates, and the correspondence between political actors, among other materials, in order to explain political, legal, and institutional change. Legal history, conservatively understood, involves the collation of evidence from episodes mostly of a private law nature to draw conclusions about process, motivations, and outcomes – but to this approach I only partially subscribe. Disavowing antiquarianism, my work is interested more in how particular ideas have been used to characterise a particular interest in law (as opposed to what are the consequences of a justiciable endorsement of a particular interest in law). Working between constitutional and legal history, I have developed a strong interest in a variety of ideas, researching across a wide range of public and private concepts, including corporations, offices, charters, jurisdiction, private international law, restitution, prescription, contract, tort, war, genocide, human rights, and property, leading to a number of publications in top outlets, including Comparative Legal History, Law and History Review, and a series of history journals, besides currently editing Empire and Legal Thought.

Research Supervision

I am happy to supervise students preparing essays for the M. Phil (World History). I am also happy to act as an informal advisor for all research graduate students in the History of Political Thought, World History, and Legal History.  


I am extremely happy to teach students taking Part I, Paper 4, 'British Political History (1485-1750)'.

Other Professional Activities

I am a Fellow of the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law and an active member in the new research group, Legal histories beyond the state. Outside of Cambridge, I am an Associate Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London.


  • Medieval British History
  • Modern British History
  • Early Modern History
  • International History
  • Imperial History

Key Publications

Conquest for the Crown: War, Legislation, and Legal Personality in the Imperial Constitution, 1066-1923 (under preparation).

Empires and Legal Thought (under preparation).

'The Imperial Constitution of the Law Officers of the Crown: Legal Thought on War and Colonial Government, 1719-1774', Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History (forthcoming).

‘Infidels in English Legal Thought: Conquest, Commerce, and Slavery in the Common Law from Coke to Mansfield, 1608-1774’, Modern Intellectual History (forthcoming, 2018).

‘Charters in the Longue Durée: The Mobility and Applicability of Official Grants in North-Western Europe and North-Eastern America from Edward I to Chief Justice John Marshall’, Comparative Legal History (forthcoming, 2018).

‘The Atlantic Prehistory of Private International Law: Trading Companies of the New World and the Pursuit of Restitution in England and France, 1613-43’, Itinerario 41, 3 (2017).

‘Prescription and Empire from Justinian to Grotius’, Historical Journal 60, 1 (2017).

The Routledge Handbook of the Global History of Settler Colonialism (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, November, 2016), co-edited with Lorenzo Veracini; sole author of the chapter on South Africa, 1898-2015. 

‘Corporations and Business Associations from the Commercial Revolution to the Age of Discovery: Trade, Empire, and Expansion without the State, 1200-1600’, History Compass 14, 10 (2016).

‘“We Exterminated Them, and Dr. Philip Gave the Country”: The Griqua People and the Elimination of the San in Philippolis and Griquatown’, in Genocide on Settler Frontiers: When Hunter-Gatherers and Commercial Stock Farmers Clash, ed. Mohamed Adhikari (Cape Town: UCT Press, 2014; New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2015).

‘Possession and Dispossession in Corporate New France, 1600-1663: Debunking a “Juridical History” and Revisiting Terra Nullius’, Law and History Review 32, 1 (2014).

‘Kingdom or Colony? English or British? Early Modern Ireland and the Colonialism Question’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 14, 2 (2013).

‘The History of Dispossession at Orania and the Politics of Land Restitution in South Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies 39, 2 (2013).

Settler Colonialism and Land Rights in South Africa: Possession and Dispossession on the Orange River (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

‘Land Rights that Come With Cut-Off Dates: A Comparative Reflection on Restitution, Aboriginal Title, and Historical Injustice’, South African Journal on Human Rights 28, 3, (2012).

‘History, Time, and the Indigenist Critique’, Arena Journal 37, 8 (2012).

‘“Not Celebrated for its Agriculture”: Emigrant Guides and the Complications of Land Settlement in New South Wales, 1831-65’, Australian Studies 3 (2011).

‘A Company with Sovereignty and Subjects of its Own? The Case of the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1670-1763’, Canadian Journal of Law and Society 26, 1 (2011).  

The Griqua Past and the Limits of South African History, 1902-1994 (Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang Publishers, 2011).