by Henry J. Richardson, III. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2008. 544pp. Hardback. $65.00. ISBN: 9781594603839.

Reviewed by Richard Middleton, Department of Political Science, University of Missouri-St. Louis. Email: middletonrt [at]


In THE ORIGINS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN INTERESTS IN INTERNATIONAL LAW, Henry J. Richardson, III, explores how racism directed towards people of African-heritage in the United States, emanating during the period of slavery, is linked to fundamental principles of international law. Richardson’s main argument is that African American appeals to principles of international law are inextricably connected to their historical enslavement in the United States and their ability to illuminate tenets of law outside of the American domestic legal context that tend to substantiate their claims to basic human rights. In the Introduction, Richardson lays out a cogent thesis by recounting W.E.B. Dubois’ testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee of the US Senate in 1945 – an appearance in which Dubois spoke in favor of the US ratifying the United Nations Charter. Richardson notes that ratification of the United Nations Charter (a form of international law) would have, in theory, given African Americans a legal basis to petition a federal or state court to find that they had a claim to human rights. The human rights provisions of the United Nations Charter would have been binding at the federal and state level of government given its status under the US Constitution as a ratified treaty. From this, the book explores a range of normative arguments emanating from international legal principles with which Blacks identify that create the basis to their claim to freedom and a better approach to law by which they should be governed. Among these principles includes the law of God, British policies during the American Revolution, liberation theory prominent during the Haitian Revolution, and natural law theories forwarded by American colonists.

This robust book is divided into sixteen chapters that chronicle the simultaneous evolution of wide-ranging international legal issues potentially significant to African Americans’ claims to freedom and equitable treatment under the law. The goal of each chapter is to provide substantive evidence that African Americans have an historical interest in international law.

Chapter One focuses on how sovereigns and elites attempted to fashion an international order of stability in the African slave trade in light of the reality that Africans would never come to accept their enslavement and would consistently work to free themselves. Richardson notes that at this time there were only a few legal claims/theories in place (e.g. the writings of Grotius and the Spanish empire’s legal approach to slavery) to which African slaves could turn in order to assert their human rights. However, emerging at this time were [*755] four main classes of issues – each of which are central to the book. These issues are: (1) international law’s emergence as a modern legal system in close historical proximity to the construction of an international slave system and what rights, under this system, would be denied to African slaves, (2) the ability to observe what happens when normative principles emergent from natural law (the wrongness of slavery) interact with a mercantile system whose livelihood depends upon eradicating such normative principles, (3) the attention commanded by the condition of millions of enslaved African people spread over various lands who were the focus of regulatory laws on an international basis, and (4) African cultural forms of expression and beliefs that, in an aggregate voice, would consistently chink away at the discriminatory regulatory armor put into place over them by elites.

The second chapter explores the arrival of the first Black slaves to Jamestown and how their arrival shapes the first Black claims. Richardson notes that the legal status of the first twenty Africans to arrive at Jamestown was one of ambiguity – local laws did not assign a particular legal standing on them; rather, their implied legal status was that of indentured servitude. Their arrival in the British colonies, after having been baptized by Portuguese captors, placed them under the jurisdiction of British law. Under British law, foreign Christian baptism was determinant of personal status for slaves within the Virginia territory – thus, this gave the first twenty Africans a claim to freedom rooted in international law. Richardson notes, however, that the extant literature provides no evidence that these Africans ever pursued such a claim in any court.

Chapter Three analyzes Black claims to outside law in Pre-Revolutionary New York. Richardson argues that Black claims to outside law began almost as soon as they were brought to New Amsterdam in 1609. This was manifested by their opposition to slavery and claims of rights to be free, flee, to assist runaway slaves, rebel (in 1712 and 1741), and live with Native Americans. Richardson notes that these claims and events were evidence of the intermingling of Black appeals to international law for the right of freedom with serious concerns about security in the New Amsterdam colony. The colonists made Black claims the focus of various aspects of international law by attempting to regulate Black behavior in their hopes to achieve colonial security and protect property interests.

The fourth chapter broadens the focus of Black slavery by looking at hemispheric slave revolts. Richardson touches upon the claims of Blacks in Latin America and the Caribbean and finds that the demands imply an assertion of claims to outside law. These claims are: (1) “that international law prohibits the slave trade and the institution of slavery in any territory held by a sovereign,” (2) that Africans have a personal right under international law to be free of any enslavement, (3) the doctrine of freedom of the high seas does not incorporate the right of any state to participate in or license commerce in slaves, (4) that slavery represents an aggressive and criminal use of military force against blameless people, giving such enslaved people the right to use force in self-defense to overthrow it, (5) that [*756] kidnapping African slaves for the slave trade does not render such Africans prisoners of war, and therefore gives the capturing sovereign no right to enslave them, and (6) that each slave has a right of, and slaves generally have a collective right of protected immigration away from territory where they are enslaved to a territory where slavery is prohibited or nonexistent.
Chapter Five explores the interaction of principles of natural law with international law and the institution of slavery. Richardson begins with a focus on Grotius’ jurisprudential approach to a new science of international law. Central to this approach is the maintenance of a social order consistent with human intelligence and observation of basic principles – such as refraining from meddling in that which belongs to another. Richardson further notes that Grotius, in writing about slavery, brought forward natural law and, with this as an underpinning, argued that it does not give masters the right to determine the life or death of their slaves. Richardson rounds out the chapter by exploring other prominent philosophers and thinkers and explores how the tension between natural law, positive law and the institution of slavery manifested itself in colonial discourse.

The sixth chapter analyzes the international legal process and African claims and rights by focusing on non-state actors, maroon communities, and the various arenas in which decisions about power were formed. Chapters Seven and Eight focus on Black assertions of freedom and equality made by Lancaster Hill in 1777. Chapters Nine through Eleven discuss African American interests in having international law-related language ratified as part of the US Constitution. Chapter Twelve explores federal court cases and African American claims to international law, while Chapter Thirteen addresses appeals to international law and their connection to property clauses, fugitive slave laws, the slave trade and Gabriel Prosser’s Rebellion. Chapter Fourteen focuses on the Louisiana Territory, and Chapter Fifteen analyzes Black claims to international law as they relate to the War of 1812. Chapter Sixteen concludes the book by exploring the birth of African American international jurisprudence.

In summary, Richardson presents a thorough analysis of African American interests in international law and how principles emanating from outside law have historically been linked to Blacks’ appeals to equality and freedom. The book is most appropriate for the graduate and professional (law) level and would be suited for courses in African American/American History, Race and the Law, and American Legal History.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Richard Middleton.