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Phillips v Eyre – a study of constitutional law and empire

Frost, Tom (2023) Phillips v Eyre – a study of constitutional law and empire. Working paper. University of Leicester (Unpublished) (KAR id:103182)


When studying law, students are presented with hundreds and hundreds of cases in their modules. They are taught about them in lectures, and read about them in textbooks, or in law reports. But these only provide summaries or snapshots of what the cases were about. Even in law reports, the judges and law reporter will only summarise the relevant facts which are at issue in the legal dispute, and they will not provide the full story behind the case.

More than this, it is the court, lawyers and judges who decide what the relevant facts are. Individual testimonies are mediated through witness statements and rules of evidence. Wider questions of morality and justice are made to fit into legal tests recognised by the common law.

In this resource, we take a close look at a case from 1870, Phillips v Eyre, and (more importantly) its background.

This case is often presented as no more than a footnote in textbooks for law students, worthy of a few sentences of comment.

Yet this case was the final chapter in a long, bloody struggle in the history of the British Empire (and one which has been all but forgotten in the United Kingdom), the Morant Bay rebellion.

The rebellion took place in the British colony of Jamaica in October 1865.

The colonial administration in Jamaica viewed it as a direct challenge to British imperial rule and set out to suppress it and to ensure that another rebellion would not happen again.

Following these events, a lengthy political and legal dispute arose.

This document considers the events of the rebellion, and the response of the colonial administration that led to the dispute arising.

This document contains the words of the people involved in the rebellion, the colonial administrators of Jamaica, British Government officials, and those Jamaicans caught up in the tumult and its aftermath.

The document also covers the history of British rule in Jamaica, Jamaica’s history of slavery, and the problems facing the island in the 19th century.

Ultimately, the document discusses how the case of Phillips v Eyre has been presented by lawyers. This document considers the ways in which the British Empire administered its colonies, and how it treated its colonial subjects.

What does this history tell us about the role of law in the British Empire? And what does this case tell us about the ability of colonial subjects to receive justice in the imperial legal order?

There are questions for students to answer on this material which can be found at the end of this document.

The research for this project was carried out at The National Archives, in Kew, London.

It was funded by a grant from the University of Leicester College of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities, Teaching Development Fund 2021-22.

Item Type: Reports and Papers (Working paper)
Subjects: D History General and Old World > D History (General) > D203 Modern History, 1453-
D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
K Law
K Law > KD England and Wales
Divisions: Divisions > Division for the Study of Law, Society and Social Justice > Kent Law School
Funders: University of Leicester (
Depositing User: Tom Frost
Date Deposited: 09 Oct 2023 16:26 UTC
Last Modified: 10 Oct 2023 15:48 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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