Floating Debts: Colonial Charter Companies, African Natives, and the Legal Ancestors of Human Rights

A talk by Joseph Slaughter, Associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and moderated by Peter Hitchcock, Professor of English at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York

May 12, 2014
5:30 – 7:30 p.m.

Room 5414, Graduate Center, CUNY.


Do we owe human rights to corporations? Recent histories of international law and human rights have begun to document the important role that nineteenth-century colonialism played in the formation and institutionalization of contemporary international human rights law. This talk considers the possibility that early modern corporate colonialism was a founding condition of contemporary international human rights law, and, furthermore, that the colonial charter company might be said to have opened a space in the international realm in the nineteenth century that human beings would only come to occupy in the middle of the twentieth. The colonial charter company was not merely a vehicle for the pursuit of nineteenth-century colonialism. It was charged with carrying some of what we now call human rights to supposedly backwards peoples in “unenlightened” parts of the earth; but it was itself the bearer of some international rights that we now regard as the human rights of individuals. I argue that a collection of qualities and capacities that we typically think of as uniquely human were first combined and protected at the international level in the legal personalities of charter companies. Corporations, and especially the colonial charter companies, were recognized as international persons in advance of the human beings they ostensibly serve.

Joseph Slaughter is associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University where he teaches postcolonial literature and theory, African, Caribbean, and Latin American literatures, narrative theory, human rights, and 20th-century ethnic and third world literatures. His first book, Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International
 Law (Fordham, 2007) was awarded the 2008 René Wellek prize for comparative literature and cultural theory. He is currently completing two books: New Word Orders, on intellectual property and world literature, and Pathetic Fallacies, essays on human rights and the humanities.

Peter Hitchcock is Professor of English at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is also on the faculties of Women’s Studies and Film Studies at the GC. He is the author of five books, including The Long Space, for Stanford University Press. His most recent publications include, “Accumulating Fictions” for Representations,“Immolation” for the Routledge Companion to Literature and Human Rights, “How to Read a Discipline” for Comparative Literature, “Culture and Anarchy in Thatcher’s London” for an anthology on Hanif Kureishi, “( ) of Ghosts” in The Spectralities Reader, “The Space of Time: Chronotopes and Crisis” for Primerjalna Knjizevnost, “Defining the World” in Literary Materialisms and “Everything’s Gone Green: The Environment of BP’s Narrative” for Imaginations. Forthcoming articles include an essay, “Viscosity and Velocity,” for an anthology on oil (Cornell), and an essay on communism titled “The Leninist Hypothesis” for Poetics Today. Forthcoming book projects include a monograph on the cultural representation of labor, a monograph on worlds of postcoloniality, and an edited collection on the New Public Intellectual. He is currently working on two research projects: one about seriality in politics and culture; the other on the aesthetics of commodities and financial instruments.

This event is sponsored by Center for Place, Culture and Politics and the Postcolonial Studies Group at the Graduate Center.

This event is open and free to the public.

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