Dr Edward Cavanagh
Fellow in History

Isaac Newton Research Fellow in History

BA (ANU), BA Hons (Swinburne), MA (Witwatersrand), PhD (Ottawa)

I am interested in the history of legal thought and its place within the history of imperialism, international relations, and colonial politics. I am a Fellow of the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, an Associate Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and a member of the following subject groups within the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge: 

Political Thought and Intellectual History

World History

As a comparative historian of law and empires, my research involves manoeuvring between the later Middle Ages in Europe (ca. 1200-1500), the age of European expansion into North America, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Asia-Pacific (ca. 1500-1850), and the period of industrialism and high imperialism (ca. 1850-1930). Prior to my election to the Fellowship, I’ve researched and published extensively on the history of southern Africa and the global history of settler colonialism. While maintaining a strong interest in these areas, I am dedicated in this position to an ongoing project that explores the history of ideas like conquest, contract, crown, and corporation within the ‘imperial constitution’. I’m increasingly fascinated with how these ideas were understood across the world of letters: by the likes of scholastics, classicists, authors of legal textbooks, crown lawyers, undersecretaries in the colonial office, as well as journalists of the popular media. By ‘imperial constitution’, I refer to that evolving institutional arrangement whereby England (and later Great Britain) attempted to rationalise, administer, and control overseas plantations, possessions, and trading ports. This research, it is hoped, will culminate in a book spanning the period 1066-1923.

Downing College is an inspirational place to pursue work of this kind. It was once home to the greatest English legal historian ever to live (F. W. Maitland, Fellow between 1888 and 1906). Additionally, it was home to one of the founding English-language scholars in historiography of international law (Clive Parry, Fellow between 1946 and 1982). Today the College is home to a number of exceptional Fellows in both History and Law.


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

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

The Routledge Handbook of the Global History of Settler Colonialism (Routledge, 2016), co-edited with Lorenzo Veracini, and sole author of the chapter ‘Settler Colonialism in South Africa: Land, Labour and Transformation, 1880-2015’.

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

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

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