Envisioning Law’s Empire in Ceylon with Paul Halliday


James Stephanoff, “The Supreme Court of Ceylon,” ca. 1818-19. Watercolor on paper (Yale Center for British Art).

The jurors line up together behind rails in Colombo’s newly renovated courthouse. Jury boxes, like this one, had become common in England only a generation or two before. Little wonder then that Ceylon’s new juries should be boxed in when they set to work in 1812. A high rail across the center separates the court from a lively audience. Everywhere we look, we see separation—distinct peoples playing distinct roles.

A court translator, in blue coat on the right, swears in a “first-class Vellale” jury. A court translator, in blue coat on the right,
swears in a “first-class Vellale” jury.

James Stephanoff, an English painter whonever visited Ceylon, worked from a juror’s sketch of the scene. He shows us thirteen jurors in all. English juries of a dozen required unanimity to convict. In Ceylon, juries would work by majority vote; an odd number was now desirable. As in England, Ceylon’s jurors were expected to come from the neighborhood of the accused. But in Ceylon, this traditional emphasis on geography was overlaid by a novel concern for “caste” and “class.” Doing so meant making lists and totting up bodies of different sorts of people: Burghers, Vellales, Fishers, Moors, and more, each divided into as many as four “classes.”

An early tabulation of “native” jurors, by “caste” and “class,” made shortly before jury trials began in 1812. (Sri Lankan National Archives)

The jury box provides a spatial metaphor for the delineation of the different kinds of people in law’s empire. In principle, social and ethnic proximity to the accused remained important to jury composition. In fact, surviving criminal sessions records suggest that the overwhelming majority of trials in the 1810s and ‘20s were heard by Vellale jurors of the first class, regardless of the defendant’s status. As in England, Ceylon’s betters policed their inferiors. Here the Vellale jurors’ long velvet coats with silver buttons mark their social distance from the uncovered men in the dock.

Architecture and furnishings break people into functional clusters: clerks, justices, witnesses. In the foreground stand more groups, marked by clothing instead of rails: Tamils, Tanjori merchants, Burghers, enslaved women, monks and priests. But this is not ethnographic description. It is constitutional argument. Stephanoff’s painting links two key developments in Sri Lanka in the 1810s: the introduction of what were loudly proclaimed the first “native juries” in Britain’s empire, and the start of a process to free Ceylon’s slaves.

The courtroom audience, rather than the court itself, dominates the scene. People talk among themselves about the
ideas in the texts they hold: codes of “native law,” descriptions of jury procedure, a proclamation ending slavery.

The crowd is larger than the room—in the former Dutch administrator’s buildings at Hulftsdorp, on Colombo’s eastern edge—could probably accommodate. Stephanoff, best known for his architectural illustrations, opens the space to illustrate distinct groups so that English power,

A Buddhist monk swears a witness. A Brahmin priest and an imam stand ready to do the same. The painting’s argument for the beneficence of British justice depended on depictions of ecumenism.A Buddhist monk swears a witness. A Brahmin priest and an imam stand ready to do the same. The painting’s argument for the beneficence of British justice depended on depictions of ecumenism.
in the form of a courtand itschief justice, might unite them. Stephanoff’s purpose was not to depict the court at work. Rather, by dividing people this way, he demonstrated the capacity of British justice to produce integration out of diversity. Doing so, Stephanoff prompted the admiration of British viewers who saw the hand-colored engravings made from the original painting.

The legend beneath the engraved image told British viewers the qualities that might make a court supreme. The dedication reminded them that the court’s chief justice, Sir Alexander Johnston, was responsible for the introduction of that most British “birthright,” trial by jury, and for emancipation.


James Stephanoff, “The Supreme Court of Judicature in the Island of Ceylon,” ca. 1818-19. Hand-colored aquatint on paper. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

After returning to England in 1818, Johnston apparently commissioned the painting and then had multiple engravers print it. This was part of a multi-media campaign, complete with poetry and music, to promote the Supreme Court against what Johnston and other justices thought was a succession of over-reaching governors. Stephanoff’s painting was a weapon in a constitutional contest—a struggle about the rule of law, judicial independence, and the peremptory authority of imperial governors in culturally fractious and politically fragile colonies.

Painting, the mass technology of printing, poetry, music: Johnston the justice understood something that historians might appreciate better. Law is more than words. It’s buildings and boxes, filled with people; it’s images and sounds. All our senses constitute and navigate the spaces of law, thereby constituting law itself. Only a history that engages all our senses can show this at work.


Paul Halliday, Julian Bishko Professor of History and Professor of Law, University of Virginia
Images reproduced courtesy the Yale Center for British Art