In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Crime and the Law in Colonial Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Official Sources
  • Narratives of Crime and Investigation

African Studies Crime and the Law in Colonial Africa
Richard Waller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0158


The field of crime and the law in Africa is now vast. This article limits its scope to sub-Saharan Africa (including South Africa) and to the colonial period. Nonetheless, the field remains large and the bibliography cannot claim to be exhaustive. It will therefore be helpful to indicate the principles of selection employed here. The core of the article consists of four parts, dealing with legal and judicial systems, crime, policing, and punishment, the last two following logically from the first two. It is difficult to talk about law without enforcement or crime without punishment. The coverage is fullest for anglophone Africa and then for francophone West Africa. Unfortunately, far less has been written on the subject in lusophone Africa or for the former German colonies, and the primary sources are less easily accessible. The majority of the scholarly references are to work published since 1990, reflecting the expansion of the field in the last two decades. However, earlier work is noted, especially material produced during the colonial period itself, often by colonial officials and lawyers. Such publications are now sources in themselves and they also open a window into contemporary thinking about law and judicial systems and their possible reform. Reference is also made to the area of “customary law.” Although “custom” generally dealt with “civil” rather than “criminal” matters, including family, inheritance, and land tenure, which lie beyond the scope of this article, it is, in practice, often difficult to draw a clear line between the two. Moreover, as a recognized body of African law, it had a central place in the colonial legal world, as did the courts that administered it. Introductions to the main parts of the bibliography and most of the sections provide a short description of the topic and, where appropriate, some indication of the main lines of thought that inform the works referenced. Topics overlap and, in many instances, a work cited in one place is also relevant elsewhere, as the cross-references make clear. See also Oxford Bibliographies articles on British Colonial Rule in Sub-Saharan Africa, Belgian Colonial Rule, German Colonial Rule, Portuguese Colonial Rule, and Italian Colonial Rule for more on specific colonial legal systems.

General Overviews

This section contains both contemporary and historiographic surveys of the subject as a whole. For the colonial period and its immediate aftermath, Hailey 1938, Allott 1962, and Roberts-Wray 1966 provide “insider” and semiofficial accounts; the view of Buell 1928 is that of an outside observer concerned to provide a baseline for continuing discussion at a significantly earlier point in time. Salacuse 1969 provides a useful francophone overview. The last three entries offer more modern and scholarly overviews: Mann and Roberts 1991 and Merry 1991 at an early stage in the historical study of colonial law, when the field was still in the process of definition; Roberts 2013 much more recently, when most of the works referenced in this bibliography had already appeared. Roberts provides a commentary on research completed, while Mann and Roberts 1991 sets out what might be done. Additionally, see citations under Women and the Law.

  • Allott, Anthony, ed. Judicial and Legal Systems in Africa. London: Butterworth, 1962.

    Comprehensive institutional survey of British colonies in four parts: West Africa, East Africa, Central Africa, and the High Commission Territories of Southern Africa. Allott was a legal scholar, close to official circles.

  • Buell, Raymond. The Native Problem in Africa. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1928.

    Report to the Harvard Bureau of International Research on problems of modernization in colonial Africa. Sections on anglophone (including Liberia) and francophone (including the Belgian Congo) Africa with some coverage of judicial and legal matters. Especially useful for French West and Equatorial Africa where sources are thin.

  • Hailey, Lord. An African Survey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938.

    Exhaustive survey of colonialism in anglophone and francophone sub-Saharan territories in the mid-1930s, based on extensive touring and access to government files, by a senior ex-India civil servant. One chapter deals with law and justice. Comprehensively revised and updated in 1956 to reflect postwar concerns and issues. The Survey is important not simply for the material it contains but for its influence on British policymaking from the 1940s onward.

  • Mann, Kristin, and Richard Roberts, eds. Law in Colonial Africa. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1991.

    Important pioneering collection of essays covering a variety of aspects of the history of colonial law, including property rights, courts, litigation, and legal authority. The introduction provides an excellent historical survey and a prospectus of the field as it was emerging c. 1990; and it also discusses the use of court records as an important historical source.

  • Merry, Sally Engle. “Law and Colonialism.” Law and Society Review 25.4 (1991): 889–922.

    DOI: 10.2307/3053874

    Important review article that includes Chanock 1985 and Moore 1986 (cited under Customary Law) as well as other works. Gives a legal scholar’s perspective on the place of law and legal institutions in colonial history. Still very useful for the points and questions it raises, many of which have been taken further by more recent work.

  • Roberts, Richard. “Law, Crime and Punishment in Colonial Africa.” In Oxford Handbook of Modern African History. Edited by John Parker and Richard Reid, 171–188. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199572472.001.0001

    A recent and very comprehensive survey of the major issues and current historiography, designed as an introduction for nonspecialists in the field.

  • Roberts-Wray, Kenneth. Commonwealth and Colonial Law. New York: Praeger, 1966.

    Comparative survey of legal institutions, including sections on African dependencies, by a senior official. Roberts-Wray was Colonial Office legal advisor from 1945 to 1965.

  • Salacuse, Jeswald. An Introduction to Law in French-Speaking Africa. Vol. 1, Africa South of the Sahara. Charlottesville, VA: Michie, 1969.

    General surveys of law and legal institutions, including the colonial period, but deals more with law than institutions.

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