PhD (Cantab), MA (Hons) (UNSW), BEc (Hons) (Sydney)

History, Heritage And Archaeology

I am an historian of political thought. The methodological basis of my work is to explore the context of political ideas in the past as a means to understanding our political heritage. Some of those ideas, such as the concepts of rights, freedom, or the state, remain fundamental to the political systems in modern liberal democracies. Others, such as duties, or virtue, are more elusive, but no less important for understanding who we are today.

My own particular focus has been to investigate the political ideas that were employed outside the state. The history of political thought, as a discipline, has rightly concentrated upon the state as the most important form of political community in modern history. But states have a relatively recent existence and, arguably, have only become the predominant form of organising political action since the modern revolutions. Accordingly, my work has explored the political thought of empires and corporations.

In studying empires, I have focused in particular upon the arguments used to justify the dispossession of indigenous peoples. Given the extensive discussion of the concept of terra nullius in Australia, notably after the 1992 Mabo judgement in the High Court, I embarked upon an extended investigation of the historical background to that argument which led to a series of publications providing its genealogy. That study obliged me to place the discussion of the concept in a global context that extended over hundreds, even thousands, of years, with roots in Roman law but across European empires from the sixteenth century through to the twentieth. At the same time, the investigation encouraged me to engage with disciplines, notably international law, in which the examinations of indigenous rights had been most extensive.

In addition to examining empires, I have been deeply concerned with the political thought of corporations – frequently the agents of empires – over the course of my career. Historically, corporations as political communities took numerous forms, including the church and cities, but my own interest has been in companies, notably the chartered companies that were used to project European power over the globe, such as the Virginia Company, and the Dutch and English East India Companies, but also, in more recent times, King Leopold II’s International African Association which became the Congo Free State. These companies represented themselves not merely as commercial enterprises but as political communities and, as such, they employed the kinds of political vocabularies that are familiar to us from discussions of national politics. Indeed, such corporations frequently represented themselves as semi-autonomous political bodies possessing all the functions that we think of being provided by states including, for example, the use of force with their own armies.

Understood to be political societies in themselves, chartered companies were fertile grounds for discussions of the best form of a commonwealth (or a state), the central question of early modern and modern political thought. They provided a context in which ideas that were frequently regarded as dangerous, ideas such as democracy or reason of state, could be debated in relative safety. It is perhaps needless to point out that this research addresses an environment in which we see the resurgence of corporations – such as Apple and Google - who present themselves to the world as bodies politic. We may well ask what political thought is being developed in those corporations that could at some future time be uploaded to the broader body politic.

1. Andrew Fitzmaurice, Sovereignty, Property and Empire 1500-2000 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014)

2. Andrew Fitzmaurice, ‘The expansion of international franchise in the late nineteenth century’, Duke Journal of Comparative and International Law, 2018 vol.28, 3

3. Andrew Fitzmaurice, ‘Context in the History of International Law’, Journal of the History of International Law, 2018, vol.20, 1

4. Andrew Fitzmaurice, ‘The Early Modern Corporation as Nursery of Democratic Thought: The Case of the Virginia Company and Thomas Hobbes’, History of European Ideas, forthcoming 2020.

5. Andrew Fitzmaurice, ‘A genealogy of terra nullius’, Australian Historical Studies, (April, 2007)