A legal history of the global commons

A Dutch starter grant research project at Tilburg University, the Netherlands.

Through the law of nations […] God taught us to make ships, not to
transport ourselves, but to transport him … unto the uttermost parts of the earth.

– John Donne, a sermon to the Virginia Company (1622)

And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept,
for there were no more worlds to conquer.

– Hans Gruber

Welcome to the global commons!

Our research project seeks to put together the story of how modern international law reached across the so-called “global commons”, or areas beyond sovereign territorial jurisdiction. In practice, this means places like the high seas, the deep seabed, Antarctica and the outer space.

We bring together scholars interested in the long-term legal history of these common planetary spaces to collectively map out their overall story. The project is based on research in the history of international law, the law of the sea, and in Antarctic law, as told in law books as well as in long-forgotten records buried in public and institutional archives. We evaluate our findings in the light of the old, often dark legacies of conquest, colonisation and appropriation from the law of nations that may not be as far in the past as one might think. (Indeed, we suspect they may not be in the past at all.)

Collaborative outlook

We look afar and dig deep, and as we go on the history of this world will never again look the same. This is an experience we wish to share with everyone. We focus our resources to reaching out to international and inter-institutional cooperation: by engaging in international collaborations ourselves, and by constituting a specific fund to help money-strapped early career researchers enter the field, we hope to become a positively binding force in present-day research on the global commons.

What we do is important. We stand by an instinctive hypothesis that the story of the law of the global commons is nothing less than the true story of mankind’s legal relationship with the planet it survives on. And if that is the case, then it is imperative that we genuinely understand how we have constituted our existence with this globe in order for us to find a way to truly coexist with it.

We welcome initiatives and contacts from anyone interested in working with us. To join us in correspondence or in action, reach out by sending an email to globalcommons@tilburguniversity.edu. We look forward to hearing about you!

Collaboration fund

We host a special collaboration fund for early career researchers with a good research plan and a need for funding particular research expenses. If you are working on the global commons and their history, and if you have come across a promising scent at a remote archive, or an institution, or otherwise you need funding to cover particular expenses such as flights and stays, we stand ready to join forces with you. Send us a brief description of max 600 words about what you seek to accomplish. If we like your idea, we will write back and join you to make a concrete plan for a future collaboration. If all works well, you get to have a research adventure, we cover your costs, you share the findings, and we publish something wonderful together.

The collaboration fund is limited and we reserve all rights to choose (or to not choose) which projects we wish to fund. The fund can only fund specific research expenses such as travel to archives and institutions. We are not able to offer general research grants or to cover living costs. Due to the large number of offers, we may not be able to respond to all inquiries. We thank you for your understanding.

The Grant

The project is funded by a Dutch starter grant awarded in December 2022. The Dutch starting grant is awarded to a number of new assistant professors and other researchers annually (i.e. not to be confused with the ERC or NWO).



I’d like to share a revelation I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with their surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to another area, and you multiply, and you multiply, until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern.
Do you know what it is?

– Agent Smith