Book Review: Destroying the Caroline: The Frontier Raid that Reshaped the Right to War, by Craig Forcese

The Canadian Yearbook of International Law Vol. 56 (2019)

6 Pages Posted: 20 Mar 2019

See all articles by Craig Martin

Craig Martin

Washburn University - School of Law

Date Written: February 25, 2019


The Caroline incident, and the pithy legal test for legitimate self-defence that it spawned, has loomed large in recent debates over anticipatory self-defence and the validity of the “unwilling or unable” doctrine. Yet while everyone knows the bare facts of the case—that the British sank an American steam ship on the American side of the Niagara River in 1837 to prevent it being used by Canadian insurgents—it turns out that the incident has been mischaracterized in ways that are important. Most significant is the largely forgotten fact that the British use of force was in response to ongoing armed attacks and the seizure of territory, not a preemptive strike to forestall future attacks. And it occurred at a time when there was no legal prohibition on the use of force to begin with.

Craig Forcese (Univ. of Ottawa) has written what will surely be the seminal work on the incident. It provides a rich and detailed history of the events and the diplomatic dispute that followed, an intellectual history of how the incident came to shape the development of the jus ad bellum regime in international law, and how the case continues to be of significance in current debates over the scope and operation of the doctrine of self-defence. This review essay summarizes the book’s main themes and emphasizes the important contribution it makes to the intellectual history and understanding of the modern jus ad bellum. It also, however, briefly explores the relationship between the Caroline test and current controversies over certain elements of the doctrine of self-defence—particularly imminence and the nature of armed attack—which the book might have analyzed more deeply. It should inspire readers to put this masterful work high on their reading list.

Keywords: jus ad bellum, self-defense, use of force, armed conflict, law of war, international law, book review

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Martin, Craig, Book Review: Destroying the Caroline: The Frontier Raid that Reshaped the Right to War, by Craig Forcese (February 25, 2019). The Canadian Yearbook of International Law Vol. 56 (2019), Available at SSRN:

Craig Martin (Contact Author)

Washburn University - School of Law ( email )

1700 College Avenue
Topeka, KS 66621
United States


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