From Empire to Commonwealth: war, race and imperialism in British History, 1780 to the present day

This information is for the 2019/20 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Joanna Lewis room tbc


This course is available on the BA in History, BSc in Government and History, BSc in International Relations and History and BSc in Politics and History. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.

Course content

With support for Brexit partly explained by pundits as imperial nostalgia, the British Empire and its legacy has rarely been more political. This course offers an alternative to the hubris with a history of the complexity of the  British Empire through its origins, rise, fall and legacy. Its primary focus is on understanding the experience of and the reasons for these processes. Many of the case studies are Africa focused. It covers the period from the loss of the American colonies to decolonisation, the rise of a multicultural Britain and post independent conflicts. Within the context of Britain's wider political, social and cultural history, the course will examine the following: the origins of the second empire; explorers; liberalism and racism; the expansion of colonies of white settlement; the role of missionaries; the scramble for Africa; the Victorians and popular imperialism; the contribution of empire to the First and Second World Wars; fast exit strategies; violent decolonisation; race and  immigration; post-colonial dictators and the legacy of white settlers. Case studies include Britain and Zimbabwe; Idi Amin and Uganda;  the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya; plus British rule in Somaliland and the fallout of the Somali civil war.


10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the MT. 10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the LT. 1 hour of lectures in the ST.

There will be a reading week in the Michaelmas and the Lent terms and a revision lecture in the Summer Term.

Formative coursework

2 essays; one mock exam; class presentations.

Indicative reading

Books: John Darwin, The British Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World System, 1830-1970 (OUP 2010;  (Blackwell 2004); Ronald Hyam, Understanding the British Empire (CUP, 2010); Ronald Hyam, Britain's Imperial Century, 1815 to 1914 (CUP latest edn); John Newsinger, The blood never dried: A  people’s history of the British Empire (Bookmark Publications 2006);   Sarah Stockwell (ed) The British Empire: Themes and Perspectives (Blackwell, 2007); Bernard Porter, Absent Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society and Culture in Britain (OUP, 2006) Bill Schwarz, The White Man's World: Memories of Empire (OUP, 2012); Shashi Tharoor,  Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (Penguin, 2018); Peter Clarke, Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-2000 (CUP, 2004); P D Morgan; S Hawkins (ed) The Black Experience and the Empire (OUP, 2004)); Ashley Jackson & and David Tomkins, Illustrating Empire: A Visual History of British Imperialism (The Bodleian Library, Oxford; 2011); James Belich, The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-world (OUP, 2011); Christian Høgsbjerg , C. L. R. James in Imperial Britain, (Duke University Press, 2014);  Robert Hughes, Fatal Shore: History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 (Vintage Books, 2003); Berny Sèbe,    Bertrand Taithe, Peter Yeandle  Max Jones (eds)  Decolonising Imperial Heroes (Routledge 2018)


Novels/travelogues: Henry Morton Stanley, How I found Livingstone (1871; Adansonia Press, 2018 edn);  J G Farrell, The Siege of Krishapur 1857 (Pheonix Paperback, 2002 edn) ; Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (National Geographic adventure classics,  2002 edn); Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya (Heinemann African Writers Series, 1979); George Laming, Castle of my skin (Penguin Modern Classic, 2017edn) ; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (Harper Collins 2017); Petina Gappah, An Elegy for Easterly ; The Book of Memory; Simon Winchester, Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire, (Penguin, 2002 edn); Jane Gourdam, Old Filth (Failed in London, try Hong Kong) (Hachette Digital, 2014 edn);


Exam (100%, duration: 3 hours) in the summer exam period.

100% Exam

Key facts

Department: International History

Total students 2018/19: 23

Average class size 2018/19: 11

Capped 2018/19: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills