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

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Joanna Lewis SAR G.02


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

The study of Empire has always been political. But with support for Brexit partly explained by pundits as imperial nostalgia, and the sweeping rise of the  global Black Lives Matter movement, the imperative and importance of studying the British Empire and its legacy has gone stratospheric. This course will bring you back down to earth. It offers a unique and scholarly history of the complexity of the  British Empire through its origins, rise, fall and legacy. No subject is off limit. Its primary focus is on understanding the experience of and the reasons for these processes including controversies and catastrophes. Many of the case studies are Africa focused. 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. The thread of racism, the imperialism of industrial capitalism and the role of key individuals are recurring themes. This was an empire that I believe was uniquely polyphonic, ideological and Victorian, pushed along from above and pulled down from below.


Recorded lectures. On-campus and/or Zoom class teaching, as circumstances permit.

There will be a reading week in the Michaelmas and the Lent terms.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay in the MT.

Indicative reading

Books: C. A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (2004); Padraic Scanlan, Slave Empire: How Slavery Made Modern Britain (2020) David Olusoga, Black and British: A forgotten History (2016) ; 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); Hazel V Carby, Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands (Verso 2019)

Scott Ellsworth, The World Beneath Their Feet: the race to conquer the Himalayas (John Murray 2020)

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); Nadifa Mohamed, The Orchard of the Lost Souls (2016)


Essay (40%, 4000 words) in the LT.
Essay (60%, 6000 words) in the ST.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: International History

Total students 2019/20: 23

Average class size 2019/20: 12

Capped 2019/20: Yes (30)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Leadership
  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills