HY240GC      Half Unit
From Empire to Commonwealth: war, race and imperialism in British History, from the First World War to the present day (Spring Semester)

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Joanna Lewis SAR G.02


This course is available to General Course ‘Spring Semester’ 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 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 Lent term.

Formative coursework

One formative essay, class presentations.

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); John Newsinger, The blood never dried: A  people’s history of the British Empire (Bookmark Publications 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); 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: 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 (100%, 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: Unavailable

Average class size 2019/20: Unavailable

Capped 2019/20: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

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