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

This information is for the 2021/22 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Joanna Lewis SAR G.02


This course is available on the BA in History, BSc in Economic History and Geography, 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. It includes histories of black women and men in Britain and the experience of what it was like being from the Empire and living in Britain.  Many of the case studies are Africa focused. It is based on the premise that to understand the significant impact of Britain’s empire and imperial experience you need to know your C19th. Within the context of Britain's wider political, social and cultural history, the course will examine from the late 1700s 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.


Lectures will be online.The School aims to run in-person classes, subject to circumstances, with some online provision if and where necessary.

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

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 2 essays in the MT and LT.

A mock exam may also be offered.

Indicative reading

C19th: Padraic Scanlan, Slave Empire: How Slavery Made Modern Britain (2020); Benjamin Bowser and Aime Charles-Nicholas, The Psychological Legacy of Slavery: Essays in Trauma, Healing and the Living Past (2021) esp chs 7 & 8; Hazel V Carby, Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands (Verso 2019); 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 ( 2010); Ronald Hyam, Understanding the British Empire (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 (2012); Shashi Tharoor, Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (Penguin, 2018); 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 ( 2011); James Belich, The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-world (OUP, 2011); Christian Høgsbjerg , Robert Hughes, Fatal Shore: History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 (Vintage Books, 2003); Gareth Atkins, Shinjini Das & Brian Murray, The Bible, Race and Empire in the Long C19th (2020); Berny Sèbe, Bertrand Taithe, Peter Yeandle Max Jones (eds) Decolonising Imperial Heroes (2018);   Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (National Geographic adventure classics, 2002 edn) J G Farrell, The Siege of Krishapur 1857 (Pheonix Paperback, 2002 edn)


C20th: Priyamvada Gopal, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Reistance and British Dissent (2020);

Scott Ellsworth, The World Beneath Their Feet: the race to conquer the Himalayas (John Murray 2020);  Ronald Hyam, Britain's Declining Empire (2014);  Prasenjit Duara (ed) Decolonization: Perspectives from then and now (2004); Peter Clarke, Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-2000 (CUP, 2004);  C. L. R. James in Imperial Britain,( 2014);Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya (Heinemann African Writers Series, 1979 edn); David Anderson, History of the Hanged (2005); George Laming, Castle of my skin (Penguin Modern Classic, 2017edn) ; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun ( 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) The Fortune Men (2021); Joanna Lewis, Women of the Somali Diaspora (2021); Lipika Pelman: Passing: An Alternative History of Identity (2021);  Hazel V Carby, Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands (2019); Mark Leopold, Amin (2021).


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

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2021/22 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 differing needs of students in attendance on campus and those who might be studying online. For example, this may involve changes to the mode of teaching 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 2020/21: 27

Average class size 2020/21: 14

Capped 2020/21: Yes (27)

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