History of the British Empire


At its greatest extent, the British Empire encompassed a quarter of the world’s population and a fifth of its land. It redrew the maps of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East; made the English language a global lingua franca; and left a legacy of parliaments, railways, and cricket fields from Kingston to Calcutta to Cape Town. It also operated as the world’s first superpower, waging war to advance its interests while drawing far-flung societies into networks of political, economic, and cultural domination. How did Britain’s imperial moment come about, why did it last so long, and what did it mean to the people who lived through it? This course surveys the history of the empire from its origins in the seventeenth century through the aftermath of decolonization in the late twentieth century. We consider the rise and fall of West Indian slavery; the emergence of India as a trading hub and military depot; the creation of settler societies in North America, Australasia, and Africa; the mobilization of imperial resources in two world wars; and the violent though ultimately failed suppression of anticolonial movements across the world. Throughout the course, we stress the tension between liberal and authoritarian forms of rule; the economic, religious, and sexual relationships that spanned racial lines; the role of expert knowledge; and the global movement of people, goods, and ideas.

Average reading weekly load is 150 pp.  Requirements include an in-class midterm exam; an in-class final exam; two five-page papers; and active, informed, and consistent participation in weekly discussion sections. 


Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
Nau Hall - South Lawn
Charlottesville, VA 22904


(434) 924-7147
(434) 924-7891
M-F 8am to 4:30pm
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