What you will study
The development of the modern world has been shaped to an astonishing degree by empires. By the 1930s, for example, colonies and ex-colonies covered around 85 per cent of the land surface of the globe. Empires have precipitated some of the most brutal violence ever recorded, and yet the world as we know it would be unrecognisable without them. After all, English is an official language in countries as far apart as Botswana, India and Jamaica, not because of any intrinsic communicative merit, but rather because it was the language of the largest empire the world has ever known.
In this module, you’ll undertake comparative study of a range of empires. The history and significance of the British Empire is a thread running throughout the module, but you will also encounter the empires of France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, China and Russia. This comparative perspective will enable you to think analytically about what exactly constitutes an empire, and why they have proved such an enduring way of arranging human affairs.
In addition to this geographically comparative approach, the module considers the history of empires over a long period of time – roughly speaking, from Christopher Columbus’ first journey to the Americas in 1492 to the Portuguese withdrawal from its African colonies in the mid-1970s. Although you will not look at this entire period in the same level of detail, this broad time span enables the consideration of a range of fascinating issues – from the role of germs in the European conquest of South America to the armed struggle by which Algerians won independence during the 1950s (which proved to be beneficial for France but a disaster for Algeria).
To enable a valid comparative approach over such a broad geographical and temporal range, the teaching materials are tightly structured around a series of key questions – What are empires? How do empires begin and end? How are empires experienced? How do empires ‘work’? What are their legacies? The module also considers the ‘experience’ of empire and asks: what is (or was) it like living in an empire?
This module places a lot of emphasis on the use of original primary-source materials. You will be provided with (and guided through) sources as diverse as personal diaries, journals and letters, government papers, newspaper articles, and visual material such as paintings, photographs and newsreel footage. In addition, a module DVD contains original archive footage of twentieth-century events such as the wars of decolonisation in Algeria, colonial exhibitions in Britain and interviews with those experiencing empire in Africa.