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Empire: 1492–1975

Qualification dates
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Empires have had a remarkable impact on world history over the last five centuries. The six blocks of this module each focus on a particular question, from ‘What are empires?’ to ‘Why do empires end?’ You'll consider the British Empire in detail before drawing comparisons with others, including those of France, the Netherlands, Russia, China and Spain. You’ll study a wide range of primary sources, including letters and diaries, newspapers, political papers, paintings, photographs and newsreel footage.

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 affected the lives of millions across the entire globe for centuries. English became an official language in countries as far apart as Botswana, India and Jamaica, because it was the language of the largest empire the world has ever known, rather than due to any intrinsic communicative merit.

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, you'll consider the history of empires over a long period of time. This is from Christopher Columbus’ first journey to the Americas in 1492 to the Portuguese withdrawal from its African colonies in the mid-1970s. Although you'll not look at this entire period in the same level of detail, this broad time span enables the consideration of a variety of fascinating issues. These range from the role of germs in the European conquest of South America to the armed struggle by which Algerians won independence during the 1950s. 

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 was it like living in an empire?

This module places a lot of emphasis on the use of original primary-source materials. You'll 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 website 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.

Entry requirements

 This is an OU level 3 module. OU level 3 modules build on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from previous studies at OU levels 1 and 2. They are intended only for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject. 

To study this module you require sound skills in analytical thought and essay writing, and the ability to assimilate and critique a diverse range of source materials. These skills are taught in our history modules, such as Early modern Europe: society and culture c.15001780 (A223) or The British Isles and the modern world, 17891914 (A225). There is no requirement for you to have completed OU level 2 study prior to taking this module, but it’s highly recommended. 

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

Preparatory work

There is no prescribed preparatory work. However, you might wish to have a look at some of the following readings, such as Ashley Jackson's The British Empire: a very short introduction, John Darwin's After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire since 1405, Shashi Tharoor's An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, and Priyamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire. You'll find helpful advice on study skills in The Arts Good Study Guide (E. Chambers & A. Northedge, The Open University).

What's included

 You’ll be provided four printed module books and have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module materials
  • audio and video content
  • an assessment guide
  • access to online tutorials and forums.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11), or macOS (10.15 or higher).

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop as described above.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material, and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance at any point in the module. There will also be structured online tuition that you are encouraged, but not required, to participate in. Your student support team can also provide you with both general and specialist help with your studies.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

Your end-of-module assessment (EMA) must be submitted online.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A326 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Empire: 14921975 starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2022 when we expect it to start for the last time. A replacement module, Empires: power, resistance, legacies (A328), is planned for October 2023.

Course work includes:

6 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment
No residential school