Unstable Empire: British Imperial Experiences, c. 1600 - 1960

Home/ Unstable Empire: British Imperial Experiences, c. 1600 - 1960
Course TypeCourse CodeNo. Of Credits
Foundation ElectiveSLS2HS2024

Semester and Year Offered: usually Monsoon Semester; taught once in every three or four semesters.

Course Coordinator and Team: Prof. Denys P. Leighton

Email of course coordinator: denys[at]aud[dot]ac[dot]in

Pre-requisites: none

Aim. Many historians in postcolonial societies have written the history of European empires (c. 1500 – 1950 CE) in light of new national identities and politics. While some historians of new or revived nations have viewed the imperial past in binary terms, generalizing about the experiences of colonizers and the colonized, others have engaged in assessments of colonial experiences that pay attention to variables such as gender and social class that influenced relations of authority and power. Historians of the British empire over the past few decades have emphasized continuities between colonial and postcolonial experiences—for example, by identifying colonial epistemologies or ways of knowing that continue to put the ‘Orient/Oriental’ in an unfavorable light against ‘the West/Western’. Can there be a coherent or unified history of a British imperial (common) experience between c. 1600, the time of the English conquest of Ireland, and 1960, when UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan referred to the ‘winds of change’ sweeping Asia, Africa and the Caribbean? Or are there only multiple and contrasting experiences of the millions who lived and died under British rule? This course moves from the British Atlantic World (with North America and the Caribbean as its western littoral) of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to South/Southeast Asia and Africa--across a span of four centuries—and examines the practices and theorizations of colonialism both in the colonies and in Britain (‘the metropole’). Issues to be studied include ideological origins of British conquest and colonial settlement; building and rebuilding of colonial political and social patterns; creation of ‘colonial knowledge’ and emergence of cultural hybridities; colonialism’s role in forming religious, gender, ethnic and other social identities; health, diseases, cures and bodies; everyday and extraordinary violence in the empire; and the presence and changing roles of colonial ‘others’ within metropolitan British society to the present day.

Course Objectives: Onsuccessful completion of the course, students will be able to:

  1. Critically examine features of British colonialism that were common to several regions of the world as well as analyse features specific to particular colonies.
  2. Compare economy-centred analyses of empire/imperialism to socio-cultural studies and appreciate the relationships among them.
  3. Relate colonial policies and ‘high politics’ of empire to their implementation by investigating ‘everyday’ experiences of empire.
  4. Course Outcomes:
  5. Students will improve their skills in writing about scholarly debates and learn how to evaluate and participate in such debates.
  6. Students will improve their academic verbal communication skills.

Brief description of modules/ Main modules:

  1. Introduction. From Ireland to the Americas: aims and ideologies of early English colonialism. Emerging ideology of an English ‘imperium’ (c. 1550 – 1707) in relation to the politics of Great Britain – Ulster plantation and Protestantisation of Ireland to 1800 – ‘Noble savages’, fish, farms, sugar and slaves: the Americas and the changing balance of global trade. (Weeks I & II)
  2. Commerce and government in the widening British Imperium, c. 1770 - 1850. Economic imperatives of a ‘new’ British empire – The myth of ‘free trade’ imperialism – British politics, anti-slavery campaigns and the globalization of ‘liberty’, c. 1790 – 1850. (Week III)
  3. Knowing and ruling the Oriental. Gender, sexuality and power in pre-1857 British India. Politics of ‘Anglicisation’ – impact of evangelical and utilitarian philosophies – ‘reforming’ Indian society. (Weeks IV & V)
  4. Orientals in Britain c. 1700 - 1830, and how shampoo came to Brighton. Dean Mahomet and other Asians in Britain before 1850. (Week VI)
  5. Empire, gender and ‘home’: the Christian missionary impact (focus on Australia/New Zealand and India) and the domestic (British) drivers of evangelization. (Weeks VII & VIII)
  6. Citizenship and colonial nationalisms. Imperial subjecthood versus national citizenship – ‘White, self-governing dominions’ and zones of direct rule. (Weeks IX & X)
  7. Violence, burdens of empire and colonial bodies: disease control, discipline and the politics of sexuality and ethnicity. (Week XI & XII)
  8. Conflicts and shattered peaces of ‘decolonization’: India’s Partition and British de-camping from empire. (Week XIII)
  9. Overview and conclusions (Week XIV).

Assessment Details with weights:



Date/period in which assessment will take place



Essay 1 (review-essay: 2500 – 3000 words)

Week 5



Essay 2 (‘big picture’ essay: 2000 - 3000 words)

Week 13



Course participation (discussion) grade




Short ‘thought pieces’ (5 @ 250 – 500 words)




Reading List (basic):*

  • David Armitage and M. J. Braddick, eds., The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002): selected chapters.
  • Nicholas P. Canny, ‘The Ideology of English Colonization: from Ireland to America,’ William and Mary Quarterly, 30/4 (1973), pp. 575-98.
  • N. Canny, ‘Europeans Abroad: Problems, Perspectives and Possibilities,’ Historical Journal, 29/2 (1987), pp. 469-79.
  • N. Canny, ‘Atlantic History: what and why?’, European Review, 9/4 (2001), pp. 399 – 411.
  • Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton Univ. Press, 1996), selected chapters.
  • Michael H. Fisher, ‘Excluding and Including “Natives of India”. . . ,’ Comp. Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 27/2 (2007), pp. 303-314.
  • Hall and Sonya Rose, eds., At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006): selected chapters.
  • Philippa Levine, ‘Venereal Disease, Prostitution and the Politics of Empire: the Case of British India,’ Jour. of the History of Sexuality, 4/4 (1994), pp. 579-602.
  • P. Levine, ed., Gender and Empire (Oxford Univ. Press, 2007): selected chapters.
  • Miles Taylor, ‘The 1848 Revolutions and the British Empire,’ Past and Present, 166 (2000), pp. 146-80.
  • Megan Vaughan, Curing Their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness (Stanford University Press, 1991): selected chapters.
  • Luise White, ‘”They Could Make Their Victims Dull”: Genders and Genres, Fantasies and Cures in Colonial Southern Uganda,’ American Hist. Rev., 100/5 (1995), pp. 1379-1402.
  • *5-8 additional texts are used: book chapters and research articles.