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HIST2090 Britain’s Global Empire, 1750–1870

Module Overview

By the middle of the eighteenth century, in the words of one contemporary, Britain had acquired a ‘vast empire on which the sun never sets , and whose bounds nature has not yet ascertained ’. The century or so that followed played a key role in shaping today’s transnational and globalised world. It also represents a crucial phase in British history, as the country emerged as a major power on the world stage. In this module, we will explore the origins, expansion and consolidation of the British Empire in this period across continents and oceans. By the end of the module, we will have studied key events in the found at ion of Britain ’s empire from a variety of perspectives, ranging across the globe, and using an array of sources. Our close scrutiny of written primary sources – such as letters, journals and travelogues – as well as images and objects will help us to understand how this historical period changed the world and Britain’s place in it .

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

to illustrate the ways in which Britain engaged with the wider world • to explore this historical episode through a range of primary sources, including documentary, visual and material evidence • to historicise present-day global phenomena, such as long-distance maritime trade and Britain’s relationships with the rest of the world • to introduce you to the role played by images and objects in representing and reflecting key themes in the history of the British Empire • to give you a sense of how debates about visual representation and museum collections and displays relate to broader historiographical discussions about the nature of the British Empire

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • the chronology, personalities and major events relating to the history of the British Empire and its visual representation, as well as the latest historiographical debates surrounding their interpretation
  • the wider context of British political, scientific and commercial activities in the Age of Empire
  • key primary sources, including documentary evidence, images and material culture, that provide evidence for historians of the British Empire
  • key examples from the history of the British Empire which you can use to explore a host of global and transnational phenomena
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • participate fully and constructively in group discussion, arguing your case by drawing on your reading, knowledge and understanding
  • analyse critically a variety of textual, visual and material culture sources
  • structure your ideas and research findings into well-ordered presentations and essays
  • contextualise a range of primary source material
  • engage with the secondary literature on the British Empire, and contribute to the debates relating to the historiography of the British Empire
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • participate effectively in group discussion
  • develop your time-management skills
  • locate and use effective textual, visual and material culture sources in the library and on-line
  • develop your presentation skills
  • research historical questions and communicate your findings convincingly and concisely in written reports


We will begin by considering the changing nature of the empire in the Atlantic – the acquisition of Canada, the loss of thirteen colonies on mainland North America, and the continued importance of the slave-holding, sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean – before looking further afield. We will think about trade and empire in Asia, specifically in relation to the rise and fall of the East India Company, which played a fundamental role in the subsequent development of the British Raj in India. We will also contemplate the new horizons that opened up to British travellers, merchants and politicians in the period. The Pacific and Australia came into the orbit of the British Empire as a result of Enlightenment-inspired voyages of exploration, such as those led by James Cook. Southern Africa also occupied an increasingly important place in the development of the empire: as a strategic stopping-off point on the route to India; as a field for exploration, colonisation and missionary endeavour by people like David Livingstone; and as source of mineral riches in the form of diamonds and gold. Finally, we will consider how the evolution of empire affected people and their everyday lives in Britain, its influence on art and architecture, and the ways in which different groups celebrated, commemorated and challenged it. By the end of the module, we will have studied key events in the found at ion of Britain’s empire from a variety of perspectives, ranging across the globe, and using an array of sources. Our close scrutiny of written primary sources – such as letters, journals and travelogues – as well as images and objects will help us to understand how this historical period changed t h e world and Britain’s place in it . In addition to lectures and seminars providing introductory sessions, essay tutorials and revision classes, topics to be covered include: • The Atlantic: North America and the Caribbean Enlightenment, exploration and emigration: the Pacific and Australia • Trade and empire in Asia: The East India Company • New horizons: Africa • Art in the service of empire • Collections, museums and empire

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include: • lectures and seminars • short presentations by students • detailed examination, analysis and discussion of sources • group discussions including feedback from the tutor Lectures will provide you with a general overview and understanding of chronology, sources and key concepts. This will be consolidated through readings and seminar discussions of primary and secondary sources. Presentations and subsequent group discussion in seminars will help you to develop your own ideas about topics, to analyse a range of source material and to articulate a critical argument. Learning activities include: • preparatory reading, individual research and study prior to each class • preparing and delivering short presentations relating to specific aspects of the module • studying primary sources, including textual, visual and material evidence • participation in group and class discussion In this module, learning and teaching activities focus on helping you to explore and investigate the ideas and themes outlined above. Throughout the module you will also engage in directed and self-directed study, for example through pre-seminar reading and through library research. The presentations (by you and your fellow students) and your reading will provide you with a broad overview of the secondary literature, using the bibliography provided at the start of the module. The discussion generated by these presentations will provide you with the opportunity to explore the relevant major historical debates on a weekly basis. In addition, you will study in depth a range of primary written and visual sources, as well as surviving material culture. These sessions will allow you to prepare for the assessment exercises. Feedback on your progress and development will be given via seminars and group discussions. Responses from tutor and your fellow students to your presentation will also give you formative feedback.

Preparation for scheduled sessions64
Completion of assessment task75
Follow-up work48
Total study time298

Resources & Reading list

Marshall, P. J. and Glyndwr Williams (1982). The Great Map of Mankind: British Perceptions of the World in the Age of Enlightenment. 

Wilson, Kathleen (2003). The Island Race: Englishness, Empire and Gender in the Eighteenth Century. 

Bayly, C. A (1989). Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World, 1780–1830. 

Harlow, Vincent T (1952–64). The Founding of the Second British Empire, 1763–1793. 

Porter, Andrew (ed.) (1999). The Oxford History of the British Empire. Volume 3: The Nineteenth Century. 

Marshall, P. J. (ed.) (1998). The Oxford History of the British Empire. Volume 2: The Eighteenth Century. 

Marshall, P. J (2005). The Making and Unmaking of Empires: Britain, India, and America c.1750–1783. 

Nasson, Bill (2004). Brit annia ’s Em pire: Ma king a Brit ish World. 

Cannadine, David (ed.) (2007). Em pire, t he Sea and Glo bal H ist ory: B rit ain’s Marit im e World, c.1760 – c.1840. 

Empire Online.


Assessment Strategy

Formative assessment: • presentations and feedback • essay tutorials • exam tutorials • mock essay and exam questions


Mock exam


MethodPercentage contribution
Essay  (4000 words) 50%
Examination  (2 hours) 50%


MethodPercentage contribution
Coursework 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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