Research project

An empire of islands: concepts, contexts and collections

  • Lead researcher:
  • Research funder:
    Arts & Humanities Research Council
  • Status:
    Not active

Project overview

Islands are often imagined as special places. They have long been represented as edenic or utopian spaces; in the UK, the trope of ‘island nation’ has for generations carried (and retains) political as well as cultural weight. Small islands, situated in the middle of seas and oceans, and remote from continental land masses, often possess an importance in communications, navigation, trade and strategy out of all proportion to their size and resources. Yet islands are also contested spaces. They embody – often simultaneously – notions of freedom and captivity; isolation and connection; paradise and inhospitality; wealth and poverty.

Islands have had a catalytic role in shaping many modern European empires. Yet while islands have loomed large in the histories of the world’s maritime empires, from the thalassocracies of Greece and Venice to the far-flung dominions of European empires, historians have been curiously reticent to explore their conceptual possibilities. Maritime and global historians – those most likely to focus on islands – have generally concentrated on seas and oceans, and on continental land masses respectively.

This network addresses that lacuna by holding three workshops to explore key issues relating to islands as historical spaces, with active roles in shaping and representing wider imperial contexts. The themes of the workshops are, respectively, ‘islands as nodal points’, ‘sites of contestation’ and ‘island collections’. Each of the three workshops explores a particular topic, although we recognise that the categories are not mutually exclusive. The chronological focus of the workshops will be concentrated on the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. This corresponds to a key period in the expansion and consolidation of Britain’s maritime empire. It also maps on to the academic expertise of the participants. Importantly, it also mirrors the collections and institutional remit of the NMM. Despite this chronological focus, however, we will encourage network members and workshop participants to think beyond this timeframe in order to identify methodological connections and links that illuminate the theme of islands and empires more generally.


Lead researcher

Dr John Mcaleer

Associate Professor

Research interests

  • The British Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
  • The East India Company and its worlds.
  • Islands and empires.
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