The British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset - HI6042

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Module delivery information

This module is not currently running in 2021 to 2022.


'We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.'

Sir John Seeley, The Expansion of England (1883)

Despite Seeley's assertion of accidental conquest, at its zenith the British empire decidedly controlled over ¼ of the world's global real estate, and 1/5 of the world's population. The economic, cultural and global impact of British colonialism is still very much apparent today - from contested borders and inter-state disputes, through languages and cultures, to the inequities in wealth and trade that exist between the prosperous 'North' and the underdeveloped 'South'. Why, then, was imperial expansion so vehemently defended by its protagonists in the 19th and 20th Centuries? And what made colonial conquest, colonisation, and economic exploitation of non-European spaces feasible on such a global scale and for so long? These are the 'big questions' that underlie this module. Using documentary sources and specialist texts and articles, we shall investigate various aspects of British colonial rule from the perspective of its practitioners and from that of their colonial 'subjects'. The intention is to try and understand European imperialism on its own terms, to interrogate the cultural and conceptual discourses that underpinned its existence, and to reflect upon the many ways in which the history of European empire has shaped the modern world in which we live today.

Please note that the title of this module is changing. It will run in 2016/2017 as 'A Cultural History of the British Empire.'


Contact hours

3 hours per week.

Method of assessment

The module will be assessed by coursework and exam on a 60% coursework and 40% exam ratio.

The coursework component will be assessed as follows:
1) 2 x 3,000 word essays, each worth 40% of the coursework mark.
2) A presentation mark, worth 10% of the coursework mark.
3) A general seminar performance mark, worth 10% of the coursework mark.

The examination component will be assessed through 1 x two-hour exam worth 40% of the final mark for the module.

Indicative reading

• Ballantyne, Tony, ‘Introduction: Debating Empire’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 13:1 (2002).
• Cain, P. J., ‘European Expansion Overseas, 1830-1914,’ Review Article in History, 59 (1974), 243-9.
• Etherington, Norman, ‘Reconsidering Theories of Imperialism’, History and Theory, 21:1 (1982), 1-36.
• Darwin, John, After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 (London, 2007)
• Darwin, John, The Empire Project: the rise and fall of the British world system, 1830-1970 (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
• Levine, Philippa, The British Empire. From Sunrise to Sunset (Harlow: Longman, 2007)
• Porter, Bernard, The Lion’s Share: A short history of British imperialism 1850-2004. Fourth Edition (Pearson Education, 2004).
• Stockwell, Sarah (ed), The British Empire: themes and perspectives (Blackwell, 2008).

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

As a consequence of taking this module all students will have
1. gained the knowledge and conceptual tools to understand and interpret the history of Britain’s colonial encounter from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century.
2. obtained a knowledge of the most important relevant episodes of the history of the period, and some of the historiographical debates surrounding the subject.
3. developed their ability to discuss the issues that are raised in the module, and to present their work in written and oral form.
4. developed an ability to critically analyse a range of primary sources including letters, diaries, journals, memoirs, published and unpublished material (among many others).
5. developed strong analytical and critical skills and be able to evaluate and assess Britain’s imperial history and its impact on the modern world.


  1. ECTS credits are recognised throughout the EU and allow you to transfer credit easily from one university to another.
  2. The named convenor is the convenor for the current academic session.
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