The Imperial Economy: Britain and the Wider World, 1815-1914

Module code: HS3614

Module co-ordinator: Dr Bernard Attard 

Module Outline

Empire map 1897

Everyone knows that Britain once ruled a vast empire. You only had to look at an old map (like the one here from 1897 in Cambridge University Library) to see how much of the world was shaded pink. But old maps did not necessarily reveal the true geography of power. Ruling a particular territory often mattered far less to the British than making money, converting souls and spreading their civilisation. This was why sometimes they did not even bother to govern large parts of the world they claimed as their own (think of Canada and Australia, for instance) and also why what happened in Shanghai, Cairo and Buenos Aires often was as important to them as events in Bombay, Sydney and Montreal. 

Imagine an ‘empire’ in the places coloured pink but also in many others far beyond; in China, for example, where below the cartoonist John Tenniel shows John Bull in the 1890s giving a Chinese trader a lift to market. This empire was created by British people doing what was most typical of them during the 19th century: running businesses, investing money, building railways, organising the world’s commerce, and settling in new places. Power, prestige and influence (not to mention wealth) followed, as they saw it, as their just rewards. 

This module asks you to see British imperialism in a new light as one of the effects of the many-sided expansion of Britain’s society and economy during the long 19th century. We begin with a nation in crisis in the decades immediately after the Napoleonic Wars and end with Britain as the world’s creditor on the eve of another great war. As you might expect there is a large and contentious literature about the subject. By the end of the module you will have to make up their own minds about where the British empire began and ended; what exactly we mean by ‘empire’; and whether in fact it would be better to think of a British ‘world system’ in which the empire of the geographers was only the most visible part. At the very least, you will know a little more about how national wealth, economic expansion and global power have been connected in the recent past.

Topics covered

HS3614 empire cartoon drawing

The teaching programme is in two parts. In the first, we study the long debate amongst historians about the relationship between British wealth, economic expansion and global power before the First World War. That debate started in the shadow of the Great Depression of the 1930s and continues to this day. Could the enormous growth of British commerce in places like Argentina and Uruguay be described as an ‘imperialism of free trade’? Did it create an empire in all but name? Or should we prefer the metaphor of a ‘great commercial republic’ founded upon the ideals of partnership, mutual benefit and profitable exchange? We try to answer these questions in the second part of the module. Each topic looks at a one aspect of British activity abroad and is associated with its own case study. You will be introduced to the British as merchants, colonisers, rulers, imperialists, capitalists, competitors in international relations and critics of imperialism. Case studies will take us from Britain itself during the 1830s and 1840s to India, Egypt, Argentina, China and finally back to Britain again. The essay topics allow you to study other places and different aspects of the debate. The final seminar returns you to where you started and asks you to make up your own mind about the meaning of ‘empire’ before 1914 as well as in the world today.


The module is taught through ten lectures and seminars. The lectures introduce the seminar topics and guide students through the key themes, ideas and historical developments. Seminars take place in small groups and concentrate on historical texts and contemporary documents. You will become familiar with the rich literature about British imperialism and encounter some of the contemporary figures - well-known and obscure - who were swept up by the extraordinary momentum of British expansion. They will read, for example, an official memoranda in which a British prime minister recommends that gunboats be sent up African rivers and a letter from a colonial official in London warning his government about the consequences of ignoring the wishes of British investors. The emphasis is on student comprehension and responses to both texts and documents.


  • Assignment 1, 2,000 words (40%)
  • Assignment 2, 3,000 words (60%)