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The New Imperial History

While the first encounters between the fields of imperial history and postcolonial studies were characterised by conflict, mutual misunderstanding and plain bafflement (see Part 1, week 10), these engagements had become increasingly productive from the mid-1990s, and the study of imperialism was enriched by perspectives drawn from Subaltern Studies, feminist histories and other disciplines, such as anthropology. This session will discuss the consequent rise of the ‘new imperial history’ in the noughties, which sought to explore themes of identity, culture and power through a particular emphasis on the ‘networks’ and ‘webs’ that made up modern empires. Drawing, in part, on the work of historical geographers, this was part of the wider ‘spatial turn’ across history and wider the humanities that has characterised the last couple of decades.


  • How was the ‘New Imperial History’ shaped by the ‘postcolonial turn’?
  • What spatial models characterised ‘traditional’ forms of imperial history and why might these be problematic?
  • Why did the concepts of ‘web’ and ‘network’ come to prominence in the ‘New Imperial History’ and what impact did this have on how the history of empire was written?
  • What are the benefits of studying the making of an ‘Imperial Man’ such as Edward John Eyre for historians? What are the limitations of such a method?


Essential Reading

Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830-1867 (Cambridge: Polity, 2002), esp. pp 23-66.

David Lambert and Alan Lester, ‘Introduction: Imperial spaces, imperial subjects’, in David Lambert and Alan Lester (eds) Colonial Lives Across the British Empire: Imperial Careering in the Long Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 1-31.


Further Reading

Tony Ballantyne, Orientalism and Race: Aryanism in the British Empire (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002).

Dane Kennedy, ‘Postcolonialism and history’, in Graham Huggan (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 467-488.

Alan Lester, ‘Spatial concepts and the historical geographies of British colonialism’, in Andrew Thompson (ed.) Writing Imperial Histories (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2013), pp. 118-142.

Stephen Howe (ed.), The New Imperial Histories Reader (London: Routledge, 2010).


Truffle Hunt: Primary Sources

This should help you track down a primary source should you decide to write your essay on this topic. David Lambert will discuss sources in the lecture as well.

Identify an individual with some kind of imperial (or global) career. Some suggestions:

o Think about a significant historical figure that you have encountered in another module, especially one that addresses the theme of imperialism (or globalisation). What can you find out about what they did before, or next, or elsewhere in the world?

o For British figures, try searching the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, available from the library's online database collection. Use search terms such as 'governor', 'missionary', 'explorer', 'soldier', 'merchant', 'anthropologist', 'botanist', 'correspondent' etc. and look for individuals who travelled across the empire (and beyond).

  • Find key primary and secondary sources that will tell you about the individual's life, e.g. (auto)biographies, memoirs, collections of correspondence, obituaries, books or articles that they wrote etc.
  • Reconstruct their imperial career as a timeline and/or map.
  • Exactly what you can say about the individual in question depends on who they are, what they did, where they went, when they were active etc. but here are some things to think about:

o Was there a particular 'thread' evident in their career (e.g. an abiding interest, a concern, an obsession...). Can you explain how this developed, intensified or changed over time and space in the course of their career?

o Can you show how the individual’s reaction to a new situation was shaped by their previous experience of other places?

o How was the individual’s encounter with a particular place formative for their later career?

o If you have encountered the individual primarily as a metropolitan figure (i.e. as someone active in Britain, France, the USA etc.), did they ever travel to the empire? How did this impact on or change their ideas about class, gender, race, politics, democracy, cricket, etc. etc.?

o How was the individual’s encounter with a particular place formative for their later career?

  • Given words are limited, you may need to focus in on a particular part of their imperial career, perhaps 2-3 sites maximum.
  • For more ideas, look at the following, and especially the mine the bibliography:

Lambert, David, ‘Reflections on the concept of imperial biographies' Geschichte und Gesellschaft 40 (2014), S. 22-41.