• University of Exeter

Empire: the Controversies of British Imperialism

The British Empire continues to cause enormous disagreement among historians. Find out why and join the debate.

86,737 enrolled on this course

Antique map of Europe with dotted lines leaving Britain to illustrate their expansion.
  • Duration

    6 weeks
  • Weekly study

    3 hours

Explore the British Empire through six controversial themes

Over six weeks, we’ll explore the British Empire through six themes - money, violence, race, religion, gender and sex, and propaganda. You’ll get to hear the stories of the fascinating individuals who contributed to both its rise and fall.

Along the way, you’ll be able to debate the questions these themes raise with learners from around the world, and draw your own conclusions.

You can start to explore the Empire and find out more about the Centre for Imperial and Global History on its blog, Imperial & Global Forum, or by following @ExeterCIGH on Twitter.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 14 seconds The story of the British Empire begins with the Elizabethan Age and with galleons like this one, the Golden Hind, captained by the famous explorer, Sir Francis Drake. It grew to become the largest empire that the world has ever seen, at its height ruling over a quarter of the world’s population. It shaped our modern world through the development of the phenomenon with which we’re increasingly familiar, globalisation. But how did the British Empire happen? What were the forces that created it, that held it together, and that ultimately led to its demise. I’m Richard Toye and I’m professor of modern history at the University of Exeter.

Skip to 0 minutes and 51 seconds I’ve gather together a group of experts who, over the course of six weeks, will give you a fresh and exciting new perspective on the British Empire. We’ll be exploring the British Empire through related themes, including money, violence, race, religion, and sex and gender. We’ll be thinking about the ways in which British culture might be understood to have sanctioned and sustained British imperialism and how the attitude of the British public towards empire was pivotal in its development and demise. Through the small stories of individual people’s lives, we will discover how the grittiness of day-to-day imperial power was played out, not though policy, but through the men and women who made the empire happen.

Skip to 1 minute and 31 seconds The British Empire is something that causes enormous disagreement amongst historians. And along the way, there will be lots of opportunity for you to debate the questions they have raised and to draw your own conclusions. As we enter an age of unprecedented interconnections and a truly global economy, we can look back to its roots in the British Empire. Join us and find out more.


  • Week 1


    • Week 1: welcome to the British Empire

      Welcome and we hope you will have a very enjoyable time with us over the next six weeks. Professor Richard Toye will introduce the course and we'll start our journey through the history of the British Empire.

    • A journey through the rise and fall of the British Empire

      In the next few steps we will take you on a journey through 500 years of British imperial history, noting key milestones and observing how its development was shaped by a series of major crises.

    • Money

      Marc Palen and David Thackeray explore the relationship between the Empire and money.

    • Week 1: concluding comments

      Congratulations and suggestions for further reading

  • Week 2


    • Week 2: welcome

      Welcome to week 2 where we expose the violence that was prevalent in British imperialism and you will have the opportunity to discuss the ethics of colonial air policing.

    • Are empires intrinsically violent systems of social order?

      Martin Thomas explores the nature of violence within empire.

    • Violence in the British Empire

      Martin Thomas introduced you to the different types of violence that we would expect to find within empires, but how evident are they in British imperialism? Now Martin and Stacey Hynd uncover violence in the British Empire.

    • Colonial Air Policing

      Professor Richard Overy explores the history and controversies surrounding imperial air policing.

    • Week 2: concluding comments

      Congratulations and suggestions for further reading

  • Week 3

    Race and religion

    • Week 3: welcome

      Welcome to week 3 where we examine the connections between race, religion and British imperialism. We will introduce Said's concept of Orientalism and ask you to consider if we can ever be objective about the Empire.

    • Race

      Gareth Curless explores the complex, symbiotic relationship between race and British imperialism.

    • Religion

      In this activity Nandini Chatterjee reveals how the balance of faiths across the British Empire contributed to the development and demise of British colonialism and introduces Edward Said's concept of Orientalism.

    • Week 3: concluding comments

      Congratulations and suggestions for further reading

  • Week 4

    Sex and gender

    • Week 4: welcome

      Welcome to week 4 where we rethink the Empire as a male domain and explore the relationship between attitudes to sex and British imperialism. We will ask you to consider the legacy of imperial sexual stereotypes.

    • Gender

      Nicola Thomas explores the small stories of gender and Empire.

    • Revealing the connections: gender, colonial power and dress

      Nicola uncovers the links between material culture and imperial power.

    • Sex

      Kate Fisher reveals how attitudes to sex influenced British imperialism.

    • Week 4: concluding comments

      Congratulations and suggestions for further reading.

  • Week 5


    • Week 5: welcome

      Welcome to week 5. Britain was an imperial nation, but this week we ask if it was also an imperial society. We will discuss British imperial culture and invite you to find and share your own examples of imperial propaganda.

    • Imperial literary culture

      Paul Young explores how British literary culture sanctioned and sustained British imperialism.

    • Imperial visual culture

      Rob Fletcher and Phil Wickham explore the Empire through the different cultural lenses of 19th and 20th century Britain and ask how imperially minded the British psyche was.

    • Exploring propaganda

      Analyse how imperial propaganda can be linked to particular interest groups which had a connection to the Empire. Image © 'Highways of Empire'; (TNA) CO956-537A

    • Week 5: concluding comments

      Congratulations and suggestions for further reading

  • Week 6


    • Week 6: welcome

      Welcome to week 6 where we take a closer look at imperial power and ask if there is any truth in accusations of 'neo-imperialism'. To conclude, we invite you to share what you think the legacy of the British Empire has been.

    • Collaboration and globalisation

      Rob Fletcher takes a closer look at the role of collaboration in sustaining imperial power and we explore the connections between imperial power and globalisation.

    • The end of Empire

      Richard Toye and James Mark explore the end of European Empires and ask you to share how European Empires, and the stories of their end, has been seen in your part of the world.

    • Assignment: the legacy of the British Empire

      An opportunity to reflect on what you have learned during the course, and to review assignments written by fellow course participants.

    • Week 6: concluding comments

      Concluding comments, suggestions for further reading, and a final thank you from Richard Toye.

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Identify key themes through which the controversies of British Imperialism can be explored
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the complexities of British Imperialism through debate and contributions to the learning community
  • Develop your understanding of British imperialism

Who is the course for?

This course is intended for anyone with an interest in imperial history. It doesn’t require any reading before you start or previous experience of studying the subject.

Who will you learn with?

I am Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter. I am Lead Educator on the FutureLearn course Empire: the Controversies of British Imperialism.

Who developed the course?

University of Exeter

The University of Exeter is a Russell Group university. It combines world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction.

Learning on FutureLearn

Your learning, your rules

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  • Learn through a mix of bite-sized videos, long- and short-form articles, audio, and practical activities
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Join a global classroom

  • Experience the power of social learning, and get inspired by an international network of learners
  • Share ideas with your peers and course educators on every step of the course
  • Join the conversation by reading, @ing, liking, bookmarking, and replying to comments from others

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  • Complete 90% of course steps and all of the assessments to earn your certificate

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