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Rise and Fall of the British Empire
Course No. 8480 (36 lectures, 30 minutes/lecture)
Taught by Patrick N. Allitt
Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley
At its peak in the early 20th century, Britainâ€™s empire was the largest in the history of the
world, greater even than that of ancient Rome. It embraced more than a fourth of the worldâ€™s
population and affected the course of Western civilization in ways almost too numerous to
Even today, with the advantages of historical perspective and hindsight, it is still nearly
impossible to overstate the scope and importance of its stunning legacy.
British colonists brought to the New World ideas of liberty, justice, and political stability -
ideas that formed the foundation of our own revolution and Constitution and are still reflected
in the aspirations of emerging democracies the world over.
British exploration, mapping, and colonization of remote areas of the world in the late 18th and
early 19th centuries accelerated our scientific knowledge.
Britain was the first nation to undertake large-scale industrialization, and it contributed to a
host of technological advances that revolutionized manufacturing, navigation, international
communications, travel on land and sea, and more.
Britain was the first major world power to make the moral choices to end its own extremely
profitable slave trade and then to work toward the abolition of slavery worldwide.
That is only a bare sampling of a legacy that also encompassed language, literature, the
invention of sophisticated modern banking and insurance systems, and the foundations of modern
Yet only seven decades after achieving its unprecedented global reach, the British Empire had
virtually disappeared, swept aside by historical forces as powerful as those that had first
propelled it into being.
How and why did this happen? What were those forces that thrust the British Empire to its
extraordinary position and then just as powerfully drove it into decline? And why are the lives
of not only Americans but also of the citizens of nearly every nation on earth, in one way or
another, the consequence of the British Empire?
In the 36 lectures of The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, award-winning Professor Patrick N.
Allitt of Emory University leads you through four centuries of British power, innovation,
influence, and, ultimately, diminishment â€“ four profound centuries that literally remade the
world and bequeathed the complex global legacy that continues to shape your everyday life.
Itâ€™s a remarkable course that will give you fresh insights into world history in a wide range of
areas â€“ political, economic, technological, social, and more. And it will also give you a
comprehensive overview you wonâ€™t find offered anywhere else â€“ a context into which you can
integrate new knowledge about this country, as well as understand the background of current
events in so many other countries that were once part of Britainâ€™s empire, from Ireland to China,
and in Africa and the Caribbean.
Indeed, it seems fair to say that one cannot truly understand the most important aspects of world
history without a firm grasp of the history of the British Empire.
In giving you that grasp, Professor Allitt draws on a vast range of critical events, riveting
personalities, revealing anecdotes, and eloquent quotations â€“ the latter of which become virtuoso
performances. Himself English, he manages to invest each line with the political, social, or
moral implications that would have been obvious to contemporary readers and listeners.
Meet Some of Historyâ€™s Most Riveting Personalities
Unlike them, however, trapped in their own specific moment in time, you get to take the entire
fascinating journey, encountering as you do some of historyâ€™s most important, forceful, and
interesting personalities, often from a totally new vantage point:
Winston Churchill, the very personification of the British Lion, who, after inspiring his nation
to unexpected survival during the darkest days of World War II, was rewarded with defeat at the
Robert Clive, who rose from his beginnings as a teenaged clerk for the British East India Company
to avenge the brutality of the infamous â€œBlack Hole of Calcutta,â€ achieve British
hegemony in India along with great personal power and ill-gotten wealth, and ultimately die at
his own hand, imprisoned by both depression and his addiction to opium.
Orde Wingate, the British general whose achievements in the Ethiopian campaign and in the Zionist
guerrilla war against the Arab revolt in Palestine could never obscure his personal
eccentricities. One of those was a proclivity to wander about naked, often with a raw onion
suspended around his neck, from which he would take hearty bites while inspecting his troops.
William Wilberforce, the Christian evangelical and Member of Parliament who provided the
political leadership and moral lifeblood for Britainâ€™s antislavery crusade, and who lived long
enough to see his nearly half-century struggle culminate in the 1833 abolition of slavery
throughout most of the British Empire.
And that, of course, is only a small sample of a course that encompasses rulers and slaves,
politicians and scientists, explorers, inventors and fighters, and even the importance of
cricket! Sir Francis Drake, Mohandas Gandhi, John Hancock, Adam Smith, Captains James Cook and
William Bligh, the Zulu warrior king Chaka, James Watt, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Field Marshall
Bernard Montgomery â€“ these and many, many others all step forward during this comprehensive
Understand How Britainâ€™s History Helped Define the Shape of Its Future â€“ and the Worldâ€™s
And as they do, with Professor Allitt leading you through the British Empireâ€™s extraordinary
history, he explains not only the hows and whys of its momentous events and conflicts, but leaves
you with a nuanced understanding of just what kind of historical pathways were set into place for
succeeding generations to follow:
You learn that although the British could often be ruthless in projecting their power,
suppressing customs and traditions in alien cultures, an intellectual minority among them also
began to study those cultures with interest and sympathy, helping to develop not only a
missionary tradition but also new disciplines like anthropology and comparative religion.
You gain a new appreciation of perhaps the most widespread of Britainâ€™s bequests â€“ the language
that is not only spoken here, but that remains the most widely spoken around the world.
And you come to understand the full extent of that gift, as well, as Professor Allitt explores
the British Empireâ€™s ongoing literary legacy. You grasp how Britainâ€™s finest writers, including
the Bronte sisters, Rudyard Kipling, E. M. Forster, and George Orwell, by exploring the social
and moral implications of almost every aspect of the British Empire, have left us a profound
cultural record â€“ a record since added to by subsequent generations of British authors and by the
greatest writers of her former colonies.
In organizing a vast wealth of historical material, Professor Allitt approaches his subject from
a variety of perspectives as he traces the mercantilist, imperial, and free trade ideologies that
fueled the development of the empire.
Key among these is his thorough discussion of both the role of slavery in building and
maintaining the empire and the evolution of Britainâ€™s ultimate decision to end its participation
in the practice.
He explains the innovations in banking and insurance that fueled British prosperity and enabled
Britain to finance the military power necessary to fight its wars and protect its far-flung
colonies. He explores cultural and political changes inside Britain and their impact on Britainâ€™s
global decisions. And he examines the changing cultural manifestations of the empire as it
Just as important, he never allows himself to settle into an Anglocentric view of Britainâ€™s
empire. He discusses not only the experiences of Britainâ€™s colonists, but also those of the
native peoples of those colonies, whose own lives â€“ as well as the destinies of their countries -
were irrevocably shaped by British imperialism.
Compelling, comprehensive, and astonishing in the force of its narrative power, The Rise and Fall
of the British Empire will give you a refreshing new understanding of what made the British
Empire both great in its achievements and vulnerable to its eventual downfall.
Course Lecture Titles
01. The Sun Never Set
02. The Challenge to Spain in the New World
03. African Slavery and the West Indies
04. Imperial Beginnings in India
05. Clive and the Conquest of India
06. Wolfe and the Conquest of Canada
07. The Loss of the American Colonies
08. Exploring the Planet
09. Napoleon Challenges the Empire
10. The Other Side of the World
11. Abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery
12. Early African Colonies
13. China and the Opium Wars
14. Britain â€“ The Imperial Center
15. Ireland â€“ The Tragic Relationship
16. India and the â€œGreat Gameâ€
17. Rebellion and Mutiny in India
18. How Canada Became a Nation
19. The Exploration and Settlement of Africa
20. Gold, Greed, and Geopolitics in Africa
21. The Empire in Literature
22. Economics and Theories of Empire
23. The British Empire Fights Imperial Germany
24. Versailles and Disillusionment
25. Ireland Divided
26. Cricket and the British Empire
27. British India between the World Wars
28. World War II â€“ England Alone
29. World War II â€“ The Pyrrhic Victory
30. Twilight of the Raj
31. Israel, Egypt, and the Suez Canal
32. The Decolonization of Africa
33. The White Dominions
34. Britain after the Empire
35. Colonial and Postcolonial Literature
36. Epitaph and Legacy
About Your Professor
Dr. Patrick N. Allitt
Dr. Patrick N. Allitt is Goodrich C. White Professor of History at Emory University. He is also
Director of Emory Collegeâ€™s Center for Teaching and Curriculum. He earned his B.A. in British and
European History from Oxford University and his Ph.D. from the University of California,
Berkeley. Dr. Allitt has served as a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard Divinity School and at the
Princeton University Center for the Study of American Religion. He won Emoryâ€™s Excellence in
Teaching Award and held the NEH/Arthur Blank Professorship of Teaching in the Humanities.
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