The best books to understand the British Empire's impact on the world

Why am I passionate about this?

I was in my 40s before I began exploring the topic of the British Empire. It came after I realised it explained so much about me (my Sikh identity, the emigration of my parents, my education) and so much about my country (its politics, psychology, wealth…) and yet I knew very little. It turned out that millions of people feel the same way… and I hope I provide an accessible introduction and summary of the massive topic. 


I wrote...

Book cover of Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain

What is my book about?

In accessible, witty prose, award-winning journalist and best-selling author Sathnam Sanghera traces this legacy back to its source, exposing how—in both profound and innocuous ways—imperial domination has shaped the United Kingdom we know today. Sanghera connects the historical dots across continents and seas to show how the shadows of a colonial past still linger over modern-day Britain and how the world, in turn, was shaped by Britain’s looming hand. The implications, of course, extend to Britain’s most notorious former colony turned imperial power: the United States of America, which prides itself on its maverick soul and yet seems to have inherited all the ambition, brutality, and exceptional thinking of its parent.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

Sathnam Sanghera Why did I love this book?

The East India Company was an unusual organization, to say the least, beginning as a conventional international trading corporation, dealing in silks and spices, and becoming an aggressive colonial power.

Its complicated nature is one of the reasons why the British empire is so poorly understood: people struggle to comprehend how a company could have been imperial. Dalrymple does a great job of explaining it in this incredibly accessible book.

One of my all-time favourite books on Indian history.

By William Dalrymple,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Anarchy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE TOP 5 SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER ONE OF BARACK OBAMA'S BEST BOOKS OF 2019 THE TIMES HISTORY BOOK OF THE YEAR FINALIST FOR THE CUNDILL HISTORY PRIZE 2020 LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILLIE GIFFORD PRIZE FOR NON-FICTION 2019 A FINANCIAL TIMES, OBSERVER, DAILY TELEGRAPH, WALL STREET JOURNAL AND TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR 'Dalrymple is a superb historian with a visceral understanding of India ... A book of beauty' - Gerard DeGroot, The Times In August 1765 the East India Company defeated the young Mughal emperor and forced him to establish a new administration in his richest provinces. Run by English…


Book cover of The Trader, The Owner, The Slave: Parallel Lives in the Age of Slavery

Sathnam Sanghera Why did I love this book?

Coming in at just over 250 pages of generously spaced text, this is not the longest book on the subject. Nor is it the most famous.

But in efficiently telling the stories of three men  –  John Newton, the captain of a slave ship, who later became a preacher, Thomas Thistlewood, a slave owner who made a small fortune from a plantation in Jamaica, and the black slave Olaudah Equiano.

Walvin deftly reveals how slavery, like so many aspects of the empire, has been erased from the British consciousness and conscience.

By James Walvin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Trader, The Owner, The Slave as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There has been nothing like Atlantic slavery. Its scope and the ways in which it has shaped the modern world are so far-reaching as to make it ungraspable. By examining the lives of three individuals caught up in the enterprise of human enslavement. James Walvin offers a new and an original interpretation of the barbaric world of slavery and of the historic end to the slave trade in April 1807.

John Newton (1725-1807), author of 'Amazing Grace', was a slave captain who marshalled his human cargoes with a brutality that he looked back on with shame and contrition. Thomas Thistlewood's…


Book cover of Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain

Sathnam Sanghera Why did I love this book?

In peerless prose, Winder proffers a simple thesis: that Britain is a nation of immigrants.

Despite our German royal family, and all those businesses created by Jews and Indians, we have long been a nation in denial about the immigrant blood flowing through our veins. To such a degree in the Windrush Scandal we have seen actual British citizens being threatened with deportation to countries they barely know.

This important book also challenges the dominant political narrative of my lifetime: that immigrants come here uninvited to take advantage of British hospitality.

If there was one book I could wish onto the National Curriculum, it would be this.

By Robert Winder,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bloody Foreigners as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Immigration is one of the most important stories of modern British life, yet it has been happening since Caesar first landed in 53 BC. Ever since the first Roman, Saxon, Jute and Dane leaped off a boat we have been a mongrel nation. Our roots are a tangled web. From Huguenot weavers fleeing French Catholic persecution in the 18th century to South African dentists to Indian shopkeepers; from Jews in York in the 12th century (who had to wear a yellow star to distinguish them and who were shamefully expelled by Edward I in 1272) to the Jamaican who came…


Book cover of Heaven's Command: An Imperial Progress

Sathnam Sanghera Why did I love this book?

By her own admission, Morris was nostalgic about British Empire, and while I disagree with some of her conclusions, and she herself remarked that she was “ashamed” of the work before she died, there is no doubt that she penned the single best narrative of Britain’s imperial adventures.

No other writer has written so accessibly and elegantly about a complicated history that extended across five centuries.

For me, proof that you don’t always need to agree with a writer to admire them.

By James Morris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Heaven's Command as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Great travel accounts.


Book cover of Railways & the Raj: How the Age of Steam Transformed India

Sathnam Sanghera Why did I love this book?

Approaching the subject not as an imperial historian but as a specialist on transport, Wolmar dismantles the lie at the heart of a thousand TV documentaries: that the British bestowed railways on India in an act of benevolence.

Every TV commissioner in Britain should be made to read this.

By Christian Wolmar,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Railways & the Raj as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, an Empire that needed a rail network to facilitate its exploitation and reflect its ambition. But, by building India's railways, Britain radically changed the nation and unwittingly planted the seed of independence. As Indians were made to travel in poor conditions and were barred from the better paid railway jobs a stirring of resentment and nationalist sentiment grew.

The Indian Railways network remains one of the largest in the world, serving over 25 million passengers each day. In this expertly told history, Christian Wolmar reveals the full story, from…


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Cold War: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift

By Helena P. Schrader,

Book cover of Cold War: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift

Helena P. Schrader Author Of Cold Peace: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift, Part I

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I first went to Berlin after college, determined to write a novel about the German Resistance; I stayed a quarter of a century. Initially, the Berlin Airlift, something remembered with pride and affection, helped create common ground between me as an American and the Berliners. Later, I was commissioned to write a book about the Airlift and studied the topic in depth. My research included interviews with many participants including Gail Halvorsen. These encounters with eyewitnesses inspired me to write my current three-part fiction project, Bridge to Tomorrow. With Russian aggression again threatening Europe, the story of the airlift that defeated Soviet state terrorism has never been more topical. 

Helena's book list on the Russian blockade of Berlin and the Allied Airlift

What is my book about?

Stopping Russian Aggression with milk, coal, and candy bars….

Berlin is under siege. More than two million civilians will starve unless they receive food, medicine, and more by air.

USAF Captain J.B. Baronowsky and RAF Flight Lieutenant Kit Moran once risked their lives to drop high explosives on Berlin. They are about to deliver milk, flour, and children’s shoes instead. Meanwhile, two women pilots are flying an air ambulance that carries malnourished and abandoned children to freedom in the West. Until General Winter deploys on the side of Russia...

Based on historical events, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader delivers an…

Cold War: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift

By Helena P. Schrader,

What is this book about?

Fighting a war with milk, coal and candy bars....

In the second book of the Bridge to Tomorrow Series, the story continues where "Cold Peace" left off.

Berlin is under siege. More than two million civilians in Hitler's former capital will starve unless they receive food, medicine and more by air.

USAF Captain J.B. Baronowsky and RAF Flight Lieutenant Kit Moran once risked their lives to drop high explosives on Berlin. They are about to deliver milk, flour and children's shoes instead. Meanwhile, two women pilots are flying an air ambulance that carries malnourished and abandoned children to freedom in…


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Interested in immigrants, colonies, and trains and railways?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about immigrants, colonies, and trains and railways.

Immigrants Explore 172 books about immigrants
Colonies Explore 73 books about colonies
Trains And Railways Explore 25 books about trains and railways