The best books on colonialism

2 authors have picked their favorite books about colonialism and why they recommend each book.

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Travels in the Congo

By Andre Gide,

Book cover of Travels in the Congo

This travel diary by the Nobel Prize winning French writer was published in 1927 and expertly translated by his lifelong friend Dorothy Bussy. Gide dedicated his book and its sequel, Return from Chad, to Joseph Conrad, whose Congolese itinerary Gide retraced in part. In 1926 and 1927, the Frenchman spent ten months in Equatorial Africa with his lover Marc Alégret, making no secret of his sexual preference for young men and boys. In these travelogues, Gide fiercely criticized French colonialism and especially France’s “concessionary companies,” the large monopolistic firms that cruelly exploited Congolese laborers forced under inhuman conditions to harvest raw rubber. France’s Congo colony reproduced the excesses of its Belgian counterpart, despite the efforts of Gide and other prominent French figures to reform it.

Who am I?

I’ve spent most of my career teaching and writing about French history. In the 1990s, it became belatedly clear to me and other French historians that France shouldn’t be understood purely as a European nation-state. It was an empire whose imperial ambitions encompassed North America, the Caribbean, Africa, Indochina, and India. By the twentieth century, and especially after 1945, large numbers of people from those colonial places had emigrated to mainland France, claiming to belong to that country and asserting the right to live there. Their presence produced a great deal of political strife, which I wanted to study by looking at France’s colonial past.


I wrote...

Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa

By Edward Berenson,

Book cover of Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa

What is my book about?

In the late 19th century, Britain and France raced against each other for the conquest of Africa. What attracted their citizens to those conquests were stories by and about the charismatic individuals who gave imperialism a recognizable, human face. Heroes of Empire narrates the dramatic, often violent, exploits of five of these men, all lauded in the popular press and hero-worshipped at home.

Today we are justly skeptical of the heroism of such men, but in the late nineteenth century, most Europeans played down, denied, or ignored the violence that colonialism wrought. Instead, they glorified my five exemplars of empire for braving the scarcely imaginable dangers of unknown places and “savage” people and embodying traits of character and personality widely admired at the time.

The Black Man’s Burden

By Basil Davidson,

Book cover of The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State

Whenever I see suddenly this remarkable book on my bookshelves, I wonder how the author, writing in later years of his life, was able of combining his practical experience in Africa with his theoretical engagement of Africa. The author narrates sympathetically how African political elites who embraced Western alien institutions and state ideals failed to reconsider the reconfiguration of the nation-state on their continent.


Who am I?

I am a Somali scholar in the field of Somali Studies and African Studies, specialising in anthropology, history, and the politics of Somali society and state(s). I am recognised as an authority and expert on the historical and contemporary Somali conflicts in the Diaspora and back home. I am a Research Fellow at the Conflict Research Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where I am tasked to study the political economy of Mogadishu. I am also a visiting professor at the African Leadership Centre, King’s College London, where I deliver lectures about the genesis of the Cold War in the Horn of Africa and the Civil War in Somalia. 


I wrote...

The Suicidal State in Somalia: The Rise and Fall of the Siad Barre Regime, 1969-1991

By Mohamed Haji Ingiriis,

Book cover of The Suicidal State in Somalia: The Rise and Fall of the Siad Barre Regime, 1969-1991

What is my book about?

My book is a critical reposition of the study of military regimes in Africa. It documents and delves deeper into the reign and rule of General Mohamed Siad Barre regime in Somalia which ruled between 1969 and 1991. The book puts emphasis on African agencies evidently shaped by external beneficiaries and patrons over what went wrong with Africa after the much-awaited post-colonial momentum. It does so by critically engaging with the wider theoretical and conceptual frameworks in African Studies which more often than not tend to attribute the post-colonial African State raptures to colonialism and ‘late colonialism’.

Unparalleled in-depth and analysis, this book is the first full-length scholarly study of the Siad Barre regime systematically explaining the politics and process of the dictatorial rule. The historicity of exploring Somali State trajectory entails employing a Braudelian longue duree approach.

King Leopold's Ghost

By Adam Hochschild,

Book cover of King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

To be honest I could have picked any Adam Hochschild book. To End All Wars undoubtedly shaped the storytelling of my book. But King Leopold’s Ghost was my first and the most memorable encounter with his work. Not only is Hochschild a master of narrative nonfiction; he weaves the most amazing stories through real-life characters in ways that many novelists would envy. Yes, the topic of this book is heavy. Yes, this is an important history that strikes at the heart of colonialism and rapacious empire. Yet just as important is Hochschild’s approach to telling that history, his awareness of audience, of plot and prose. If you want to learn how to write an engaging narrative-driven account of the past, read this book.

Who am I?

As a reader, I want to be thrown into the heady world of revolution, to learn how everyday people made history, to see what they saw and feel what they felt. And I want a book that challenges mainstream narratives of the past. Radical history does this through gripping storytelling and revealing hidden histories of power. As a writer that tries to shine a light on lesser-known aspects of New Zealand’s past, these five books are both my ‘how-to’ and inspiration. I love to share the stories of people who are often left out of history but nonetheless made it. And being an archivist means questions of power and memory are always lurking.


I wrote...

Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920

By Jared Davidson,

Book cover of Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920

What is my book about?

In his excellent book, Dead Letters, archivist, and historian Jared Davidson introduces us to a range of extraordinary characters whose stories and struggles challenge the nationalist narratives of the war. These historical characters, as introduced in the blurb of the book, include ‘a feisty German-born socialist, a Norwegian watersider, an affectionate Irish nationalist, a love-struck miner, an aspiring Maxim Gorky, a cross-dressing doctor, a nameless rural labourer, an avid letter writer with a hatred of war, and two mystical dairy farmers with a poetic bent.’ What connects this cast of characters is that their activities, their letters, and in some cases their activism against the war, was of interest to the New Zealand state. The letters they wrote, to loved ones, friends, and comrades, were never delivered, but were intercepted by the state. 

1946

By Victor Sebestyen,

Book cover of 1946: The Making of the Modern World

The year 1946 marked a turning point in world affairs: the Cold War began, the state of Israel was conceived and the independence of India was all but decided upon. It was also the year in which the Chinese Communists gained the upper hand in their fight for power.

Historian and foreign correspondent, Victor Sebestyen, draws on contemporary archival documents to analyse the behind-the-scenes political decision-making. His book is particularly interesting for its wide-reach: the book covers London, Paris, Berlin, and the Soviet Union, as well as the US, Israel, India, and China.


Who am I?

Giles Milton is the internationally bestselling author of twelve works of narrative history. His most recent book is Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern World. His previous work, Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, is currently being developed into a major TV series. Milton’s works—published in twenty-five languages—include Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, serialized by the BBC. He lives in London and Burgundy.


I wrote...

Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern World

By Giles Milton,

Book cover of Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern World

What is my book about?

The lively, immersive story of the race to seize Berlin in the aftermath of World War II that fired the starting gun for the Cold War. Berlin's fate was sealed at the 1945 Yalta Conference: the city, along with the rest of Germany, was to be carved up between the victorious powers--American, British, French, and Soviet. On paper, it seemed a pragmatic solution. In reality, now that the four powers were no longer united by the common purpose of defeating Germany, they wasted little time reverting to their pre-war hostility toward and suspicion of each other. The veneer of civility between Allies and Soviets was to break down in spectacular fashion. Rival systems, rival ideologies, and rival personalities ensured that Berlin became an explosive battleground.

Prisoners of Geography, 1

By Tim Marshall,

Book cover of Prisoners of Geography, 1: Ten Maps That Explain Everything about the World

Tim Marshall has had a long and illustrious career in journalism as a foreign correspondent and Prisoners of Geography absolutely sparkles with his fascinating insights and clarity of thought. How have the development and fate of modern nations been defined by their locale? This is Big History lapping right up to the newspaper headlines of today.


Who am I?

I’m a science researcher and writer living in London. My research field is astrobiology and the possibility of life on other planets – it brings together lots of different areas of science with engineering and space exploration and so is deeply ‘interdisciplinary’. And as a science writer, I try to bring this same broad perspective and unifying approach to other profound questions. My fascination with understanding our own origins was sparked by my childhood growing up in East Africa, the cradle of humanity. In Origins I explored different ways that planet Earth has influenced our human story across the millennia - it’s an example of ‘Big History’.


I wrote...

Origins: How Earth's History Shaped Human History

By Lewis Dartnell,

Book cover of Origins: How Earth's History Shaped Human History

What is my book about?

When we talk about human history, we often focus on great leaders, revolutions, and technological advances. But how has the Earth itself determined our destiny? How has our planet made us? Geological forces drove our evolution in East Africa; mountainous terrain led to the development of democracy in Greece; and today voting behaviour in the United States follows the bed of an ancient sea. The human story is the story of these forces, from plate tectonics and climate change, to atmospheric circulation and ocean currents.

Explore through millennia of human history, and billions of years into our planet’s past, to see the vast web of connections that underwrites our modern world - the ultimate origin story.

The Invention of Somalia

By Ali Jimale Ahmed (editor),

Book cover of The Invention of Somalia

This groundbreaking and pioneering book was the best book ever written on Somalia. It was indeed an eye-opener for me during my early years of academia. It dramatically changed how I would think of Somali studies. I still recall vividly to this day how I became enchanted with how authors, most of whom were Somalis, had critically challenged previous anthropological and historical scholarship on Somalia, pompously written at the time by Eurocentrists. As soon as I finished reading the book, I began to follow in the footsteps of scholars like Professor Ali Jimale Ahmed.


Who am I?

I am a Somali scholar in the field of Somali Studies and African Studies, specialising in anthropology, history, and the politics of Somali society and state(s). I am recognised as an authority and expert on the historical and contemporary Somali conflicts in the Diaspora and back home. I am a Research Fellow at the Conflict Research Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where I am tasked to study the political economy of Mogadishu. I am also a visiting professor at the African Leadership Centre, King’s College London, where I deliver lectures about the genesis of the Cold War in the Horn of Africa and the Civil War in Somalia. 


I wrote...

The Suicidal State in Somalia: The Rise and Fall of the Siad Barre Regime, 1969-1991

By Mohamed Haji Ingiriis,

Book cover of The Suicidal State in Somalia: The Rise and Fall of the Siad Barre Regime, 1969-1991

What is my book about?

My book is a critical reposition of the study of military regimes in Africa. It documents and delves deeper into the reign and rule of General Mohamed Siad Barre regime in Somalia which ruled between 1969 and 1991. The book puts emphasis on African agencies evidently shaped by external beneficiaries and patrons over what went wrong with Africa after the much-awaited post-colonial momentum. It does so by critically engaging with the wider theoretical and conceptual frameworks in African Studies which more often than not tend to attribute the post-colonial African State raptures to colonialism and ‘late colonialism’.

Unparalleled in-depth and analysis, this book is the first full-length scholarly study of the Siad Barre regime systematically explaining the politics and process of the dictatorial rule. The historicity of exploring Somali State trajectory entails employing a Braudelian longue duree approach.

The Precipice

By Toby Ord,

Book cover of The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity

The central metaphor of the book is that humanity stands at a precipice. With new technology, we are rapidly gaining the ability to destroy ourselves, and the threat of an existential catastrophe looms large over our generation. But, if we get things right, we might be able to enjoy a long and flourishing future. 

Toby’s book is the best resource we know of on what you need to know about these risks, and how you could have a high positive impact by working to prevent them.


Who are we?

We’re a nonprofit that aims to help people have a positive social impact with their careers. Since you have, on average, 80,000 hours in your career, what you decide to do with that time might be your biggest opportunity to make a difference. Over the past ten years, we’ve conducted careful research into high-impact careers, and have helped thousands of people plan a career that has a high positive impact. 


We wrote...

80,000 Hours: Find a Fulfilling Career That Does Good

By Benjamin Todd,

Book cover of 80,000 Hours: Find a Fulfilling Career That Does Good

What is our book about?

Based on years of research alongside academics at Oxford, this book aims to help you find a career you enjoy, you’re good at, and that tackles the world’s most pressing problems. 

Our book is full of practical knowledge and tools to help you plan a career that's fulfilling and does good, including: what makes for a dream job, and why “follow your passion” can be misleading; how to set yourself up for success at every stage of your career; how to compare global problems in terms of their scale and urgency; and when to challenge the conventional wisdom to achieve maximum impact.

Get a free paperback copy on the 80,000 Hours website here. 

Arms and Influence

By Thomas C. Schelling,

Book cover of Arms and Influence: With a New Preface and Afterword

In the whole of military history, no year was more important than 1945. Why? Because it introduced nuclear weapons to the world and the world to nuclear weapons. Both before and after Hiroshima new weapons have always affected the way war is waged; whereas nuclear ones, by threatening to turn even the “victor” into a radioactive desert, have cast doubt on the purpose for which may be waged and even whether it can be waged at all. 

As the current war in Ukraine has shown once again, provided both sides have a credible second-strike capability using nuclear weapons to win a war is impossible. So what can they be used for and how? Proceeding step by step Schelling, a Nobel-Prize winning professor of game theory, provides the answers in ways that not only have not been improved upon since the book was published in 1965 but are easy to understand…


Who am I?

As a professor emeritus of history at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, over the years I’ve been widely mentioned as one of the world’s foremost experts on military theory and history. On these and other topics I have written 34 books, which between them have been published in 19 languages. I’ve also consulted with defense departments, taught and lectured all over the world, etc., etc.


I wrote...

The Privileged Sex

By Martin Van Creveld,

Book cover of The Privileged Sex

What is my book about?

As I said, I’ve written about many topics besides military history. My favorite is The Privileged Sex (2013, German, Dutch and Portuguese translations available). Ranging far and wide over history, in it I show that for every disadvantage under which women have labored, they have enjoyed a privilege that is theirs alone. Starting in ancient Egypt, where men but not women were commanded to “fill the bellies and clothe the backs” of their spouses, and ending today when women, but not men, are allowed to leave Ukraine. So controversial is the book that, simply for quoting from it, people have been fired! To decide for yourself, buy it, read it, and review it.

Empires in World History

By Jane Burbank, Frederick Cooper,

Book cover of Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference

Empires or nation-states? Which do you prefer? Most of us have assumed that the endpoint in world history is the nation-state. Empires are somehow relics of the past, you know, ‘bad’ things associated with the Europeans in the 19th century or only something the Americans would dare to do today. In this tour de force, Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper demolish this idea by showing us that empires have always been and are still a part of our world. Burbank and Cooper don’t start their story in ‘1492’ with the usual European suspects; they open with the Romans and the Chinese in the 3nd century BC and then move forward to the present. It’s an eye-opening read as the authors invite us to think of what makes empires tick, whether then or now, in Europe, Asia, the Middle East or the Americas. One can disagree with their argument…


Who am I?

Christopher Goscha first fell in love with world history while reading Fernand Braudel's La Méditerranée in graduate school in France and doing research for his PhD in Southeast Asia. He is currently a professor of international relations at the Université du Québec à Montréal where he teaches world history and publishes on the wars for Vietnam in a global context. He does this most recently in his forthcoming book entitled The Road to Dien Bien Phu: A History of the First Vietnam War.

I wrote...

The Road to Dien Bien Phu: A History of the First War for Vietnam

By Christopher Goscha,

Book cover of The Road to Dien Bien Phu: A History of the First War for Vietnam

What is my book about?

On May 7, 1954, when the bullets stopped and the air stilled in Dien Bien Phu, there was no doubt that Vietnam could fight a mighty colonial power and win. After nearly a decade of struggle, a nation forged in the crucible of war had achieved a victory undreamed of by any other national liberation movement. The Road to Dien Bien Phu tells the story of how Ho Chi Minh turned a ragtag guerilla army into a modern fighting force capable of bringing down the formidable French army.

Panoramic in scope, The Road to Dien Bien Phu transforms our understanding of this conflict and the one the United States would later enter, and sheds new light on communist warfare and statecraft in East Asia today.

Stamped from the Beginning

By Ibram X. Kendi,

Book cover of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

Kendi’s book is the most recent in a long line of fantastic scholars who have tackled discussions of racism in America, especially anti-Black racism. Kendi focuses specifically on racist ideas, and how those ideas were created and then used to rationalize policies and inequalities for generations. The book is a New York Times Bestseller for a reason: it is accessible, has important ideas that are well-supported, and the reader doesn’t get lost in a history that covers a wide span of time.


Who are we?

Paul Spickard wrote the first edition of Almost All Aliens. He invited Francisco Beltrán and Laura Hooton, who worked under Dr. Spickard at UC Santa Barbara, to co-author the second edition after working as research assistants and providing suggestions for the second edition. We are all historians of race, ethnicity, immigration, colonialism, and identity, and in our other works and teaching we each think about these topics in different ways. We did the same for this list—this is a list of five books that talk about topics that are important to Almost All Aliens and approaches that have been influential in how we think about the topic.  


We wrote...

Almost All Aliens: Immigration, Race, and Colonialism in American History and Identity

By Paul Spickard, Francisco Beltrán, and Laura Hooton,

Book cover of Almost All Aliens: Immigration, Race, and Colonialism in American History and Identity

What is our book about?

Almost All Aliens discusses ethnic identity and race from 1600 to the first two decades of the twenty-first century. The focus is on how immigration in the United States is and was multicultural, racialized, and deeply rooted in colonialism. Moving away from the European migrant-centered melting-pot model of immigrant assimilation, the book examines the lives of those who crossed the Atlantic, Pacific, Caribbean, and North American Borderlands, and their experiences navigating different racial and ethnic structures in the United States. 

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