The best books about colonies

25 authors have picked their favorite books about colonies and why they recommend each book.

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Conquerors

By Roger Crowley,

Book cover of Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire

Crowley employs all of his storytelling skill to recreate the saga of the Portuguese eruption into the Indian Ocean to form the first East-West seaborne empire. British exploits in Asia are better known among English-language readers, but it was tiny Portugal that launched the era of European imperialism in Asia, and this book packs in the imperious characters and their intrepid (and violent) deeds that reshaped the world.


Who am I?

Michael Schuman is the author of three history books on Asia, most recently Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World, released in 2020. He has spent the past quarter-century as a journalist in the region. Formerly a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and Time magazine, he is currently a contributor to The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.


I wrote...

Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World

By Michael Schuman,

Book cover of Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World

What is my book about?

We in the West routinely ask: "What does China want?" The answer is quite simple: the superpower status it always had but briefly lost. In this colorful, informative story filled with fascinating characters, epic battles, influential thinkers, and decisive moments, we come to understand how the Chinese view their own history and how its narrative is distinctly different from that of Western civilization. More importantly, we come to see how this unique Chinese history of the world shapes China's economic policy, attitude toward the United States and the rest of the world, relations with its neighbors, positions on democracy and human rights, and notions of good government.

Dance on the Volcano

By Marie Vieux-Chauvet,

Book cover of Dance on the Volcano

Chauvet is another of the all-time great Haitian novelist, best known for her Amour, Colère, Folie, which depicted the horrors of the Duvalier regime--- obliquely and somewhat allegorically, but sharply enough that the book was banned and most copies destroyed—it did not become generally available until after the author’s death. La Danse sur le Volcan, a historical novel, is equally powerful and gives a wonderfully complete and complex view of all the complications of race, class, and culture that existed in Haiti while still a French sugar colony, on the eve of Revolution.


Who am I?

I was drawn to Haiti for two reasons; the Haitian Revolution is the only one of the three 18th century upheavals to fulfill the declared ideology of the French and American Revolutions by extending basic human rights to all people, not just white people. Secondly, or maybe I should put it first, the practice of Vodou makes Haiti one of the few places where one can meet divinity in the flesh, an experience I coveted, although (as it is written) it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.


I wrote...

Master of the Crossroads

By Madison Smartt Bell,

Book cover of Master of the Crossroads

What is my book about?

Continuing his epic trilogy of the Haitian slave uprising, Madison Smartt Bell's Master of the Crossroads delivers a stunning portrayal of Toussaint Louverture, former slave, military genius, and liberator of Haiti, and his struggle against the great European powers to free his people in the only successful slave revolution in history. At the outset, Toussaint is a second-tier general in the Spanish army, which is supporting the rebel slaves' fight against the French. But when Toussaint is betrayed by his former allies and the commanders of the Spanish army, he reunites his army with the French, wresting vital territories and manpower from Spanish control. With his army one among several factions, Toussaint eventually rises as the ultimate victor as he wards off his enemies to take control of the French colony and establish a new constitution. Bell's grand, multifaceted novel shows a nation, splintered by actions and in the throes of chaos, carried to liberation and justice through the undaunted tenacity of one incredible visionary.

Empires of the Atlantic World

By J.H. Elliott,

Book cover of Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830

This is and will remain the example of historical research made by one of the leading authorities in the field of Atlantic history. Elliott’s book set the agenda by investigating and assessing the complex array of causes and consequences which brought England and Spain to have an ever-lasting cultural, economic, political, and religious influence on the history of North America and Latin America. 


Who am I?

This is and will remain the example of historical research made by one of the leading authorities in the field of Atlantic history. Elliott’s book set the agenda by investigating and assessing the complex array of causes and consequences which brought England and Spain to have an ever-lasting cultural, economic, political, and religious influence on the history of North America and Latin America.  


I wrote...

Making, Breaking and Remaking the Irish Missionary Network: Ireland, Rome and the West Indies in the Seventeenth Century

By Matteo Binasco,

Book cover of Making, Breaking and Remaking the Irish Missionary Network: Ireland, Rome and the West Indies in the Seventeenth Century

What is my book about?

This book is the first to document the links which were developed between the Irish clerical community in Rome, Ireland, and the Irish migrants in the West Indies. Binasco vividly reconstructs the key figures, the perils, the efforts, and the pitfalls to connect the epicenter of global Catholicism with the far and troubled Ireland and West Indies of the seventeenth century. 

Empires in World History

By Frederick Cooper, Jane Burbank,

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.


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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.

A Great and Noble Scheme

By John Mack Faragher,

Book cover of A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland

Faragher’s book created quite a stir when it came out in 2005, especially among Acadians. For here was an author who had no Acadian roots who saw the tragedy of the Acadian Deportation from the perspective of their ancestors. The history recounted in the book provides rich details on how and why in 1755 troops from New England sought to carry out their "great and noble scheme" of expelling 18,000 French-speaking Acadians ("the neutral French") from Nova Scotia. The removals would last eight years with thousands of Acadians forcibly relocated, a large number died, families often separated, and others going into hiding in forests. Faragher tells the story with a strong, highly readable narrative.


Who am I?

I have no French or Acadian ancestors—as far as I know—yet the majority of my 21 books (history and fiction) explore different aspects of French colonial or Acadian history. Childhood visits to historic sites like the Port-Royal Habitation, Grand-Pré, Louisbourg and Fort Anne must have planted the seeds for the historian and writer I would become. Then again, working for years as an historian at the Fortress of Louisbourg definitely helped. France made me a chevalier of its Ordre des Palmes académiques for my body of work.


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The Hat

By A.J.B. Johnston,

Book cover of The Hat

What is my book about?

The Hat presents the story of the 1755 Acadian Deportation from Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia, in a fresh, 21st-century way. Readers are not told—until the Afterword— where and when the action is taking place, nor by whom or to whom. Everything that happens is seen through the eyes of two central characters, 14-year-old Marie and 10-year-old Charles. The sister and brother show determination and perseverance as they deal with an incredibly difficult situation. Though based on a tragedy, the story is uplifting and inspiring. In the Afterword, readers discover the historical details behind the story they have just read.

Blood and Diamonds

By Steven Press,

Book cover of Blood and Diamonds: Germany's Imperial Ambitions in Africa

A brand-new gripping, revealing history of German colonialism, focused on the brutal diamond trade in Southwest Africa on the eve of World War I. With pellucid prose, Press tells how the Germans cordoned off a so-called “forbidden zone,” behind which rapacious explorers, colonial authorities, miners, and businessmen carted off these precious, if largely useless rocks, for which there was a huge, artificially created demand, especially in the United States.


Who am I?

I am a historian of modern Germany at Vanderbilt University and have followed this field for more than thirty years. After a bit of respite, interest in Imperial Germany is suddenly chic again, as 2021 Germany looks back on the past 150 years of its unification in 1871. These five books, all published since 2000, are major recent contributions to the history of Imperial Germany’s prewar period; they also raise questions about the extent to which this conflict-ridden era represents a distant if imperfect mirror for our own contentious times.


I wrote...

Germany: A Nation in Its Time: Before, During, and After Nationalism, 1500-2000

By Helmut Walser Smith,

Book cover of Germany: A Nation in Its Time: Before, During, and After Nationalism, 1500-2000

What is my book about?

With a wide array of sources, including oodles of maps and images, this book shows how the idea of the German nation developed and changed over half a millennium. Modern nationalism was a major, if extremely destructive part of the story of the German nation. But it was not the whole story. In Germany, as in other countries, nationalism was always only one possible way of imagining the nation.

The Wretched of the Earth

By Frantz Fanon,

Book cover of The Wretched of the Earth

This book develops the revolutionary African socialist humanism of Frantz Fanon, who was influenced by Hegel, Sartre, the Negritude School, and above all, Marx. Published in 1961, the year so many new nations were being born in Africa, Fanon’s book did not dismiss tout court the European humanist tradition. He said that the Europeans had not practiced it – whether under Nazism or in the colonies – but predicted that the emerging Third World would be able to do so: “This new humanity cannot do otherwise than define a new humanism both for itself and for others.” This was, to be sure, a humanism drawing from European revolutionary and democratic traditions, but at the same time it was a “new humanism.” As a theoretician of the newly forming Third World, Fanon also distanced himself from the Soviet bloc and its authoritarian and dehumanizing form of industrial “development,” not only mentioning…

Who am I?

All of the books I recommend offer both a very deep reading of our socio-economic situation in all its oppressiveness and alienation, and the possibility of an alternative. Only with such philosophical digging and reappropriation of dialectical thinkers of the past, beginning with Hegel and Marx, can we construct a humanist future. These books speak to my own life as a 1960s activist in the USA who has yearned ever since for a real, humanist social transformation in the face of so many setbacks for our cause, some of them self-inflicted.


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Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism: A Critical Study

By Kevin B. Anderson,

Book cover of Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism: A Critical Study

What is my book about?

Still, the only full-length study of the achievements and limitations of Lenin's extensive writings on Hegel, Hegel, Lenin, and Western Marxism has become a minor classic. In a full critical account, Anderson's book connects Lenin's 'dialectics' to his renowned writings on imperialism, anti-colonial movements, and the state. It takes up as well the debate over Lenin's writings on Hegel among Marxists such as Georg Lukács, Henri Lefebvre, C.L.R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Lucio Colletti, and Louis Althusser. With a comprehensive new introduction by the author.

Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570-1640

By David Wheat,

Book cover of Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570-1640

David Wheat integrates Africa and Africans into the history of the Spanish Caribbean. Before I read this book, I knew that the Spanish relied more on native laborers than on Africans initially, and that their policies limited migration from Spain to Castilians of Roman Catholic heritage. Yet Wheat reveals how diverse and complex the early Spanish islands became, with Spanish from other regions not to mention Portuguese, Africans, and conversos (Catholics of Jewish heritage) intermixed with the approved migrants and the long-time indigenous residents.


Who am I?

I am a historian of the early English Atlantic who began studying New England but soon turned to the Atlantic more generally and the Caribbean in particular. All the aspects of 17th century Atlantic history that most intrigue me played out in the Caribbean. A fascinating and complicated place, the West Indies—although claimed by the Spanish as their exclusive purview—became diverse, witness to a variety of interactions. I’m particularly interested in works that allow us to see these changes in the period when the region was a global meeting place undergoing vast shifts. Much excellent scholarship explores the later era of sugar and slaves, of major imperial wars, of movements for independence and emancipation. What interests me most is the period before that, when the region was being transformed into a crucible of global transformation.


I wrote...

English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell's Bid for Empire

By Carla Gardina Pestana,

Book cover of English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell's Bid for Empire

What is my book about?

In 1655, England attempted to conquer Spanish America. Believing that Spain was weak and that the African and Native residents of its American lands longed to be liberated from Spanish oppression, the English expected to conquer vast lands. They failed in this ambitious agenda for many reasons, not the least because of the unrealistic nature of their expectations.

This book chronicles those expectations, the preparations that went into the campaign, its humiliating failure on the poorly defended island of Hispaniola, and its limited but nonetheless significant results. Jamaica, taken as a place where the demoralized and sickly force could regroup, proved difficult to conquer; it was five years before the Spanish residents ended their resistance to the English invasion. Despite an inauspicious beginning, Jamaica emerged as Britain’s most valuable colony. 

American Baroque

By Molly A. Warsh,

Book cover of American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700

Molly Warsh’s American Baroque perhaps best captures my point about the Caribbean as a global space. The book follows pearls harvested off the coast of Venezuela from the beds that produced them, through the enslaved divers who harvested them, the imperial officials who taxed them, the merchants who traded them, all the way to the consumers who valued them. It is a commodity history—a sort of history that often features the Caribbean region prominently—while at the same time offering a rich evocation of the many cultural aspects of the pearl’s role. Laborers who secreted pearls on their person to gain some of the wealth they produced and artisans who created lavish objects featuring pearls are as important to this account as the wealthy and powerful who displayed them in portraits of this era. 


Who am I?

I am a historian of the early English Atlantic who began studying New England but soon turned to the Atlantic more generally and the Caribbean in particular. All the aspects of 17th century Atlantic history that most intrigue me played out in the Caribbean. A fascinating and complicated place, the West Indies—although claimed by the Spanish as their exclusive purview—became diverse, witness to a variety of interactions. I’m particularly interested in works that allow us to see these changes in the period when the region was a global meeting place undergoing vast shifts. Much excellent scholarship explores the later era of sugar and slaves, of major imperial wars, of movements for independence and emancipation. What interests me most is the period before that, when the region was being transformed into a crucible of global transformation.


I wrote...

English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell's Bid for Empire

By Carla Gardina Pestana,

Book cover of English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell's Bid for Empire

What is my book about?

In 1655, England attempted to conquer Spanish America. Believing that Spain was weak and that the African and Native residents of its American lands longed to be liberated from Spanish oppression, the English expected to conquer vast lands. They failed in this ambitious agenda for many reasons, not the least because of the unrealistic nature of their expectations.

This book chronicles those expectations, the preparations that went into the campaign, its humiliating failure on the poorly defended island of Hispaniola, and its limited but nonetheless significant results. Jamaica, taken as a place where the demoralized and sickly force could regroup, proved difficult to conquer; it was five years before the Spanish residents ended their resistance to the English invasion. Despite an inauspicious beginning, Jamaica emerged as Britain’s most valuable colony. 

Cannibal Encounters

By Philip P. Boucher,

Book cover of Cannibal Encounters: Europeans and Island Caribs, 1492-1763

Boucher contributes to our understanding of two aspects of Caribbean history, the activities of French colonizers and the history of the Carib (or Kalinago) native peoples of the eastern Caribbean. Although Cannibal Encounters addresses imperial policies and warfare (in line with an older scholarship), it also reveals the importance of the indigenous peoples to the early interactions in the Caribbean basin. In particular, the rivalries between the French and the English played out in the context of confrontations, alliances, and betrayals involving the Kalinago.


Who am I?

I am a historian of the early English Atlantic who began studying New England but soon turned to the Atlantic more generally and the Caribbean in particular. All the aspects of 17th century Atlantic history that most intrigue me played out in the Caribbean. A fascinating and complicated place, the West Indies—although claimed by the Spanish as their exclusive purview—became diverse, witness to a variety of interactions. I’m particularly interested in works that allow us to see these changes in the period when the region was a global meeting place undergoing vast shifts. Much excellent scholarship explores the later era of sugar and slaves, of major imperial wars, of movements for independence and emancipation. What interests me most is the period before that, when the region was being transformed into a crucible of global transformation.


I wrote...

English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell's Bid for Empire

By Carla Gardina Pestana,

Book cover of English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell's Bid for Empire

What is my book about?

In 1655, England attempted to conquer Spanish America. Believing that Spain was weak and that the African and Native residents of its American lands longed to be liberated from Spanish oppression, the English expected to conquer vast lands. They failed in this ambitious agenda for many reasons, not the least because of the unrealistic nature of their expectations.

This book chronicles those expectations, the preparations that went into the campaign, its humiliating failure on the poorly defended island of Hispaniola, and its limited but nonetheless significant results. Jamaica, taken as a place where the demoralized and sickly force could regroup, proved difficult to conquer; it was five years before the Spanish residents ended their resistance to the English invasion. Despite an inauspicious beginning, Jamaica emerged as Britain’s most valuable colony. 

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