The best books on imperialism

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

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Western Women and Imperialism

By Nupur Chaudhuri (editor), Margaret Strobel (editor),

Book cover of Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance

A collection of very short but incredibly interesting and illuminating essays, this book inaugurated the field of study we might call “feminism and empire.” Strobel and Chaudhuri gathered up the most important histories written to that date that explained how nineteenth and twentieth-century feminism emerged from colonialist contexts all over the world. Asking the question “what difference does gender make?” each author teases out the importance of gender for colonial travel and politics in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Reading this book made me want to contribute to that kind of historical understanding of gender, modeling for me what an “intersectional feminist” method of historical investigation might look like.

Who am I?

As a historian of feminism, I have been trying for decades to understand how gender, race, class, and nationality are knotted together in ways that are not always obvious or trackable in our personal experience. The books I recommend here have served as brilliant lanterns for me—not simply pointing out the flawed history of western feminism but instead explaining the complicated effects of whiteness and imperialism in the development of today’s feminist identities, ideologies, and consciousness. For me, these histories offer intersectional keys decoding the map of the world we’ve been dropped into and offering a path leading to a more justly feminist future….I hope they do for you too!


I wrote...

White Queen: May French-Sheldon and the Imperial Origins of American Feminist Identity

By Tracey Jean Boisseau,

Book cover of White Queen: May French-Sheldon and the Imperial Origins of American Feminist Identity

What is my book about?

“White Queen" is what an unusual and fascinating woman named May French-Sheldon (1847-1936) called herself, or claimed that the Africans she met, during her 1891 expedition to the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, called her. Her explorer’s outfit—including a full-length, jewel-encrusted, white ballgown, tiara, and waist-length blonde wig—ensured her whiteness would be inextricably linked to what she hoped would be read as “queenliness.” “White Queen” also describes a kind of white, Western, feminist figure whose claims to power, importance, and personal emancipation rely heavily upon and perpetuate a world structured by racism and colonialism.

This book zooms in on the fascinating life and public career of the first woman explorer of Africa to explicate how white American feminist identity—first forged in the fires of colonial conquest—became reliant on tropes of race in ways that still yoke American feminism to the politics of empire.

A Thirst for Empire

By Erika Rappaport,

Book cover of A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

There is no shortage of great books on the history of tea, but this one is my favorite because it is a global history of how a commodity, rather than a people, conquered the world. Carefully researched and engagingly written, the book begins its story in the seventeenth century, when China controlled the trade and Europe was a distant secondary market. The book then moves through tea's history—from exclusively Asian drink to staple at the heart of English identity—and the consequences for the planet and human history.


Who am I?

I am a Professor of History at Texas A&M University and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.  I teach and research broadly in the histories of Britain and its empire, North America, and the Atlantic world. I am the author of four books, including Making Headlines: The American Revolution as Seen through the British Press and The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812. I am especially fascinated with how imperialism shape colonizers’ cultures.


I wrote...

Eating the Empire: Food and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain

By Troy Bickham,

Book cover of Eating the Empire: Food and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain

What is my book about?

When students gathered in a London coffeehouse and smoked tobacco; when Yorkshire women sipped sugar-infused tea; or when a Glasgow family ate a bowl of Indian curry, were they aware of the mechanisms of imperial rule and trade that made such goods readily available?

In Eating the Empire, Troy Bickham unfolds the extraordinary role that food played in shaping Britain during the long eighteenth century (circa 1660–1837), when such foreign goods as coffee, tea, and sugar went from rare luxuries to some of the most ubiquitous commodities in Britain—reaching even the poorest and remotest of households. Bickham reveals how trade in the empire’s edibles underpinned the emerging consumer economy, fomenting the rise of modern retailing, visual advertising, and consumer credit, and, via taxes, financed the military and civil bureaucracy that secured, governed, and spread the British Empire.

The Nutmeg's Curse

By Amitav Ghosh,

Book cover of The Nutmeg's Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis

Amitav Ghosh is an outstanding novelist who has now written two great books about global environmental change. His previous work, The Great Derangement, looks at the relationship between colonialism, the humanities, and the climate crisis. Now, The Nutmeg’s Curse expands that exploration provides more detail and depth, and covers the historical era of European expansion, paying close attention to how that process irrevocably and dangerously changed how we perceive the natural world. In so doing, Ghosh covers some of the most pertinent issues of contemporary environmental learning—race, equity, diversity, inclusion, and migration.

If you want to gain deeper insight into our current environmental challenges from a cultural perspective, this book will reward that interest. Hopefully, too, it will give you insight into your own behaviors and cultural predispositions. 


Who am I?

I’ve been engaged in the environmental field for fifty years as an educator, a professor, a university president, and as a concerned citizen. The field is dynamic, complex, inspiring, and often overwhelming. All of my writing and teaching emphasizes empowering readers and students alike to use the depth of their experience to gather insight, wisdom, and agency. I want readers to actively think about their relationship to the biosphere, the contributions they can make as environmental citizens, and the inspiration they can cultivate at home or in the workplace. 


I wrote...

To Know the World: A New Vision for Environmental Learning

By Mitchell Thomashow,

Book cover of To Know the World: A New Vision for Environmental Learning

What is my book about?

How can we respond to the current planetary ecological emergency? In To Know the World, I propose that we revitalize, revisit, and reinvigorate how we think about our residency on Earth. First, we must understand that the major challenges of our time—migration, race, inequity, climate justice, and democracy—connect to the biosphere. Traditional environmental education has accomplished much, but it has not been able to stem the inexorable decline of global ecosystems. I use the term environmental learning to signify that our relationship to the biosphere must be front and center in all aspects of our daily lives.

Mixing memoir, theory, mindfulness, pedagogy, and compelling storytelling, I discuss how to navigate the Anthropocene's rapid pace of change without further separating psyche from biosphere; why we should understand migration both ecologically and culturally; how to achieve constructive connectivity in both social and ecological networks; and why we should take a cosmopolitan bioregionalism perspective that unites local and global.

The Embarrassment of Slavery

By Michael Salman,

Book cover of The Embarrassment of Slavery: Controversies Over Bondage and Nationalism in the American Colonial Philippines

Salman shows how the anti-slavery discourse became part of American imperialism and how contentious this issue became during US colonial administration over the Philippines. While the American administration acted with growing determination and harshness against slave-holding societies particularly in the Muslim southern part of the Philippines, it also adopted abolitionism as a legitimation for colonial rule over the entire Philippines. Salman exposes the paradoxes of imperialist rhetoric in which people were subjugated to free them from slavery. 


Who am I?

I find it crucially important that we acknowledge that slavery is a global phenomenon that still exists this very day. Dutch historians like me have an obligation to show that the Dutch East India Company, called the world’s first multinational, was a major slave trader and employer of slavery. I am also personally involved in this endeavour as I am one of the leaders of the “Exploring the Slave Trade in Asia” project, an international consortium that brings together knowledge on this subject, and is currently a slave trade in Asia database.


I wrote...

The Making of a Periphery: How Island Southeast Asia Became a Mass Exporter of Labor

By Ulbe Bosma,

Book cover of The Making of a Periphery: How Island Southeast Asia Became a Mass Exporter of Labor

What is my book about?

Island Southeast Asia was once a thriving region, and its products found eager consumers from China to Europe. Today, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia are primarily exporters of their surplus of cheap labor, with more than ten million emigrants from the region working all over the world. How did a prosperous region become a peripheral one?

In The Making of a Periphery, Ulbe Bosma draws on new archival sources from the colonial period to the present to demonstrate how high demographic growth and a long history of bonded labor relegated Southeast Asia to the margins of the global economy. Bosma finds that the intensifying colonial presence in the region during the early nineteenth century led to improved health care and longer life spans as the Spanish and Dutch colonial governments began to vaccinate their subjects against smallpox. The resulting abundance of workers ushered in extensive migration toward emerging labor-intensive plantation and mining belts. 

Origins of Totalitarianism

By Hannah Arendt,

Book cover of Origins of Totalitarianism

Arendt’s three-part masterwork had the same US editor as 1984 and can be read as the non-fiction equivalent. While scholars have subsequently questioned aspects of her grand theory of totalitarianism, much of it holds up. Her commanding, aphoristic prose has made this one of the most widely quoted books of recent years, especially on the subject of power creating its own alternate reality: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time… think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.”


Who am I?

In The Ministry of Truth, I wanted to bring together two longstanding interests: dystopian fiction and the history of totalitarianism. Nineteen Eighty-Four is of course a landmark work in both categories. In trying to explain how and why Orwell came to write his masterpiece, and its subsequent influence on fiction and political thought, I read a huge range of books that wrestled with the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism and asked how they were able to hold sway, physically and mentally, over tens of millions of people. Many of them are gripping and valuable but these five in particular make for great companions to 1984.


I wrote...

The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984

By Dorian Lynskey,

Book cover of The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984

What is my book about?

1984 isn't just a novel; it's a key to understanding the modern world. George Orwell's final work is a treasure chest of ideas and memes - Big Brother, the Thought Police, Doublethink, Newspeak, 2+2=5 - that gain potency with every year. Particularly in 2016, when the election of Donald Trump made it a bestseller. Its influence has morphed endlessly into novels (The Handmaid's Tale), films (Brazil), television shows (V for Vendetta), rock albums (Diamond Dogs), commercials (Apple), even reality TV (Big Brother). 

The Ministry of Truth is the first book that fully examines the epochal and cultural event that is 1984 in all its aspects: its roots in the utopian and dystopian literature that preceded it; the personal experiences in wartime Great Britain that Orwell drew on as he struggled to finish his masterpiece in his dying days; and the political and cultural phenomena that the novel ignited at once upon publication and that far from subsiding, have only grown over the decades.

The First English Empire

By R.R. Davies,

Book cover of The First English Empire: Power and Identities in the British Isles 1093-1343

When I arrived in Oxford in 1998 to begin my doctorate, I knew a bit about English medieval history, but almost nothing about the histories of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. That deficiency was corrected by Prof Rees Davies, at whose feet I was lucky enough to sit. Earlier that same year Rees had delivered the prestigious Ford lectures in Oxford, and they were published two years later as The First English Empire. Deeply learned, but also beautifully written, they are a powerful meditation on centuries when English power expanded aggressively into the rest of the British Isles, and the effects this had on national identities, which continue to resonate to this day.


Who am I?

I fell into medieval history from the moment I arrived at university, when I looked at a lecture list that included the Norman Conquest, King John and Magna Carta, Edward I – in short, the subjects of the books I have gone on to write. The attraction for me was that the medieval centuries were formative ones, shaping the countries of the British Isles and the identities of the people within them. After completing my doctorate on the thirteenth-century earls of Norfolk I was keen to broaden my horizons, and presented a TV series about castles, which was a great way to reconnect with the reality of the medieval past.


I wrote...

The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England

By Marc Morris,

Book cover of The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England

What is my book about?

The Anglo-Saxons traces the turbulent history of England in its formative centuries. It explains how its earliest rulers fought relentlessly against each other for glory and supremacy, and then were almost destroyed by the onslaught of the Vikings. It explores how they abandoned their old gods for Christianity, established hundreds of churches, and created dazzlingly intricate works of art. It charts the revival of towns and trade, and the origins of a familiar landscape of shires, boroughs, and bishoprics. It is a tale of famous figures like King Offa, Alfred the Great, and Edward the Confessor, but also features a host of lesser-known characters - ambitious queens, revolutionary saints, intolerant monks, and grasping nobles. Through their remarkable careers, we see how a new society, a new culture, and a single unified nation came into being.

German Women for Empire, 1884-1945

By Lora Wildenthal,

Book cover of German Women for Empire, 1884-1945

This book teaches us how German imperialism tied itself to the emancipation of women, by focusing on the expansion of the German state into Africa and the Pacific rim. In the generations leading up to the establishment of the Third Reich, German women made themselves indispensable to German imperialism as nurses, wives, missionaries, mothers, sexual partners, and upholders of racial purity. This is simply one of the smartest books I’ve ever read, making clear the granular details of how empires were built and why gender matters in our understanding of them.

Who am I?

As a historian of feminism, I have been trying for decades to understand how gender, race, class, and nationality are knotted together in ways that are not always obvious or trackable in our personal experience. The books I recommend here have served as brilliant lanterns for me—not simply pointing out the flawed history of western feminism but instead explaining the complicated effects of whiteness and imperialism in the development of today’s feminist identities, ideologies, and consciousness. For me, these histories offer intersectional keys decoding the map of the world we’ve been dropped into and offering a path leading to a more justly feminist future….I hope they do for you too!


I wrote...

White Queen: May French-Sheldon and the Imperial Origins of American Feminist Identity

By Tracey Jean Boisseau,

Book cover of White Queen: May French-Sheldon and the Imperial Origins of American Feminist Identity

What is my book about?

“White Queen" is what an unusual and fascinating woman named May French-Sheldon (1847-1936) called herself, or claimed that the Africans she met, during her 1891 expedition to the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, called her. Her explorer’s outfit—including a full-length, jewel-encrusted, white ballgown, tiara, and waist-length blonde wig—ensured her whiteness would be inextricably linked to what she hoped would be read as “queenliness.” “White Queen” also describes a kind of white, Western, feminist figure whose claims to power, importance, and personal emancipation rely heavily upon and perpetuate a world structured by racism and colonialism.

This book zooms in on the fascinating life and public career of the first woman explorer of Africa to explicate how white American feminist identity—first forged in the fires of colonial conquest—became reliant on tropes of race in ways that still yoke American feminism to the politics of empire.

The Spectacular Modern Woman

By Liz Conor,

Book cover of The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s

This might be my favorite history book, period. Conor explains how “modern womanhood” in Australia came into being and was marked by the successful managing of one’s (sexualized and objectified) public appearance, including the way “primitive woman” (aboriginal or black) was constructed as a colonialist foil for the modern (white) Australian woman—whether she was a “screen-struck” movie fan, beauty contestant, or flapper. This book makes clear how women, as the principal focus of a newly visual mass media, came to define their “liberation” in sexual as well as racial and nationalist terms.

Who am I?

As a historian of feminism, I have been trying for decades to understand how gender, race, class, and nationality are knotted together in ways that are not always obvious or trackable in our personal experience. The books I recommend here have served as brilliant lanterns for me—not simply pointing out the flawed history of western feminism but instead explaining the complicated effects of whiteness and imperialism in the development of today’s feminist identities, ideologies, and consciousness. For me, these histories offer intersectional keys decoding the map of the world we’ve been dropped into and offering a path leading to a more justly feminist future….I hope they do for you too!


I wrote...

White Queen: May French-Sheldon and the Imperial Origins of American Feminist Identity

By Tracey Jean Boisseau,

Book cover of White Queen: May French-Sheldon and the Imperial Origins of American Feminist Identity

What is my book about?

“White Queen" is what an unusual and fascinating woman named May French-Sheldon (1847-1936) called herself, or claimed that the Africans she met, during her 1891 expedition to the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, called her. Her explorer’s outfit—including a full-length, jewel-encrusted, white ballgown, tiara, and waist-length blonde wig—ensured her whiteness would be inextricably linked to what she hoped would be read as “queenliness.” “White Queen” also describes a kind of white, Western, feminist figure whose claims to power, importance, and personal emancipation rely heavily upon and perpetuate a world structured by racism and colonialism.

This book zooms in on the fascinating life and public career of the first woman explorer of Africa to explicate how white American feminist identity—first forged in the fires of colonial conquest—became reliant on tropes of race in ways that still yoke American feminism to the politics of empire.

The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932

By Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka,

Book cover of The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932

This skillful history links politics, economics, and military concerns to the development of Japan’s empire in Manchuria. Beginning with the end of the Russo-Japanese War and concluding with the takeover of Manchuria from 1931, Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka shows how Manchuria remained a looming presence within Japanese political life. More strikingly, he argues against the idea that Japanese imperialism in the 1930s represented a radical break from the past. Far from it, he shows the construction of Manchukuo and Japanese foreign policy “as the denouement of an older story as much as the beginning of a new.”  


Who am I?

Jeremy A. Yellen is a historian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research focuses on modern Japan’s international, diplomatic, and political history. He maintains a strong interest in the history of international relations and international order.


I wrote...

The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: When Total Empire Met Total War

By Jeremy A. Yellen,

Book cover of The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: When Total Empire Met Total War

What is my book about?

My book traces the rise and fall of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Japan’s empire during World War II, and its vision for a new order in Asia. It tells two connected stories: one of Japanese high policy and the other of its reception in wartime Philippines and Burma. I show that Japan never had any well-defined plan for the Co-Prosperity Sphere. Far from it, ideas were hazy and vague, and Japanese elites remained unable to decide on how to reorder Asia until it was too late to implement effectively.

At the same time, I focus on “patriotic collaborators” in Burma and the Philippines and show how they exploited the political changes to jockey for agency and a say in the future of the region. 

Nationalism

By Rabindranath Tagore,

Book cover of Nationalism

Tagore (1861-1941) is generally known as a Nobel Prize-winning poet, but he was also a frequent commentator on contemporary political affairs and the crises of his age. Nationalism, which was composed over the years 1916-17, features long ruminations on imperialism, modernity, and the question of Indian independence, among other subjects of pressing interest to Tagore and his contemporaries. Each chapter affords the reader with an opportunity to experience in full the author’s talents as he strives to put into words his vision for a future shaped neither by "the colourless vagueness of cosmopolitanism, nor the fierce self-idolatry of nation-worship." Instructors may find the work to be an especially valuable resource for stimulating class discussions.

Who am I?

I was a pretty poor student in high school and college but did reasonably well in my history classes. Much of the credit goes to a few inspired teachers who, at least in memory, made me feel that I was a witness at every turn to some grand Gibbonesque moment of truth. Perhaps they aroused in my mind the wonderful prospect of a life spent roaming unfettered in the realm of ideas. In reality, much else comes with the territory but it is nevertheless true that we academic historians get to use up a fair number of unpoliced hours doing just that. Mine have largely been expended on problems of collective identity and the formation of national movements.


I wrote...

Nationalism and Revolution in Europe, 1763-1848

By Dean Kostantaras,

Book cover of Nationalism and Revolution in Europe, 1763-1848

What is my book about?

Nationalism and Revolution in Europe, 1763-1848 addresses enduring problems concerning the emergence of the first national movements in Europe and their role in the crises associated with the Age of Revolution. Considerable detail is supplied to the picture of Enlightenment era pursuits in which the nation appeared as both an object of theoretical interest and site of practice. The work thus offers an advance in narrative coherence by portraying how developments in the sphere of ideas influenced the terms of political debate in the years preceding the upheavals of 1789-1815. Subsequent chapters explore the composite nature of later revolutions and the relative capacity of the three chief sources of unrest – constitutional, national, and social – to inspire extra-legal challenges to the Restoration status quo.

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