The best books on the British Empire

Many authors have picked their favorite books about the British Empire and why they recommend each book.

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Churchill

By Roy Jenkins,

Book cover of Churchill: A Biography

The late politician Lord Jenkins made a name for himself with his political biographies. Churchill: A Life was the culmination of a critically successful career as a writer. Jenkins leaves no stone unturned in assessing Churchill’s thirst for political glory. Andrew Roberts called the book ‘a masterpiece.’


Who am I?

Anthony Tucker-Jones, a former intelligence officer, is an author, commentator, and writer who specializes in military history, with well over 60 books to his name. His work has also been published in an array of magazines and online. He regularly appears on television and radio commenting on current and historical military matters.


I wrote...

Churchill, Master and Commander: Winston Churchill at War 1895-1945

By Anthony Tucker-Jones,

Book cover of Churchill, Master and Commander: Winston Churchill at War 1895-1945

What is my book about?

This book assesses what in his formative years shaped Winston Churchill as a military commander, and then examines how in high office he got it both right and wrong. From his earliest days, he was an extreme risk-taker and he carried this into adulthood. Today Churchill is widely hailed as Britain’s greatest wartime leader and politician. Deep down though, he was foremost a warlord. Just like his ally Stalin, and his arch enemies Hitler and Mussolini, Churchill could not help himself and insisted on personally directing the strategic conduct of the Second World War. For better or worse throughout his long career, he insisted on being both a political master and a military commander.

Toward- Freedom

By Jawaharlal Nehru,

Book cover of Toward- Freedom: An Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru

This eloquent autobiography was written in the mid-1930s while the author was jailed by the British. It offers a detailed and convincing account of the experience of India’s people under the regime of British imperialism, and is relevant to other countries under foreign occupation, but also to US society because of its emphasis on religious conflict.


Who am I?

I have a strong, if contrarian, interest in modern history, Asian history in particular. I have published more than a dozen articles and book reviews on the subject, and I have taught courses on modern Asian history (China, Japan, Vietnam, India) at New York University, where I have been a professor since 1968. A brief history of my somewhat unusual academic career may be found in a 50-page memoir published via Amazon in 2020 together with an appendix containing a sampling of my short writings. It is titled Moss Roberts: A Journey to the East. The memoir but not the appendix is free via Researchgate. In addition, I have studied (and taught) the Chinese language for more than half a century, and published translations of classical works of literature and philosophy.   


I wrote...

Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel

By Guanzhong Luo, Moss Roberts (translator),

Book cover of Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel

What is my book about?

Although a Ming dynasty (1368-1644) epic, Three Kingdoms has contemporary relevance since it involves China’s recurring experience of national unity and national division. This may explain why it is still widely known in China, and also in Korea and Vietnam, which have suffered internal division, and even in Japan, which shares so much culture and history with them. These four nations may be said to constitute Confucian Asia.

Dickens

By Peter Ackroyd,

Book cover of Dickens

This is one of the great literary biographies: impeccably researched, stylishly narrated, refreshingly indifferent to academic convention, and authentically Dickensian in its pungency of atmosphere and solidity of characterisation.

Who am I?

I’m an award-winning biographer and critic. My essays and reviews appear regularly in the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, and I teach literature and creative writing at King’s College London. I’ve always loved stories about the lives of great writers – stories that seek to illuminate genius, without ever explaining it away.


I wrote...

The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography

By Edmund Gordon,

Book cover of The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography

What is my book about?

Angela Carter’s life was as unconventional as anything in her fiction. Through her fearlessly original and inventive books, including The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus, she became an icon to a generation and one of the most acclaimed English writers of the last hundred years. This is her first full and authorised biography.

An Ottoman Traveller

By Robert Dankoff (translator), Sooyong Kim (translator), Evliya Çelebi

Book cover of An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi

Evliya Çelebi's Book of Travels has remained a well-kept secret—until now. Evliya was a seventeenth-century Ottoman courtier who wandered the empire and beyond for over 40 years and recorded his adventures in what is considered to be the longest travel account in world literature. This well-chosen selection of excerpts from his entertaining and informative masterpiece brings glimpses of the many climes and cultures he explored to an English-speaking readership, while luring us irresistibly into his idiosyncratic world.


Who am I?

I am a Scottish Ottoman historian who has lived half my life in Istanbul. Realising that the archive-based research of my PhD and after was read by too few, I wrote Osman's Dream, which has been translated into several languages and is read generally, as well as by students. I am fascinated by the 'where' of history, and follow historical routes the slow way, by foot or on horseback, to reach the sites where events occurred. That's the thing about living where the history you study happened: its traces and artefacts are all around, every day. I hope I have brought a sense of Ottoman place to Osman's Dream.


I wrote...

Osman's Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire

By Caroline Finkel,

Book cover of Osman's Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire

What is my book about?

I wrote Osman's Dream to counter the widely-held notion that Ottoman history—the history of a dynasty and empire that held sway over far-flung territories on three continents for over six centuries—was nothing more than a succession of salacious sultans, evil pashas, hapless harem women, and obscurantist clerics. The nineteenth-century trope 'Sick Man of Europe' has a long shelf-life, but I wanted to probe more deeply, to get beyond such distorted perceptions with the aim of bringing to a general readership better understanding of a complex civilisation whose history is intimately bound up with our own.

The narrative unfolds chronologically, to reveal the multifarious connections between past and present, and why Ottoman history matters today.

Rubies in the Snow

By Kate Hubbard,

Book cover of Rubies in the Snow: Diary of Russia's Last Grand Duchess, 1911-1918

I am surprised that I never came across this book until now. I rarely read Young Adult books, but of course make exceptions for Romanov fiction. There simply is not enough decent Romanov fiction out there, period. IMO this one is a gem. Although of course it is not based on the diaries of real Anastasia (who unfortunately burnt them all when the revolution broke out), the author clearly did a lot of research and seemingly read the diaries of the other sisters. Not sure why this book got so many 3 star ratings, even though the reviews say it is a very good book, but I would definitely recommend it to Romanov fiction and non-fiction history fans.

Who am I?

After a relatively short career in research science, Helen Azar switched gears and returned to graduate school to fulfill a dream of becoming a reference librarian. She worked at the Free Library of Philadelphia for ten years, during which time she became a published author. While researching for her first book, The Diary of Olga Romanov, Helen visited Russia several times, and worked in the Rare Book Fund at the Museum at Tsarskoe Selo, which holds the imperial book collection. Today, Helen lives on the beautiful far south coast of New South Wales, Australia; she continues writing about Russia's last imperial family and leads Romanov history tours. She also administers The Romanov Family website and is the content creator for a YouTube channel In the Steps of the Romanovs.


I wrote...

In the Steps of the Romanovs: Final two years of the last Russian imperial family (1916-1918)

By Helen Azar,

Book cover of In the Steps of the Romanovs: Final two years of the last Russian imperial family (1916-1918)

What is my book about?

By 1916, Russia had been involved in the First World War for almost two years, and events were about to take a tumultuous turn. Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate his throne, and what followed was a struggle that neither he, nor most of his nearest, were destined to survive. This volume offers an accurate glimpse into the final two years of the last Imperial Family of Russia: exclusively through their own diary entries and personal correspondence, supplemented by contemporary eyewitness accounts, many of which are published here in English for the first time.

The reader will get to know on a deeper level the Grand Duchesses and the Empress, as they work at Tsarskoe Selo infirmaries; witness the imperial family's grief for their murdered "Friend" Grigori Rasputin; experience their arrest after the outbreak of the revolution, and follow them into captivity in Siberia - and ultimately the Red Ural - where they meet their tragic end in the cellar of "The House of Special Purpose". This already familiar unique piece of history is individually told by Nicholas, Alexandra, and their five children: Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei. Their collective personal story is a portrayal of a united family bound together by love, hardship, and tragedy, taking place during the twilight of an extraordinary bygone era. 

The History of Mary Prince

By Mary Prince,

Book cover of The History of Mary Prince

A landmark work by virtue of being the first book by a black woman to be published in Britain, this is a powerfully harrowing account of Mary’s own life as a slave in the Caribbean. Though only short, it supplies valuable testimony on the gruesome British exploitation of enslaved people over the centuries, and the many cruelties inflicted upon Mary personally by her brutal ‘owners’. Should be required reading for all those who think of the British Empire with nostalgia.


Who am I?

I’m a historian of empire, with a particular interest in the British Empire, colonial violence, and the ways in which imperialism is shown and talked about in popular culture. I studied at Oxford University, and having lived in and travelled around much of the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, I am always trying to understand a bit more if I can… but reading is best for that… My first book was The Khyber Pass.


I wrote...

Blood and Bronze: The British Empire and the Sack of Benin

By Paddy Docherty,

Book cover of Blood and Bronze: The British Empire and the Sack of Benin

What is my book about?

The famous Benin Bronzes are among the most prized possessions of the British Museum. Celebrated for their great beauty, they embody the history, myth, and artistry of the ancient Kingdom of Benin, once the most powerful in West Africa and now part of Nigeria. But despite their renown, little has been written about the brutal act of imperial violence through which the Bronzes were plundered. This incisive new history tells that neglected story: the 1897 British invasion of Benin.

Diving into the archives, Blood and Bronze sets the assault on Benin in its late Victorian context. As Britain faced new commercial and strategic pressures on its power elsewhere, it ruthlessly expanded its rule in West Africa. Revealing both the extent of African resistance and previously concealed British outrages, this is a definitive account of the conquest and destruction of Benin. 

Louisbourg Portraits

By Christopher Moore,

Book cover of Louisbourg Portraits

Using a wide range of original sources — diaries, letters, official correspondence, criminal cases, and maps and plans — Christopher Moore does a terrific job in this book of presenting the world of 18th-century Louisbourg. He restores to vivid life five people who actually walked the streets of the colony over two and a half centuries ago. Through the dramatically different stories of those five individuals, Moore offers innumerable insights into what society and culture was like in the French colonial town. First published in 1982, the book won Canada’s Governor General’s prize for best non-fiction book of the year.


Who am I?

For 23 years I was lucky enough to work in the 18th century. Well, as close as is possible for someone born in the 20th century. That happened because I was a staff historian at the Fortress of Louisbourg, where I passed many hours studying a million pages of documentation and over 500 maps and plans of the long-ago society. That research allowed me to write many books and articles—for both academics and the general public—about the onetime French stronghold and bustling seaport. I found the work fascinating, and I credit my time at the Fortress of Louisbourg for making me the historian and writer I became.


I wrote...

Louisbourg: Past, Present, Future

By A.J.B. Johnston,

Book cover of Louisbourg: Past, Present, Future

What is my book about?

I wrote this book for the widest possible readership. As befitting a high-altitude, simplified look at such a complex historic site, the book is richly illustrated and has many sidebars. The story presented runs from before the French settled there in 1713 through its subsequent rapid growth and social evolution to the tumultuous wars that ultimately decided its fate. The book ends with a glance ahead to how rising sea levels will threaten the one-fifth reconstruction of the onetime French colonial town. Readers who would like longer narratives and more in-depth analyses might wish to check out some of my other books about Louisbourg, like Endgame 1758, Life and Religion at Louisbourg, and Control and Order at French Colonial Louisbourg.

Railways & the Raj

By Christian Wolmar,

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

I am personally recommending the book because it covers the essence of India’s railway history in an English context. The English context is particularly important because the railways have been an English creation in India. Despite the English context, the book in a way accepts and humbly admits how the railways were built for the colonial power to govern the huge country and is purely based on facts and records. India joined the railway age late: the first line was not completed until 1853 but, by 1929, 41,000 miles of track served the country. The book accelerates history in a crisp manner.

I love and personally connect with this book for the national context it has and not just one zone of the railway. Also showing the city around to the author during his research was an absolute honour. What value did you get from this book? The inputs and…


Who am I?

Rajendra B. Aklekar (born 1974) is an Indian journalist with over 25 years of experience and author of best-selling books on India’s railway history and heritage. He is also the biographer of India’s legendary railway engineer Dr. E Sreedharan. With museology from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharasj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai, Aklekar is also a Google-certified Digital Marketer. Aklekar, associated with the Indian Railway Fans’ Club Association, Indian Steam Railway Society, Rail Enthusiasts Society, has contributed significantly while setting up the Rail Heritage Gallery at the UNESCO-listed Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus station, formerly Victoria Terminus building, Bombay, and documentation of heritage relics of India’s first railway.


I wrote...

India’s Railway Man: A Biography of E. Sreedharan

By Rajendra B. Aklekar,

Book cover of India’s Railway Man: A Biography of E. Sreedharan

What is my book about?

This is the story of Dr. E. Sreedharan—a 21st-century icon similar to Brunel and Sir MV; a man who has changed the face of the railways, and of public transport in India. Two key railway projects helmed by him have changed the way India travels. The first is the 760-km stretch of the Konkan Railway, carved out of the extremely challenging terrain of India’s Western Ghats—a project virtually abandoned by the British as ‘not feasible’. It was completed by Sreedharan and his team within seven years, and when finished, it cut short the rail-travel distance between Ahmedabad and Mangalore by 1,218km.

While these and many more success stories abound around Sreedharan, not many know of the private battles he has fought with integrity for his principles, nor have many have heard the anecdotes behind the biggest infrastructure projects he has led. The biography has been endorsed by Dr. Sreedharan himself.

The Hawk in the Rain

By Ted Hughes,

Book cover of The Hawk in the Rain: Poems

The first collection by former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes includes one of the most stunning poems about the connection between poet, pen, and nature in the form of "The Thought-Fox." Hughes has a pared back, often disturbing vision of the world that seizes your attention. If you like this don’t stop, there are plenty of other wonderful books by Hughes, especially his retelling of the "Tales from Ovid" and "The Birthday Letters," his poems about his relationship with his first wife, the equally brilliant Sylvia Plath.


Who am I?

I’ve been writing poems since an inspirational period of study in Stirling in my twenties, when I did a lot of hill walking in the Scottish Highlands. For me, poetry that doesn’t move you, that doesn’t make you feel, is just words on a page. I love poems that make you shiver as they incongruously bear the full load of life’s mystery. I like all kinds of poetry but have a special place reserved for nature poems, poems that find the heart and soul in the landscape, rivers, and wildlife.


I wrote...

The Things We Thought Were Beautiful

By Steve Griffin,

Book cover of The Things We Thought Were Beautiful

What is my book about?

The Things We Thought Were Beautiful includes poems about our changing feelings and connection to nature and the world around us, the beauty and strangeness of travel, and the places we look for meaning. There are also poems that explore the difficulty of living without love, as well as the redemption of home and family.

My Memories of Six Reigns

By Princess Marie Louise,

Book cover of My Memories of Six Reigns

This is a charming book, filled with amusing and touching anecdotes by Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Marie Louise, whose lovely character shines through every page.  The simple style and lack of chronological order create the impression that the reader is sitting with the author as she simply recounts her remarkable memories of the people and places of another era. Just beautiful! 


Who am I?

All my life, I have had a passion for history and, the moment I came upon Queen Victoria while browsing the history section in the local library, I was hooked! Far from being the dour Widow of Windsor, it was clear that she was a highly-intelligent, forward-thinking, often amusing, and often amused woman, with fascinating relatives and connections across the whole world. Her family life mirrored that of any ordinary family, with its ups and downs, its petty squabbles, and a myriad of contrasting characters, each with a unique and interesting story to tell. With so many avenues yet to explore, this is a passion that could last a lifetime!


I wrote...

Queen Victoria's Granddaughters: 1860-1918

By Christina Croft,

Book cover of Queen Victoria's Granddaughters: 1860-1918

What is my book about?

From a Russian saint, martyred in a mine shaft in Siberia, to the Queens of Norway, Greece, Romania, and Spain, Queen Victoria’s twenty-two granddaughters lived not only through the halcyon days of the European monarchies but also through tragedy and the horrors of war and revolution. Some, like the unassuming Princess Louise of Wales, lived and died in virtual obscurity while others, like the dazzling Queen Marie of Romania and the ill-fated Empress Alexandra of Russia, played a major and memorable role in world events; but, through all the upheavals and conflicts, and, even when wars had divided their nations, one person had bound them together and, to the end of their lives, all would remember ‘dearest grandmama’ – Queen Victoria – with love.

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