Rise and Fall of the British Empire

Course No. 8480
Professor Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D.
Emory University
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  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated and features more than 900 portraits, illustrations, and maps. Portraits offer revealing looks at British figures like Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill, as well as figures from British colonies, including Mohandas Gandhi and Chinua Achebe. Illustrations recreate important historical moments during Britain's imperial rule such as the Opium Wars and India's independence. And maps offer visual insights into the colonization (and decolonization) of Africa, the conquests of India and Canada, and Britain's retreat at Dunkirk during World War II. There are on-screen spellings and definitions to help reinforce material for visual learners.
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Course Overview

At its peak in the early 20th century, Britain's empire was the largest in the history of the world, greater even than that of ancient Rome. It embraced more than a fourth of the world's population and affected the course of Western civilization in ways almost too numerous to imagine.

Even today, with the advantages of historical perspective and hindsight, it is still nearly impossible to overstate the scope and importance of its stunning legacy.

Consider:

  • British colonists brought to the New World ideas of liberty, justice, and political stability-ideas that formed the foundation of our own revolution and Constitution and are still reflected in the aspirations of emerging democracies the world over.
  • British exploration, mapping, and colonization of remote areas of the world in the late 18th and early 19th centuries accelerated our scientific knowledge.
  • Britain was the first nation to undertake large-scale industrialization, and it contributed to a host of technological advances that revolutionized manufacturing, navigation, international communications, travel on land and sea, and more.
  • Britain was the first major world power to make the moral choices to end its own extremely profitable slave trade and then to work toward the abolition of slavery worldwide.

That is only a bare sampling of a legacy that also encompassed language, literature, the invention of sophisticated modern banking and insurance systems, and the foundations of modern capitalism.

Yet only seven decades after achieving its unprecedented global reach, the British Empire had virtually disappeared, swept aside by historical forces as powerful as those that had first propelled it into being.

How and why did this happen? What were those forces that thrust the British Empire to its extraordinary position and then just as powerfully drove it into decline? And why are the lives of not only Americans but also of the citizens of nearly every nation on earth, in one way or another, the consequence of the British Empire?

In the 36 lectures of The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, award-winning Professor Patrick N. Allitt of Emory University leads you through four centuries of British power, innovation, influence, and, ultimately, diminishment-four profound centuries that literally remade the world and bequeathed the complex global legacy that continues to shape your everyday life.

It's a remarkable course that will give you fresh insights into world history in a wide range of areas-political, economic, technological, social, and more. And it will also give you a comprehensive overview you won't find offered anywhere else-a context into which you can integrate new knowledge about this country, as well as understand the background of current events in so many other countries that were once part of Britain's empire, from Ireland to China, and in Africa and the Caribbean.

Indeed, it seems fair to say that one cannot truly understand the most important aspects of world history without a firm grasp of the history of the British Empire.

In giving you that grasp, Professor Allitt draws on a vast range of critical events, riveting personalities, revealing anecdotes, and eloquent quotations-which become virtuoso performances in the hands of the English-born Allitt, who invests each line with the political, social, or moral implications that would have been obvious to contemporary readers and listeners.

Meet Some of History's Most Riveting Personalities

Unlike them, however, trapped in their own specific moment in time, you get to take the entire fascinating journey, encountering as you do some of history's most important, forceful, and interesting personalities, often from a totally new vantage point:

  • Winston Churchill, the very personification of the British Lion, who, after inspiring his nation to unexpected survival during the darkest days of World War II, was rewarded with defeat at the polls.
  • Robert Clive, who rose from his beginnings as a teenaged clerk for the British East India Company to avenge the brutality of the infamous "Black Hole of Calcutta," achieve British hegemony in India along with great personal power and ill-gotten wealth, and ultimately die at his own hand, imprisoned by both depression and his addiction to opium.
  • Orde Wingate, the British general whose achievements in the Ethiopian campaign and in the Zionist guerrilla war against the Arab revolt in Palestine could never obscure his personal eccentricities. One of those was a proclivity to wander about naked, often with a raw onion suspended around his neck, from which he would take hearty bites while inspecting his troop.
  • William Wilberforce, the Christian evangelical and Member of Parliament who provided the political leadership and moral lifeblood for Britain's antislavery crusade, and who lived long enough to see his nearly half-century struggle culminate in the 1833 abolition of slavery throughout most of the British Empire.

And that, of course, is only a small sample of a course that encompasses rulers and slaves, politicians and scientists, explorers, inventors and fighters, and even the importance of cricket! Sir Francis Drake, Mohandas Gandhi, John Hancock, Adam Smith, Captains James Cook and William Bligh, the Zulu warrior king Chaka, James Watt, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery—these and many, many others all step forward during this comprehensive course.

Understand How Britain's History Helped Define the Shape of Its Future—and the World's

And as they do, with Professor Allitt leading you through the British Empire's extraordinary history, he explains not only the hows and whys of its momentous events and conflicts, but leaves you with a nuanced understanding of just what kind of historical pathways were set into place for succeeding generations to follow:

  • You learn that although the British could often be ruthless in projecting their power, suppressing customs and traditions in alien cultures, an intellectual minority among them also began to study those cultures with interest and sympathy, helping to develop not only a missionary tradition but also new disciplines like anthropology and comparative religion.
  • You gain a new appreciation of perhaps the most widespread of Britain's bequests—the language that is not only spoken here, but that remains the most widely spoken around the world.And you come to understand the full extent of that gift, as well, as Professor Allitt explores the British Empire's ongoing literary legacy.
  • You grasp how Britain's finest writers, including the Brontë sisters, Rudyard Kipling, E. M. Forster, and George Orwell, by exploring the social and moral implications of almost every aspect of the British Empire, have left us a profound cultural record—a record since added to by subsequent generations of British authors and by the greatest writers of her former colonies.

In organizing a vast wealth of historical material, Professor Allitt approaches his subject from a variety of perspectives as he traces the mercantilist, imperial, and free trade ideologies that fueled the development of the empire.

Key among these is his thorough discussion of both the role of slavery in building and maintaining the empire and the evolution of Britain's ultimate decision to end its participation in the practice.

He explains the innovations in banking and insurance that fueled British prosperity and enabled Britain to finance the military power necessary to fight its wars and protect its far-flung colonies. He explores cultural and political changes inside Britain and their impact on Britain's global decisions. And he examines the changing cultural manifestations of the empire as it evolved.

Just as important, he never allows himself to settle into an Anglocentric view of Britain's empire. He discusses not only the experiences of Britain's colonists, but also those of the native peoples of those colonies, whose own lives—as well as the destinies of their countries—were irrevocably shaped by British imperialism.

Compelling, comprehensive, and astonishing in the force of its narrative power, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire will give you a refreshing new understanding of what made the British Empire both great in its achievements and vulnerable to its eventual downfall.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Sun Never Set
    Learn how history's greatest colonial empire came about not according to a master plan, but in response to great shifts in the currents that move nations. This lecture previews the roles played by military power, trade, slavery, industrialization, and many other forces in motivating Britain to acquire, maintain, and, ultimately, relinquish its empire. x
  • 2
    The Challenge to Spain in the New World
    Britannia didn't always rule the waves. See how jealousy over Spanish and Portuguese wealth combined with religious rivalry and advances in nautical knowledge to push England toward its own role in the New World. x
  • 3
    African Slavery and the West Indies
    Although a more enlightened Britain would eventually do away with both its African slave trade and then slavery itself, it originally looked on the issue as strictly economic. Gain a grasp of slavery's importance to not only Britain's New World colonies, but to its entire economy. x
  • 4
    Imperial Beginnings in India
    For its first 150 years, the British East India Company —granted a monopoly by the queen in 1600—had no intention of becoming the political overlord of India. Explore how circumstances overrode that intention and set the stage for British rule. x
  • 5
    Clive and the Conquest of India
    See how a rapidly rising young officer named Robert Clive, who initially attempted to quell local instability, won a succession of victories that quickly earned him fame, power, and ill-gotten wealth. His actions laid the foundation for British domination of India. x
  • 6
    Wolfe and the Conquest of Canada
    Britain's victory over the French in the Seven Years' War redrew the world's map in Britain's favor—including control over Canada—but at great cost. The debt was so massive it would ultimately contribute to England losing her American colonies. x
  • 7
    The Loss of the American Colonies
    Britain's desperate need for revenue ended years of "benign neglect" of its increasingly prosperous American colonies. Colonial resentment of "taxation without representation" triggered the American Revolution that, with French help, inflicted a stunning defeat on the empire. x
  • 8
    Exploring the Planet
    Although it was trade that prompted Britain to build an empire, the path was marked by great strides in exploration, invention, and science. See how accelerating scientific knowledge in the late 18th and early 19th centuries connected directly to British exploration, mapping, and colonization of previously remote areas of the world. x
  • 9
    Napoleon Challenges the Empire
    The French Revolution, the overthrow of France's monarchy, and the rise of Napoleon created an unprecedented crisis for the empire. But Britain's domination of the seas and an innovative banking system that enabled it to fund more than two decades of war ultimately proved too much for even Napoleon. x
  • 10
    The Other Side of the World
    The Indian model—a massive indigenous population dominated by just a handful of colonizers—was only one model of British empire building. Learn how Australia and New Zealand illustrated the other—an indigenous population vanquished by disease and war, which cleared the way for large-scale white settlement. x
  • 11
    Abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery
    With slavery widespread throughout history, the surprise is less that Britain used slavery than that it eventually decided to abolish it. This lecture gives you insight into the motives that led Britain to reverse course on what had become an economic pillar of its empire. x
  • 12
    Early African Colonies
    Britain first gained a colonial foothold in Africa by seizing Holland's Cape of Good Hope settlement during the Napoleonic Wars. See how its 1833 abolition of slavery intensified the still-simmering tensions between Britain and the region's Dutch settlers. x
  • 13
    China and the Opium Wars
    Witness the mid-19th century collision between the British policy of free trade (logical for a nation that enjoyed industrial and nautical supremacy) and the closed culture of the Chinese. It was a collision China could not win, as Britain used its military might to impose total domination on China and compelled it to accept the lucrative opium trade. x
  • 14
    Britain—The Imperial Center
    Watch as Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the most powerful nation on earth. Its industrial revolution, sophisticated banking and insurance techniques, political stability, and social mobility each contributed to its ability to project power around the world. x
  • 15
    Ireland—The Tragic Relationship
    In the first of two lectures devoted to Britain's troubled relationship with Ireland, you gain insight into how religion, politics, and social factors—including a catastrophic famine—combined to create this most puzzling and tragic element of British history. x
  • 16
    India and the "Great Game"
    Deepen your understanding of the intricate relationship between Britain and India. This lecture gives you the opportunity to examine both the changing face of British domination and the disastrous results when Britain tried to safeguard that regional dominance against Russian encroachment by invading Afghanistan. x
  • 17
    Rebellion and Mutiny in India
    Track the factors that contributed to a growing unrest, which finally exploded in an outright mutiny among Indian soldiers of the East India Company's army. British forces violently suppressed the uprising, after which the British government dissolved the East India Company in 1858 and undertook direct government of the subcontinent. x
  • 18
    How Canada Became a Nation
    Learn how Canada, although remaining loyal to Britain during the American Revolution, also disliked being governed from the other side of the Atlantic without adequate representation. See how its provinces gained self-government and then unification without the need for large-scale revolution. x
  • 19
    The Exploration and Settlement of Africa
    Travel along with British explorers as they journey across Africa, mapping its mountains, tracing its river systems, and ultimately triggering a scramble among Europe's colonial powers to conquer Africa in the last three decades of the 19th century. The scramble intensified with the discovery of diamonds and gold in South Africa. x
  • 20
    Gold, Greed, and Geopolitics in Africa
    The 1886 discovery of gold near present-day Johannesburg transformed a pastoral backwater into a center of dynamic economic activity. The great wealth at stake ultimately brought military violence and even disease-ridden concentration camps in an ominous premonition of 20th-century warfare. x
  • 21
    The Empire in Literature
    The empire influenced British literature as much as it did British life. A fascinating tour through works both celebrated and obscure—including Shakespeare's The Tempest, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea—illustrates the colonies' role in introducing new ideas, new forms of wealth, and difficult moral questions to British audiences. x
  • 22
    Economics and Theories of Empire
    Throughout the 19th century, advocates of the empire claimed they were bringing progress to backward peoples: the blessings of honest government, Christianity, education, railways, medicine, and commerce. Above all, however, they were making money, and in this lecture you learn about the 19th-century debate over the ethics and economics of empire. x
  • 23
    The British Empire Fights Imperial Germany
    Follow the First World War from the perspective of Britain's colonies as you track the participation of colonial populations, the role of the colonies in providing necessary supplies, and the impact of the war on the empire itself. x
  • 24
    Versailles and Disillusionment
    Learn how Britain and France secured the vengeful peace treaty they desired, circumventing Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, which would have brought the European powers' colonial empires to an end. Nevertheless the war undermined British confidence in its imperial mission, even as independence movements began to arise in many colonies. x
  • 25
    Ireland Divided
    Return to Ireland and learn the history of its battle for self-government. You conclude with the 1922 creation of the Irish Free State and the loyalist North, and the ensuing civil war in the Free State between those who accepted partition and those who rejected it. x
  • 26
    Cricket and the British Empire
    Enjoy a fascinating look at the game that was both the sport of the British Empire and a metaphor for many of the ideals Britain saw itself spreading. Even as colonies struggled for independence, they often used cricket analogies to force the British to admit the contrast between their ideas of fair play and the harsh reality of their use of power. x
  • 27
    British India between the World Wars
    Follow the early career of Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi, as he led the struggle for independence. Although since World War I the British had conceded in principle the idea of eventual Indian self-government, they still retained all the apparatus of repression. x
  • 28
    World War II—England Alone
    Hamstrung by strong antiwar feelings after World War I, Britain began World War II woefully behind in munitions and research and development. Early defeats and a humiliating retreat from Dunkirk brought Winston Churchill to the premiership with a grim determination to prevail. x
  • 29
    World War II—The Pyrrhic Victory
    Follow the progress of the war—the tide of which turned in 1942 with a British victory at El Alamein and an American victory over the Japanese at Midway. Despite the Allies' ultimate triumph, the 1945 election brought a jarring shock as Churchill was defeated and the new Labour government of Clement Attlee began to dismantle the empire. x
  • 30
    Twilight of the Raj
    Watch as India's long-awaited 1947 independence comes at a ghastly price: the death of a half-million people in Hindu and Muslim massacres before and after the historic date—and the assassination of Gandhi. x
  • 31
    Israel, Egypt, and the Suez Canal
    Learn how Britain's attempt to partition Israel and Palestine in 1948—a strategy unsuccessfully attempted in both Ireland and India—suffered a similar fate. See also how the Suez Crisis of 1956 demonstrated that Britain was no longer capable of unilateral imperial action. x
  • 32
    The Decolonization of Africa
    Although postwar Britain had once harbored hopes of preserving its African colonies in spite of India's and Israel's independence, the Suez crisis prompted a shift in policy. Britain began to offer early independence to its ill-prepared African colonies, with politicians from both major parties feeling they had no real alternative. x
  • 33
    The White Dominions
    Gain fresh insights into the 20th-century evolution of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. All three countries tried to balance the increasing allure of America as their principal partner in questions of trade and defense against the sentiment, loyalty, and ethnic traditions that bound them to Britain. x
  • 34
    Britain after the Empire
    After World War II, Britain had to decide what its primary international partners would be once the empire had gone, choosing between its former colony—the United States—or the rest of Europe. See how Britain ultimately recognized the need to take its place in a Europe fast becoming commercially and politically united. x
  • 35
    Colonial and Postcolonial Literature
    Returning to the world of literature, learn how the literature of the 20th-century British Empire and its aftermath dealt in dramatic contrasts, passionate extremes, ideas about exoticism, and questions of divided loyalty. Professor Allitt offers several examples from some of Africa and India's finest writers, including Alan Paton, Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, V. S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie. x
  • 36
    Epitaph and Legacy
    An opportunity for added perspective: Was the British Empire just a disgraceful episode of greed, exploitation, and racism? Was it an unmatched achievement in the advancement of Western civilization? Or was it some potent combination of both? And what does that say about the nature of empires and the prospect that they will persist? x

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Your professor

Patrick N. Allitt

About Your Professor

Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D.
Emory University
Dr. Patrick N. Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, where he has taught since 1988. The holder of a doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Allitt-an Oxford University graduate-has also taught American religious history at Harvard Divinity School, where he was a Henry Luce Postdoctoral Fellow. He was the Director of Emory College's Center for Teaching...
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Reviews

Rise and Fall of the British Empire is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 86.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Remarkable Professor Incredibly detailed coverage of complex factors over several centuries, with energetic presentation. It would have been more visually compelling if many more pictures were added. Why purchase the DVD or downloadable edition with so few visual enhancements?
Date published: 2018-10-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Histry I bought this course because I like Professor Ailitt (sp?) a lot. He presents the facts good and bad. He presents the perspectives of the time which I really must admire. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2018-03-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Exceeded My Expectations After listening to Professor Allitt's lectures in the "History of the United States" series I didn't have alot of expectations for this course. He sounded personable and knowledable and I thought he did a good job of showing how the country had transformed over the last century but I didn't think he did specific events justice and it was hard to get into his treaching style in general. So going into this course I thought I'd be happy if he at least covered the basic events and didn't expect much else. Shame on me. This was a very well-done course and really helped me understand the British Empire and its history. He had me spellbound at certain times (such as lectures 23---World War I, 25---Irish independence, and 28---World War II) and captured my attention throughout. I looked forward to the times during my day when I could listen to this course and tried sneaking it in when I could. I can't think of a better compliment. This course provided great historical narrative covering the history of the British colonial empire from the exploration days of the 1500s to the disintegration of the empire in the mid 1900s (including histories of most of the countries to 2008); Areas of focus include: o American colonies (starting in Virginia) o West Indies (Caribbean islands) o India o Canada o Australia o New Zealand o Africa (east, south, and west) o Hong Kong, China o Ireland (and to a lesser extent Scotland) o Middle East (Egypt, Trans-Jordan, Palestine, Iraq) Another stroke of brilliance from the professor: he would often read first hand written accounts from people who experienced specific events or were providing descriptions of the times. He does a marvelous job selecting ones that truly paint a picture of the event/what people felt about the event/time so well that you can’t help but feel placed there yourself. I can see how some people would react to the high frequency with "Another reading? Really? Again??" but he always chose one that captured the essence of the time or the event being disucssed. Kudos. The only minuses I could find were the way he started and ended his lectures. He would start off each lecture by providing a preview of a major historical event or time period that he was going to discuss in more detail later in the lecture. But he wouldn’t frame it as such which resulted in me thinking that was the one and only time he’d describe something and I was left wondering why he didn’t provide more meat to the event and why he was moving to the next item so fast. If he would’ve explained it was a preview and he would get into further detail later in the lecture then some of the relation of the events wouldn’t feel so disjointed. This approach wouldn’t leave any real drama relating to the result of the event to hold your attention (such as which side would win a major battle) so it was like you had all the answers in a minute and all that was left was repeating it by providing details. Addiiotnally, he would often conclude his lectures in a somewhat abrupt manner: there wasn’t much summation of the key points of the lecture or a preview of what the next lecture had in store so there were times when the professor would make a point and suddenly there’d be applause to mark the end of the lecture without any warning that it was winding down! This kept me on my toes, never quite knowing for sure if, after he’d made a point, I’d then hear applause marking the end of the lecture! All in all though I highly recommend this course for anyone with an interest in British history and its worldwide empire. Since this was such a well-done history course I would even recommend it to anyone with an interest in ANY type of history from the 1500s to 2008.
Date published: 2018-03-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Purchased this in audio CD format, covers a period of history that still influences many current political and social institutions, material very well prepared and explained by a professor with experience of both British and US life & education resulting in what I feel to be a well-researched and balanced program. Introduces some facts & reasons why events happened and continue to influence. Interesting enough to keep one alert driving highway trips.
Date published: 2017-12-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course! Professor Allit is always good. I enjoyed everything about it. Ilove being able to take these great courses at my own pace and without worrying about taking tests! Thank you for this whole concept!
Date published: 2017-12-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Important History, Well Presented This was my 3rd course in the Great Courses English/British history series. 3 different professors, all great. Professor Allitt presented the material in a highly interesting fashion and in the context of the era. Great history!
Date published: 2017-10-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Thorough, fair treatment, and pleasing to watch This gave me exactly what I was looking for - a thorough discussion of how the British empire came into being, and the factors relating to its decline. The professor has a very pleasant speaking style and manner. This course is of an older production. I took off one star because I felt the graphics could have been better: for example, more graphs of regions that were discussed. Many lectures are filled with quotations from people, thrown up on the screen. Although the quotes give depth and richness to the subject, they can be a bit boring visually. Besides being comprehensive, you get mini-histories of Canada, Australia, Ireland, India, and South Africa. The professor closely follows the supplied text, almost 95% of the time. And, although he appears to be reading the script sometimes, he frequently embellishes the (read) script. Quite honestly, I really prefer a presentation that closely follows the course guide book. The professor, I felt, was very fair in his treatment of the British. He highlights failings as well as successes. The lectures follow, in general, a chronological course, highlighting the important events and people that shaped policy and the evolution of the empire. He touches upon all aspects of the empire - including cricket and literature. I used the video presentation, and definitely prefer that medium. However, I think one could get most of the content by listening to the audio only presentation. If you look for sales, you can generally get the downloaded video courses for around $2 per lecture. I definitely enjoyed this course, and I definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a broad, but fairly in depth review of the subject.
Date published: 2017-10-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Huge Undertaking, One of a Kind Course. This course is the only one that attempts to look at the British Empire as a whole, which is an extremely ambitious undertaking. The British Empire was huge, and covered colonies in North America, Africa, Asia, The Middle East, Oceania, Ireland and more! A history could be written about the interaction of the British Empire and any one of these colonies. A history could be written not just of the British Empire in Africa, but of the British Empire in South Africa specifically or the British Empire in Egypt specifically. So when other reviewers say that this overview is lacking in details, they are absolutely right. To go into detail, would require full books worth of material for EACH colony. Just the exploits of Britain in India would be several books. No. This is not a detailed history. This is an overview, and it may be the only audio course that covers the British Empire as a whole. This is a very important perspective as it makes it clear that the empire grew not with a plan, but much more haphazardly and for different reasons in different areas. This is just not a perspective you would get if you looked at the extended history of Britain and the American Colonies, or Britain and Rhodesia. Given that, if specific colonies interest you, then by all means seek a more detailed history. I already have several areas that I'd love to check out in more detail. And I thank this course for bringing them to my attention.
Date published: 2017-09-19
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