Imperial Federation Map of the World Showing the Extent of the British Empire in 1886 by Walter Crane (1845-1915).
Imperial Federation Map of the World Showing the Extent of the British Empire in 1886 by Walter Crane (1845-1915).

Race, Ethnicity, and Empire

History 315 with Prof. Radhika Natarajan examines the complex relationship between the British empire and the people it colonized.

March 22, 2021

From the origins of the British Empire in the 16th century, the encounter between Britons and colonial subjects demanded explanations of human difference, says Prof. Radhika Natarajan in her course on British Imperialism. 

In History 315, Defining and Defying Difference: Race, Ethnicity, and Empire she and her students investigate these explanations and categories and consider how imperial rule relied on creating, managing, and maintaining them. Through study of settler colonialism, transatlantic slavery, caste in South Asia, and the emergence of "White Men's Countries," students develop tools to examine race and racism as historical phenomenon. Importantly, the class focuses on the interrelation of racism, capitalism, and gender and sexuality.

“Imperial history can present important insights into the ways power operated in multiple domains and various spatial configurations,” Prof. Natarajan told the journal History Workshop Online. “But it continues to be centered on the impact of empire in Britain and the actions and motives of imperialists.” In this course, she says, students will see what imperial history looks like when it includes the experiences and perspectives of colonial subjects.

After taking the course, Prof. Natarajan hopes students understand "the relationship between the forms of knowledge we value in the classroom and the inequities and violence that exist on our campuses and in the world."

Prof. Natarajan is a historian of modern imperial Britain, with particular interests in ethnicity, migration, decolonization, social democracy, and multiculturalism. She joined the faculty at Reed College in 2014 and is writing a book on post-imperial migration to Britain and the welfare state.


 Readings from the course include: 

  • Empires in World History, by Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper.
  • Facing Empire, Indigenous Experiences in a Revolutionary Age, by Michael A. McDonnell and Kate Fullager. 
  • "Consuming Indians: Tsonnonthouan, colonialism, and the commodification of culture," by Robbie Richardson.
  • "Tomahawks and Scalping Knives: Manufacturing Savagery in Britain," by Robbie Richardson.
  • Sex and the Family in Colonial India: the Making of Empire, by Durba Ghosh.
  • Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica, by Sasha Turner. 
  • Civilising Subjects: Colony and Metropole in the English Imagination, 1830–1867, by Catherine Hall.
  • “The Multicultural Question,” by Stuart Hall.
  • Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, by Nicholas Dirks.
  • “Introduction,” Orientalism, by Edward W. Said.
  • “The Census, Social structure and Objectification in South Asia,” by Bernard S. Cohn. 
  • “The Present Outlook for the Dark Races of Mankind,” by W. E. B. Du Bois.
  • “The African Roots of War,” by W. E. B. Du Bois.
  • Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men's Countries and the Question of Racial Equality, by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds.

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