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Imperial and colonial history : a research guide

Connected Histories is primarily focused on the domestic history of Britain, but it includes a wide range of sources that also reflect on both Britain's role in a wider global history, and the impact of that role, and that world, on Britain. The Parliamentary Papers, and British Newspapers 1600-1900 are the largest bodies of documentation accessible through this site that directly address these themes; but British History Online, the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online, the Charles Booth Online Archive, The History of Parliament, Transcribe Bentham, Nineteenth-Century Pamphlets Online and The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera also include important evidence.

Contents of this article

Britain and the world

From its beginnings in the 16th century through its entire history, the project of imperial and trade expansion formed an important component of state policy. As a result, evidence of colonisation, enslavement and trade can all be found in the Parliamentary Papers, and also the 46 volume Calendars of State Papers Colonial available through British History Online. The Parliamentary Papers encompass a vast array of material relating to both the formal empire and Britain's relationship with other powers. The Journals of both houses of parliament; published reports of the Board of Trade; treaties, and the bills which detailed their content; and the reports of ambassadors and commissions can all be found among this material, as can the records of Britain's involvement in both pursuing and suppressing the slave trade. Parliamentary Papers are particularly rich for the period from the late 17th century to the 19th. The Calendars of State Papers Colonial, available through British History Online supplement the Parliamentary Papers, and extend the coverage of these themes back into the 16th century, and include details of correspondence and reports relating to North America, the Caribbean and India. For detailed material on the personnel who implemented state policy in Parliament, the History of Parliament provides detailed biographies of over 20,000 MPs and politicians.

The most important non-governmental sources for the study of colonisation and trade in Connected Histories are the newspapers included in British Newspapers 1600-1900. Early newspapers tended to pay more attention to overseas and trade news than to the domestic variety, meaning that imperial and trade issues are especially well covered in eighteenth century newspapers. But, this kind of reporting remained a central component of most newspapers through later periods as well. In addition to a wide range of domestic titles, some North American newspapers are also included. Substantial details about, and discussion of Britain's relationship with the rest of the world can also be found in Nineteenth-Century Pamphlets Online, and in Transcribe Bentham.

The world and Britain

The impact of colonial expansion was felt in every corner of Britain, and is reflected in a wide range of non-governmental and local sources. Trade and the empire created innumerable communities of immigrants in both London and other ports and cities, including Indians, Africans and Chinese. These men and women can be found as victims and perpetrators of crime in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online. The Charles Booth Online Archive similarly provides detailed descriptions of communities marked by their origin and ethnicity. These same communities, the evidence more thinly spread, can also be found among the records made available by Origins.net and London Lives, 1690-1800, which also includes employment records relating to the East India Company's operations in London. The cultural impact of colonial expansion on Britain is substantially reflected in both British Newspapers 1600-1900 and The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, which includes material relating to exhibitions, advertisements and popular literature. Some images searchable by location can also be found in the Database of Mid-Victorian Illustrations.

Slavery, the slave trade and coerced labour

The pursuit, regulation, and eventual suppression of the slave trade is fully documented in the Parliamentary Papers and Calendars of State Papers. These can be supplemented with material from The History of Parliament. The policing of the abolition of the slave trade is also reflected in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online, where numerous slave traders were prosecuted in the early 19th century. Similarly, enforced labour in an Indian and African context can be evidenced in the Parliamentary Papers. The transportation of convicted criminals, first to North America and later to Australia, is reflected in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online and related materials in London Lives, 1690-1800.

Strengths and weaknesses

The combination of the Parliamentary Papers, Calendars of State Papers, British Newspapers 1600-1900, and Nineteenth-Century Pamphlets Online provides a unique resource for the history of colonial expansion, the regulation and suppression of slavery, and trade policy. At the same time, the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online, The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, and London Lives, 1690-1800 provide in depth material reflecting on the impact of imperialism on Britain itself.

Missing from this landscape of evidence is substantial material reflecting the experience of the colonised, enslaved and coerced. The perspective of individuals caught up in this ever-expanding world system can sometimes be captured through newspaper reports, pamphlets and trial accounts, but the overwhelming weight of evidence is from the top down, and from the centre outwards. The absence of large bodies of personal memoirs, the records of the East India Company also limit the research that can be undertaken. The evidence for the impact of imperial expansion on Britain is also overwhelmingly concentrated on London at the expense of important provincial cities and ports. However, these materials can be supplemented with Early English Books Online and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online.

Search strategies

Keyword searching provides the most effective strategy for accessing material relating to specific places and groups of people, but these searches needs to be informed by knowledge of the changing labels applied to both groups of individuals, and regions and countries. Few countries, for instance, were described consistently using the same words during the whole of the period covered by Connected Histories. Browsing the Calendars of State Papers in British History Online can help you to develop a vocabulary that can then be used to search the wider collection. You can also consult the Community Histories pages of the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online for suggestions for keywords associated with the major migrant communities of London.

Further reading

  • A. G. Hopkins, 'Back to the future: from national history to imperial history', Past and Present, 164 (1999), 198–243
  • The Oxford History of the British Empire, ed. W. R. Louis (5 vols., Cambridge, 1998–9):
    • 1, The Origins of Empire, ed. N. Canny
    • 2, The Eighteenth Century, ed. P. J. Marshall
    • 3, The Nineteenth Century, ed. W. R. Louis, A. M. Low, A. Porter
    • 5, Historiography, ed. R. W. Winks
  • D. Judd, Empire: the British Imperial Experience, from 1765 to the Present (London, 1996)
  • The British Empire: Themes and Perspectives, ed. S. Stockwell (Oxford, 2008)
  • A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity, and Modernity in Britain and the Empire, 1660–1840ed. K. Wilson (Cambridge, 2004)

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