Rise and Fall of the British Empire

Great Britain once governed the largest empire in human history. Its territories included parts of what is now Canada, the United States, Australia, India, huge swathes of Africa and the Middle East and even small outposts in Asia and South America. The empire was once described as "His Majesty's dominions, on which the sun never sets," because it stretched across the entire globe. 

How was this empire created and why did it ultimately fall? What role did economics and nationalism play in its expansion? How was this huge government structured? Who resisted its imperialist goals and what did that resistance look like? How did WWI and WWII and other empires' growth change Great Britain's role in the world? Finally, was the British Empire successful in meeting its goals? How can we tell?

Subject terms for British history can be tricky. Check under: Great Britain, United Kingdom, England, British history, British Empire, the Raj (for India). You may also look under the names of the individual countries that once comprised the British Empire.

Check out the starting your research project page.

We can't fit every resource about the British Empire on to this list! A topic guie is just the beginning of building your bibliography.

Reference materials

This is the place to start any research project. Reference books offer short, authoritative information on every topic. These books must be used in the library. Most contain bibliographies of important books on your topic. A good first stop would be any of the standard encyclopedias in the Beaver collection: Encyclopedia Americana, World Book or Britannica.


Bingham, Jame, ed. (2001). The Usborne Internet-linked encyclopedia of world history. REF 901 B51 2001
Britannica Online Great for pre-search and primary sources, including speeches, essays, biographies, court decisions, editorials and photos.
Gale Group. (2001). History behind the headlines: the origins of conflicts worldwide. REF 909 H62 2001
Herb, G. and Kaplan, D. ( 2008). Nations and nationalism: a global historical overview. REF 320.54 NAT 4 volume set with olive-green spines.
Mowat, C.L., ed. (1968). New Cambridge Modern History. REF Look for volumes X, XI and XII.


Britannica Online
General Reference Center Gold


Books about the history of the British Empire will usually be found around 909 and 942. More general books about the history of Great Britain are at 941. Books about British rule of its individual territories will be found at the Dewey number for that country (for example, books about British rule in India will be at 954.) Biographies can be found at 921, listed alphabetically by the subject's last name (for example, a biography of Winston Churchill would carry the call number: 921 Churchill.)

Broehl, Wayne. (1986). Crisis of the Raj: the revolt of 1857 through British lieutenants' eyes. 347 pages. 954.0317 B78
Ferguson, Niall. (2003) Empire: the rise and fall of the British world order and the lessons for global power. 351 pages. 909.09
F38 2003
Kennedy, Paul. (1989). The rise and fall of the great powers : economic change and military conflict from 1500 to 2000. 677 pages. 909.82 K38
Lace, William W. (1997). England. 128 pages. 942 L11 1997
Morgan, Kenneth, ed. (1996). The young Oxford history of Britain and Ireland. 941 Yo8 1997 416 pages. Chapters 23 to 34 deal with the Empire and its aftermath.
Roy, Arundhati. (2004). An ordinary person's guide to empire. 156 pages. 302.23 R81 2004 Although not strictly relevant, this does at least present a non-European perspective on imperialism.
Tuchman, Barbara. (1966). The proud tower: a portrait of the world before the War, 1890-1914. 909.8 T79 528 pages.

Check the Minuteman Library system, the Boston Public Library system, your local library or college libraries for:
Bayly, C. A. (1988). Indian society and the making of the British Empire. 230 pages.
Lace, William W. (2000). The British Empire: the end of colonialism. 112 pages
Louis, Wm. Roger, ed. (1999). The Oxford history of the British Empire. 5 volumes. This is usually a reference book, so you will not be able to check it out.
Marshall, P. J., ed. (1996). The Cambridge illustrated history of the British Empire. 400 pages.
Thackeray, Frank W., ed. (2002). Events that changed Great Britain since 1689. 217 pages.


For these Gale Group Resources, try the following subject terms: British Empire, CA. 1600-1970; British colonialism--history; British imperialism, history; British Raj, 1858-1947. You can modify the subject terms to fit your particular interest.
Academic OneFile
Expanded Academic ASAP
General OneFile
Student Edition
Biography Resource Center For information on famous people associated with the British Empire. Search by the person's last name.
SIRS Try copying one of these subject headings: Great Britain, colonies; Great Britain, history; India, History, British occupation (1765-1947). Paste it into the search field. You can modify the subject terms to fit your particular interest.
Facts on File For pre-search, biographies, primary sources and images.

Internet sites

BBC British history
Britannia: History
The British Library

BPL: Electronic Resources

Historical Abstracts

Updated, 9-09