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Empire and Post Empire: Representations and Reform




Admissions requirements

Birth of the Modern World and relevant 200-level courses in the same track


Colonial history used to focus on the impact European imperialism had on former colonies. In recent decades historians have pointed out that the colonial experience fundamentally altered Europe too. In this course we will explore the representation of the colonies in and the impact of the colonies on Europe, more specifically Britain and The Netherlands.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries large groups of British and Dutch citizens were involved in the colonial project in different ways. They consumed colonial products like tea, coffee, sugar, and cotton, and they also consumed stories and images of life in the colonies, and encountered people who had lived there and shared first-hand information. But what exactly did British and Dutch citizens know about the overseas possessions and how did they obtain this knowledge? Through newspapers and pamphlets ordinary people could learn about important events occurring overseas. Travel literature, novels, and plays provided (creative) context to the mostly factual reporting of the press – presenting a European understanding of the colonial world.

The representations of the colonies inspired people to act in ways that would either reinforce or challenge these representations. After 1763 ideas of empire, the issues of the slave trade and slavery were hotly debated. Also countless missionary societies and other initiatives arose in order to ‘civilize’ the inhabitants of the colonies. We will trace these debates and initiatives, their arguments and their participants. We will also explore the remarkable cultural, political and social changes they wrought: women started carving out a more public and activist role for themselves, political debates engaged more with moral issues, and many people who would normally not get involved with politics now spoke out in political protests such as mass petitions. What were the stories and images that spurred them into action? What (counter-) narratives and images about the colonies did they produce themselves?

In searching for answers we will analyze several contemporary narratives and images of the colonies based on a wide variety of secondary and primary sources (i.e. novels, abolitionist propaganda, missionary letters). We will not solely focus on European information about the colonies, but also study the perspective of the ‘other’ by reading slave narratives printed in Europe. We will also explore the complex process of identity formation in relation to the colonies. European individuals started to develop new social identities based on their self-image as civilizers of the world, much the same way that British and Dutch national identity was in important ways shaped by the possession of overseas colonies. Insights in how the legacy of colonialism is deeply engrained in national self-image also allows a better understanding of dynamics between different social groups in our current society, especially when it comes to sensitive topics relating to colonial history.

Course objectives


  • Critically engaging with primary sources, here: 18th- and 19th-century representations of the colonies in written text and image.

  • Identifying and critiquing patterns and attitudes that still shape the relationship of Europe to the wider world.

  • Writing a clearly reasoned historical essay, based on primary sources and existing historiography.


  • Understanding how colonialism affected European societies, specifically in Britain and the Netherlands.

  • Understanding how representations of the colonies developed and influenced each other.


Once available, timetables will be published in the e-Prospectus.

Mode of instruction

In the first weeks the students will be introduced to the history of the British and Dutch Empires. Secondary literature on specific case studies and a close reading of primary sources connected to these case studies will deepen the students’ understanding of the interaction between colonial representations and the debates surrounding them. Towards the end of the course we will examine the impact of these historical processes on current debates.

Students play an important role in class as several seminars are predominantly student-led. These start with a group presentation (15-20 minutes). These same students will then lead the group discussions that follow. Every student participates in two group presentations. As this is a history course, the final essays will have to include a major historical component.


  • Actively engaging in class discussions (15%) (ongoing, weeks 1-7)

  • Contribution to two group presentations (30%) (ongoing, weeks 1-7)

  • Write two 500-750-word critical analyses of the readings (20%) (weeks 2, 3)

  • Write a 3,000 word essay on a historical topic, based on primary sources and existing historiography (35%) (week 8)

Please note:

  • In accordance with article 4.8 of the Course and Examination Regulations (OER), within 30 days after the publication of grades, the instructor will provide students the opportunity to inspect their exams/coursework.

  • There is a no re-sit policy at Leiden University College.


There will be a Blackboard site available for this course. Students will be enrolled at least one week before the start of classes.

Reading list

To be announced


This course is open to LUC students and LUC exchange students. Registration is coordinated by the Education Coordinator. Interested non-LUC students should contact