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Study information

Imperial Science, Race, and Exploration in the Long 19th Century

Module titleImperial Science, Race, and Exploration in the Long 19th Century
Module codeHIH1615
Academic year2023/4
Module staff

Dr John Lidwell-Durnin (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

One of the most important and lasting ideas to emerge from Early Modern scientific thought was the belief that nature is like a book: reading it requires interpretation. But who has the authority to interpret nature? The most pressing questions of the nineteenth century: the abolition of slavery, the expansion of empire, and the condition of the working classes, all raised questions about the nature and extent of the inequalities that seemed to characterize all societies. Were the inequalities in human societies inescapable and necessary consequences of hereditary forces at work in the human population? Could potential geniuses and criminals be identified by the shape of their heads? Were individuals of mixed race stronger or weaker than those of ‘pure’ parentage? Why did death follow in the wake of almost all efforts to move people, plants, and animals from one climate to another? This course explores the efforts of journalists, amateurs, physicians, aristocrats, hacks, scientists, educators, philosophers, eugenicists, ministers, suffragists, explorers (and many others) to exploit the authority of nature in attempting to deliver answers to these questions. We will work to question the extent of influence these figures had on their time and their peers, but also to assess the complex relationship between the production of scientific authority and its relationship to the wider public.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module aims to:

  • Provide you with basic knowledge of how racial science developed in the Atlantic World in the 19th Century.
  • Familiarise you with the kinds of evidence used by historians to study the history of racial science, and the respective challenges to utilising these kinds of evidence.
  • Introduce you to genres of scientific writing, the representation of scientific ideas in illustrations and cartoons, and how to approach instruments and material culture from the long 19th century.
  • Engage you in contemporary debates within historical research and also the wider ethical conversations about the legacies of enslavery and colonial rule.
  • Equip you with the analytical and critical skills to give you a firm foundation in approaching future research in history. 

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Understand and assess the ways in which racial ideology and scientific authority supported imperial power in the 19th century.
  • 2. Work critically with a range of written and visual sources relating to scientific culture.

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 3. Identify the problems of using historical sources, e.g. utility, limitations, etc., and compare the validity of different types of source.
  • 4. Present historical arguments and answer questions orally

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. Conduct independent study and group work, including the presentation of material for group discussion, developed through the mode of learning
  • 6. Digest, select, and organise material to produce, to a deadline, a coherent and cogent argument, developed through the mode of assessment
  • 7. Write to a tight word-limit

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • Skulls, instruments, and illustrations
  • Travel narratives and fiction
  • Racial science and theology
  • Memoirs and essays
  • Exhibitions and people on parade
  • Addressing white authority
  • African American sermons
  • Imperial medicine
  • Stolen treasures
  • Curating the primitive
  • Photographic evidence

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching2Workshop
Scheduled learning and teaching20Seminars (9 x 2 hour)
Guided independent study128Reading and preparation

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Group Presentation5 minutes per individual student1-6Oral
Source commentary850 words1-7Oral

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Source Commentary One33850 words1-3, 5-7Written
Source Commentary Two33850 words1-3, 5-7Written
Source Commentary Three34850 words1-3, 5-7Written

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Source Commentary 1 (850 words)Source Commentary (850 words)1-3, 5-7Referral/Deferral period
Source Commentary 2 (850 words)Source Commentary (850 words)1-3, 5-7Referral/Deferral period
Source Commentary 3 (850 words)Source Commentary (850 words)1-3, 5-7Referral/Deferral period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Belasco, Susan ‘Harriet Martineau’s Black Hero and the American Antislavery Movement,’ Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 55, No. 2 (Sep., 2000), pp. 157-194
  • Coombes, Annie E. Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (2011)
  • Daunton, Martin and Halpern, Rick (eds.), Empire and Others: British Encounters with Indigenous Peoples, 1600–1850 (1999).
  • Driver, Felix and Martins, Luciana Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire, Chicago: Chicago Press (2005)
  • Gould, Stephen J. The Mismeasure of Man, New York and London, W. W. Norton, 1981
  • Hale, Piers Political Descent. Malthus, Mutualism, and the Politics of Evolution in Victorian England, (Chicago, 2014)
  • Hall, C. Civilizing Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830-1867, (Cambridge, 2002)
  • Harrison, Mark “‘The Tender Frame of Man’: Disease, Climate, and Racial Difference in India and the West Indies, 1760-1860,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 70:1 (1996:Spring): 68-93.
  • Hudson, Nicholas “From ‘Nation’ to ‘Race’: The Origin of Racial Classification in Eighteenth-Century Thought” Eighteenth-Century Studies 29.3 (1996): 247-264
  • Kidd, Colin e (2006)
  • Levine, Philippa ‘Anthropology, Colonialism, and Eugenics,’ in eds. Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine, The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics (2010),43-61.
  • Livingstone, David Adam's Ancestors: Race, Religion and the Politics of Human Origins, (Baltimore, 2008)
  • Logan, Deborah Harriet Martineau, Victorian Imperialism, and the Civilizing Mission, Routledge: London (2009),
  • Pick, Daniel Faces of Degeneration: a European Disorder, c.1848-1918, (1993)
  • Poskett, James Materials of the Mind, Cambridge University Press (2018)
  • Qureshi, Sadiah Peoples on parade: Exhibitions, Empire and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain, (2011)
  • Rupke, Nicolaas and Lauer, Gerhard (eds), Johann Friedrich Blumenbach: Race and Natural History, 1750-1850. Routledge: London (2019)
  • Damon, Salesa Racial Crossings: Race, Intermarriage, and the Victorian British Empire, (Oxford, 2011)
  • Sera-Shriar, E. The Making of British Anthropology, 1813-1871, (London 2013)
  • Stepan, Nancy The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain, 1800–1960 (1982)
  • Strings, Sabrina Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. NYU: New York (2019)

Key words search

History of Science, Racial Science, Imperial History, Exploration, Phrenology, Eugenics,  

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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