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Imperial Island

Imperial Island

An Alternative History of the British Empire

Charlotte Lydia Riley

ISBN 9780674258495

Publication date: 05/21/2024

This riveting new history tells the story of Britain’s journey from imperial power to a nation divided—one that alternately welcomes and excludes former imperial subjects and has been utterly transformed by them.

The British often hark back to that moment in the Second World War when they stood alone in their opposition to fascism. Yet Britain harnessed every inch of its empire in the war effort, from Kenya and Jamaica to India and Hong Kong. Many of the people who fought for Britain had never set foot on its soggy shores. After the war, as independence movements gained momentum and the empire fractured, former subjects started making their way to the motherland. Would these men and women of different races, cultures, and traditions be accepted as British, or would they forever be seen as outsiders? Opinions divided then—and still do.

Over the next seventy years, empire came to define Britain as never before. From race riots to the Notting Hill Carnival, from the Suez Crisis to the Falklands War, from Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech to Band Aid and Brick Lane, the imperial mindset has dominated Britain's relationship with itself and the world. The ghosts of empire are to be found, too, in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the scandal of the Windrush deportations—and, of course, Brexit.

Drawing on a mass of original research to capture the thoughts and feelings of ordinary British citizens, Imperial Island tells a story of people on the move and of people trapped in the past, of the end of empire and the birth of multiculturalism, a chronicle of violence and exclusion but also a testament to community. It is the story that best explains Britain today.


  • Riley’s absorbing new book…[is] a history of modern multicultural Britain and the myriad ways in which it has been shaped by empire and imperialism…Riley’s skills as a social historian are demonstrated to best effect in her use of personal testimonies, oral histories and popular culture sources to bring to life the everyday experiences of new migrants…The book is particularly rich on civil society campaigns against racism, and at documenting the political role played by the anti-war left in modern Britain…dexterously handled and carefully sourced.

    —Financial Times


  • Charlotte Lydia Riley is a lecturer in twentieth-century British history at the University of Southampton. She is the editor of The Free Speech Wars and has written for the Washington Post, The Guardian, New Statesman, New Humanist, and World Histories. She cohosts a podcast, Tomorrow Never Knows, on feminism, pop culture, politics, and history.

Book Details

  • 320 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press