HY3242 Modern Imperialism – A travel back in time

In this interview, Dr Donna Brunero tells us about HY3242 Modern Imperialism, which will be offered to undergraduates in AY2021/2022 Semester 1.

Tell us a bit more about the module! 

The Modern Imperialism module is a Level-3000 module and is an exploration of the British empire during the Victorian era, to look at Britain’s emergence as a great world power and imperial power. The British empire is described as an ‘empire on which the sun never sets’ and it is also described as an empire built in a ‘fit of absentmindedness’ but what does this mean? This module explores empire-building and what it meant to Victorian Britons and their imperial subjects. What we normally cover is the British in India, the British in Africa, and themes like sports and empire, cultural imperialism, travel and empire. This semester we might have an additional case study on a settler colony, and this would be Australia, Canada or New Zealand. Bringing in a new settler colony gives us an interesting counterpoint. 

In terms of approaches, I like to use primary sources to explore different events such as the Great Exhibition of 1851. We’ll look at illustrations, guides from the time, travellers’ accounts of visiting the Great Exhibition, and some of the objects on display. We use all of these to build a picture of what the British wanted to present the world in 1851. It’s a really good immersion in primary sources, and this is important for History majors.

We noticed that the last time the module was offered was in 2019. Could you share some memorable experiences while teaching?

2019… it doesn’t feel like it was that long ago! I think one of the memorable things would be looking at cultural imperialism. I used old Pears’ Soap advertisements as an example in the exploration of the civilising mission – there is an entire book that looks at advertising and empire (Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, 2015).

A fun thing for me was trying to buy Pears soap, and for the life of me I’ve seen it somewhere in Singapore but I couldn’t figure out where. I was at Fairprice, then Sheng Siong… I was going through a list of where I would find it, and I ended up finding it in Cold Storage. (laughs) I wanted to buy it so that we could pass it around in class and talk about it, especially how it was marketed as bringing purity and cleanliness. That was fun trying to find these products or brands which were associated with the Empire. You could buy in Australia, so I realised you could buy them in places that were once part of the Empire, so some products seem to have that longevity.

Another thing we do for this module is usually a film screening. The film would vary depending on the general interest and how it would fit the case study best. One of them is Zulu Dawn, which looks at the Anglo-Zulu Wars. We usually bring in one film as well, so I guess that’s another highlight of the film. 

Were there any interesting discussions that came up during your classes?

I think there were lots of interesting discussions! One activity we have is based on science and empire. We run a roleplay where we read about the Royal Geographical Society on map-making, and students will form groups and pretend they are pitching an expedition idea to the Royal Geographical Society. It’s a really interesting exercise to read the scholarship related to these topics and then synthesise that with primary materials and come up with something that is plausible to the audience, which ends up being the rest of the room. I found it an interesting session, and I hope the class did too.

We read David Livingstone’s journals, for instance, and think about how explorers might present themselves to the public and what sort of ideals, missions they would bring. For instance, if you would bring a missionary or religious zeal that you’re bringing with you, or whether you have the support of investors and industrialists who are interested in mining a certain area. It was a great exercise in synthesising primary sources and secondary scholarship with a good dose of historical imagination. 

What can students glean from studying Modern Imperialism? How might that relate to their understanding of current affairs and/or the way the world is headed?

There are some immediate connections you can make: we’re living in Singapore, we’re all speaking English, and much of what we see around us has really strong connections to the legacies of the British empire. That’s not to say that the Empire is a fantastic or good thing, necessarily, but we live with legacies around us: some might have attended a mission school, or joined the Boy Scouts or Girl Guides, and played sports like rugby, cricket and hockey. This type of module helps you make a connection to what you see every day and connect these to the larger historical phenomena like empire-building and what happens when the Empire is dismantled. 

I know the module has made me rethink identity, in some ways. As an Australian, I’m also teaching a module which is very British-oriented. That’s sort of interesting in itself, because Australians are part of the imperial family, but also not British. There was always a clear distinction that Australia was part of the Empire, but also slightly aside from it, as a settler colony. It has been useful for me to understand the Empire and people’s connections to it. 

What can students look forward to in your class?

Something I will do a little differently this semester is to look at the royal family and their tours of the Empire. I have an interest in members of the royal family who toured parts of the Empire, such as going through Cape Town and coming to Singapore, Hong Kong and elsewhere. This was in the 1900s, and if you think about it, it hasn’t been that long since Singapore had royal family members coming through and people getting excited about it. I want to look at the royal family as a force for uniting people, as well as a symbol of the Empire.  

Could you share one cool trivia about the module topic?

One of my favourite fun facts is that Queen Victoria was gifted with a dog that had been taken when the Old Summer Palace was raided in China. She called her dog Looty. I find that very ironic. 

If students want to learn more about the topic, could you recommend other modules, readings or films for them to look at?

Something I usually tell my students in advance would be to read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. It’s not a really long book, but it’s good to read on the case study on Africa. We’ll look at how people grapple with the ambiguity with empire-building, and the way the scramble for Africa led Britons to question identity, for instance. Some students find it challenging, but others find it quite fulfilling to read something they wouldn’t normally pick up. 

Do you have any advice for students who might be interested in your module?

Be prepared to read widely. You don’t have to restrict yourself to what’s on the syllabus. With this module – and I think a lot of professors do the same thing – we make a lot of primary sources available. Quite often, you can explore areas that you find are of particular interest and develop them further. Don’t be frightened of incorporating literature, for instance. Other than Conrad, you could look at Rudyard Kipling, for instance, as one of the great writers of empire. Being able to see beyond standard academic texts is something quite valuable and is a good skill to be able to develop.

This interview is a part of the Humans of History series, which spotlights the stories of the people that make up the NUS History community.

Published by hissocnus

The National University of Singapore (NUS) History Society is a student-run organization that aims to encourage an interest for history among NUS students and members of the public. Its members include all History majors and other NUS students interested in history. Regular projects that aim to engage NUS students include writing and editorial opportunities at the Society’s publication Mnemozine, career development programmes as well as welfare activities. NUS History Society is a student society under the Office of Student Affairs, National University of Singapore.

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