An empire of islands: concepts, contexts and collections

Lead Research Organisation: Sheffield Hallam University
Department Name: Faculty of Development and Society


Islands are often imagined as 'special' places. They have long been represented as edenic or utopian; in the UK, the trope of the 'island nation' has for generations carried (and retains) political as well as cultural weight. Small islands, situated in the middle of oceans and remote from continental land masses, often possess an importance in communications, navigation, trade and strategy out of all relation to their size and resources. Yet islands are also contested spaces. They embody - sometimes simultaneously - notions of freedom and captivity; isolation and connection; paradise and inhospitality; wealth and poverty. From the thalassocracies of Greece and Venice to the far-flung dominions of European powers, islands loom large in the histories of the world's maritime empires.

We propose to hold three workshops to explore key issues relating to islands as historical spaces with active roles in shaping, representing and influencing wider imperial contexts.

Our first workshop will explore islands as crucial nodal points for establishing, expanding and maintaining empires. While much of the British Empire's landmass was continental rather than insular, islands played a critical role in consolidating Britain's global reach. Early colonial visions of islands as landscapes that could be transformed by the plantation of peoples, crops and ideas had powerful impacts on the development of British approaches to empire over centuries. As scholars like Canny and Jarvis have argued, what the British knew about empire on continents, they learned from first colonising islands like Ireland or Bermuda. Islands were more than testing grounds for empire, however. They were highly lucrative possessions, creating immense wealth for individuals and governments, and acted as fulcra in sophisticated systems of trade and production. In other contexts, such as the South Atlantic or the Indian Ocean, islands acted as both staging posts and strategic bulwarks, at once safeguarding territories and sea routes and enabling their expansion. In this sense, it becomes possible to conceive of an empire of islands.

Although islands might be regarded as the chains holding empire together, many were not straightforwardly British or French or Dutch. These places, as isolated ports in vast oceans, provided safe harbours for peoples of many nations. Standing on key trade routes, their communities were polyglot and multiracial. As a result, and particularly at times of war or revolution, these societies reflected wider global disputes. Equally important were the tensions between Europeans and non-Europeans (whether indigenous or imported) in the islands. Slave revolt and indigenous power constantly challenged the presence of imperial rule. Our second workshop will explore the implications of considering islands as microcosms of wider imperial and global contests, in which great power rivalries played out among neighbours and - sometimes - friends.
European activity in these islands resulted in the creation of a vast archive of textual and visual records that represent European engagements with these places, their environments and peoples. In addition to documentary sources, an array of prints, drawings, fine art, cartography and a host of material culture represent these islands in ways that indicate the complex nature of European interactions with these spaces. The National Maritime Museum holds unparalleled collections that give our network the opportunity to explore these themes. In our third workshop, participants will consider these collections in the light of the concepts discussed in the first two meetings. We aim to connect leading-edge research with world class collections to consider innovative ways of understanding the past and new approaches to interpreting museum collections for a range of audiences. Discussions in the first two meetings will enlighten the third, the results of which will be central to the network's impact.

Planned Impact

This network's discussions will have an impact beyond the academy.

1. Curators and museum professionals responsible for island-related collections will benefit from the object-based focus of the third workshop. This event will allow museum specialists to exchange perspectives and approaches to the history of islands through the study of visual and material culture, as well as highlighting the importance of interpreting images and objects within wider conceptual, geographical and historical frameworks.

2. The network's discussions will feed directly into the 'Endeavour Project' at the National Maritime Museum. This project envisages the transformation of a suite of four major permanent galleries at the heart of the museum by 2018. At least two of them - 'Tudor and Stuart Seafarers' and 'Pacific Exploration' - will lay considerable emphasis on the role of islands and will display some of the objects to be discussed in workshop three. The active participation of scholars from the American Museum of Natural History and the British Museum enables discussions about the engagement of different international public in debates about the importance and representation of island spaces.

3. These permanent displays will be one of the ways in which the public are engaged. We also intend to use our online programming to reach a wider public. The use of podcasts and an online exhibition provide opportunities not only for measureable public access, but also provide a forum for public responses to them.


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
AH/N003225/1 01/03/2016 31/07/2016 £35,809
AH/N003225/2 Transfer AH/N003225/1 01/08/2016 31/08/2017 £28,117
Description This research network has allowed us to bring together scholars with a wide range of interests and expertise (geographical, chronological and methodological) to consider in depth how small islands help us explain the ways in which empires functioned. We have focused primarily (but not exclusively) on islands in the British empire, with the intention of broadening our scope in future projects. We have found that islands performed critical functions. Firstly, they acted as 'stepping stones' across interconnected trade routes and provided vital commercial and strategic bases in the age of sail. Secondly, the sea not only connected islands, it also enclosed them. In this sense islands became 'laboratories'. For the islands we studied, this meant not only that they became places for scientific exploration and experimentation but also that the great global changes (war and revolution, for example) were felt intensely there. As a result, they provide useful places to study these seismic shifts. In addition, by connecting university scholars with museum professionals and museum collections we are offering new insights into how museum collections can be reinterpreted to shed new light on the role of islands in the making of empires.
Exploitation Route Our network, which connects scholars in universities and in museums, was established with the specific intention of supporting the interpretation of museum collections and archives. Some of the findings of the project (including our work with specific museum objects) will soon be available on the National Maritime Museum website as an online exhibition. We also think our work advances historical understanding of empires and we plan to use this project as a foundation for future research projects.
Sectors Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Our findings have been made public on new online exhibition on islands and empires and builds on our existing web presence. It is available at: Since its launch in September 2019, the National Maritime Museum (which hosts the site) has recorded 225 visits. Each visit lasted, on average, 2 minutes 30 seconds. By way of context, the average across the NMM site is 1 minute 15 seconds, which suggests a deeper engagement with this page than others. Between 26.02.2020 and 01.03.2021 our pages received 118 visitors to, spending on average 2 minutes 13 seconds and 96 visitors to where people spent 2 minutes 40 seconds. The average time spent across the Museum website is 2 minutes 16 seconds.
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description Empires and Islands online exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact An online exhibition, arising directly from the network's third workshop, interprets museum collections to explore the meanings and significance of small islands. The site launched in September 2019. To date (February 2020) there have been 225 visits. On average visitors spent 2 minutes 30 seconds on average on the exhibition page, compared to only 1 minute 45 seconds across the NMM website as a whole.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
Description Public professorial lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact I gave a Professorial Lecture at Sheffield Hallam University on 4 February 2020 on 'Sailing in the same uncertain sea: islands and empires in the eighteenth-century Caribbean'. The audience consisted of academics, postgraduates and members of the public. There were a series of questions asked afterwards in the lecture theatre, and thereafter at the reception.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Radio Interview BBC Radio Sheffield 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I did a 15-minute interview on the theme of islands on the 'Rony Robinson Show' at lunch time on BBC Radio Sheffield on 15 January 2020.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020