History Bombs are proud to introduce our new series on the British Empire.
Action-packed and beautifully shot, these are history videos that play hard in order to teach more deeply.
This series will give students a confident grasp of all key facts and timelines, and provoke rich critical debate for learners of all abilities.
We hope these videos will serve as every educator’s secret weapon to capture attention and present memorable, in-depth perspectives on this essential topic.
We made these six films in collaboration with Shalina Patel, a trailblazing leader in UK history teaching, whose historical and educational expertise was invaluable to script development. Visit her History Corridor channels for excellent content on a wide range of history topics (Instagram and Linktree).
We wanted to give a taster of what you can watch and learn in the upcoming series, and an insight into our priorities and thought processes while making it. Enjoy these six striking facts from the history of the British Empire – one from each of our fantastic new films.
And remember to start your membership to access all History Bombs video lessons and teaching materials!
1. Modern British sea exploration began with an Italian sailor
King Henry VII of England was jealous of the advances made by Portuguese and Spanish kingdoms into the so-called New World. In 1497 he gave a special licence to an Italian sea-trader named John Cabot. It was a licence to sail to lands ‘unknown to Christians’, under an English flag with the backing of the Crown, on one condition: anything that he got on his travels could be traded only with England.
Cabot’s expedition of 1497 was the first visit of the modern age to North America by a European, coming only five years after Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to what is now called the Caribbean.
Why did John Cabot get this job? He seems to have been a good storyteller. He came to England while on the run from debt collectors in Italy, and talked his way in to the Tudor court. He promised (like Columbus) to find a quicker sea route to China and India – but bumped into America instead!
Here, at the very beginning of British imperial ambitions, we can already see key themes that inform the series.
There’s fierce rivalry with other European countries, driving overseas exploration; bringing Christianity all across world; and claiming a God-given right to take and trade the resources of ‘unknown’ lands. This soon became the taking and trading of people as well, across 300 years of the brutal Atlantic slave trade.
On the front line of British imperialism was a blagger on a ship, looking to make some quick cash. John Cabot and Henry VII were part of a bigger historical shift than they could have imagined.
Learn more about the empire’s beginnings in our video ‘What motivated Britain’s first colonists?’
2. Brave Black women won against British forces across the Caribbean
In 18th-century Jamaica, Nanny of the Maroons led an army of self-freed enslaved people and Taino Indigenous people – collectively called Maroons – against British forces. Her mastery of guerilla tactics forced the British governor to sign a peace treaty in 1740 and recognise the independence of Nanny Town – one of a few Maroon towns on Jamaica that achieved some freedom from colonial rule through military resistance.
Some sixty years later, Marie-Jeanne Lamartinière joined the army of Haiti. Haiti was a newly independent country that had been liberated from the French Empire, in a revolution led by Black and self-freed people. The British government was worried the Haitian Revolution would lead to further uprisings in their own colonies, so they launched the ‘Great Push’ of 1796 to take the island for themselves.
This disastrous campaign cost Britain four million pounds (billions of pounds today) and 100,000 casualties. They withdrew defeated in 1797 – and Lamartinière became a Haitian icon during her lifetime from her fearless actions in battle, and her care for the wounded.
While acknowledging the ingenuity and courage of these resisters, our new series doesn’t only spotlight armed resistance. Heroism and sheer survival in the face of colonialism took many different forms.
The huge variety of fascinating stories in this series includes Sultan Babullah’s shrewd playing of the British-Portuguese rivalry in late 16th-century Indonesia; Pocahontas’s effective peace-building in early 17th-century North America and London; the charismatic leadership of Bungaree, an Aboriginal Kuringgai guide and translator, who repeatedly saved Matthew Flinders’ map-making mission around Australia in 1801-1803; and much more.
Our ambition for this series was to make space for a wide range of people who encountered British colonialism across the world, and who acted or reacted to it in many different ways.
These stories will broaden and deepen students’ education, giving them many ways to think about the development of the British Empire: not as a grinding process of European domination, but as a dynamic process of exchange, resistance and violence, and one where the real shapers of history are found far from the corridors of power in Britain.
Learn more about resistance in our video ‘How did the British Empire develop?’
3. The USA’s greatest hero fought for the British first – and so did a leading abolitionist
George Washington is revered as the United States’ founding father. But his military career began fighting for the British Empire in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) against French colonies in North America.
Despite success as a commander, he was repeatedly passed over for promotions; this experience, combined with his objections to heavy taxes levied by the British government on the American colonies, led him to command the American Revolutionary forces in a war for independence, which was won in 1783. His knowledge of British military tactics was an important factor in being able to outmanouver his larger, better-financed opponents.
Another combatant in the Seven Years’ War was Olaudah Equiano. Kidnapped from Nigeria as a child and sold into slavery, by the time of the war he was serving as a valet to an officer in the Royal Navy. He saw dangerous action on British ships, carrying gunpowder to the cannons on deck during battle.
After the war he worked as a trader in the Caribbean, and bought his freedom in 1766. He moved to England and became a leader and pioneer in the campaign to abolish slavery. His speeches and highly popular memoirs were hugely influential in highlighting the horrors of the slave trade, and turning public opinion in favour of abolition.
Stories like these emphasise how individuals took different approaches to the British Empire within their own lifetimes. While all learners will come away with the key facts about Washington, Equiano, and a host of other important figures, our films also provide texture for higher-level learning: we hear about people’s lives in detail, and can reflect on how they navigated the privileges and the oppressions of colonial society.
Learn more about Washington and Equiano in our video ‘British Empire in One Take’
4. Abolition of slavery in Britain was followed by massive compensation for… slave-owners
It might seem strange that when the British government finally proposed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, it passed without any opposition, despite many members of Parliament being slave-owners themselves.
It’s less strange when we look at the Slave Compensation Act, which came into force just a few years later. Despite the name, this was not a program to compensate formerly enslaved people for the horrors they had been through. Instead, it compensated former slave-owners, in hard cash, for the loss of their ‘property’ in freeing enslaved people.
This compensation amounted to twenty million pounds (tens of billions today). Over 40,000 people filled in a claims form. They lived all across Britain and the Empire, and at every level of the upper and middle classes. Some compensation claims were so large that they financed major banks and companies which are still operating today.
In tackling the British Empire, we knew from the outset how important it would be to educate students about the links between past and present. The exciting ‘History Bombs Investigates’ format lets the viewer uncover these links in real time alongside the characters, and shows a range of viewpoints that will inspire rich discussions between students and educators.
Learn more in our video ‘What does the Slave Compensation Act tell us about the British Empire?’ and check out the excellent UCL Database in their ‘Legacies of British Slavery’ centre.
5. Queen Victoria wore an apparently cursed diamond from South Asia… and hated it
The Koh-i-Noor diamond (or ‘Mountain of Light’) was taken by the British government after they won a war against the Sikh Empire in 1849 and annexed the Kingdom of Punjab.
The diamond had belonged to various rulers across South Asia for centuries, and had a reputation for causing bad luck. It had a stormy sea voyage to London, and was displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 to millions of visitors, as shining proof of the Empire’s global power – and Victoria’s newest bit of bling.
The queen herself wasn’t a fan, though. In a letter to her daughter (also Victoria), she said:
“No one feels more strongly than I do about India or how much I opposed our taking these countries and I think no more will be taken, for it is very wrong and no advantage to us. You know also how much I dislike wearing the Koh-i-Noor.”
This letter also shows an interesting anti-expansion attitude from Victoria. But her politicians didn’t share this point of view. Her reign saw a huge expansion of the Empire’s territory across the world; and with it, ever more looting of precious artefacts and human remains, which were brought back to Britain for glory, display, and sometimes for study.
There are still many controversial examples of this today, including the Benin Bronzes, which were looted from the Kingdom of Benin (present-day Nigeria) in 1897 after a bloody massacre by the British navy. The British Museum has so far refused to consider returning these hundreds of stolen objects.
Our series asks students and educators how we can look at museum objects in ways that don’t just repeat the old colonial story of conquest and treasure – how can we use these artefacts to learn more about the people and societies that created them?
Learn more about Victorian expansion in our video ‘How did the British Empire dominate one fifth of the world?’
6. A diverse coalition stopped British fascists in 1936
The 20th and 21st centuries have seen mass migrations across the world. Many of the causes are connected to empire, including displacement by wars and land grabs, the concentration of economic power in colonising countries, and deliberate policies of relocation.
These factors have contributed to London becoming one of the most diverse cities in the world. The East End became home over the years to important Irish, Jewish, and later Bangladeshi and Bengali communities, as well as working-class people from all over the UK.
In 1936, when Hitler had brutally consolidated his power in Germany, his fascist British ally Oswald Mosley was preparing to march with thousands of supporters through the East End.
But the East End was having none of it. At least 100,000 people from across the East End’s diverse communities blocked the roads and stood against the march, withstanding violence from the Metropolitan Police, and forcing the British Union of Fascists out of the neighbourhood.
In what became known as the Battle of Cable Street, it was London’s immigrant and working-class communities who stopped British fascism in its tracks.
Migration is an important living legacy. The Windrush Generation refers to the thousands of people from former colonies, particularly in the Caribbean, who took up the British government’s invitation to live and work in the UK after WW2. They played a crucial role in remaking Britain after the war’s devastation.
Our series shows students how to look with a historical eye at everyday objects – cups of tea, public statues, shopfronts and street art – to understand how they connect to legacies of the British Empire. We believe this will make history come alive for all learners, nurturing critical skills for their educational careers, and in their lives as thinking citizens.