British Empire
British Empire logo
Site help
What is in the British Empire exhibition?
This exhibition is intended for students of the History National Curriculum at Key Stage 3-4.

The National Archives holds a wealth of original papers, letters, posters, photos, maps and other material that records important moments in the history of the British empire. Because the empire lasted so long and covered so much of the world, we haven’t even tried to study everything about the empire in this exhibition. Instead, we’ve picked out some of the most interesting original sources and put them online.

We’ve grouped sources according to time and place.
  • Gallery 1 The Rise of the British empire asks: why did the British become empire builders? It looks at 4 case studies: North America, Africa, India and Australia.
  • Gallery 2 Living in the British empire asks: How should we remember the British empire? The first case study in this gallery has sources that show how the British viewed their empire. The next 4 case studies look at North America, Africa, India and Australia. The final case study on migration looks at people who moved to a different part of the empire.
  • Gallery 3 The end of the British empire asks: what factors caused the end of the empire? It looks at 4 case studies: The Dominions, Ghana, India and Ireland.
Each case study contains a selection of original sources. The empire is a controversial subject and some of these sources are on difficult topics. Some sources contain views that we may strongly disagree with. Some sources contain information that still has the power to anger and shock. We have tried to present each source with some background information that gives it historical context. We have also provided discussion questions that we hope will encourage classroom debate and help students to critically examine these sources. The British empire is a sensitive topic for study, but also a fascinating one, and a significant era in British and world history.

Students can examine one or many original sources and answer questions about each source. There are useful notes to help with answering the questions. Where the original source is difficult to read or understand, we have provided transcripts. For the older and most difficult documents, there is also a simplified transcript in modern English.

Each gallery has a selection of activities or quizzes, and worksheets to help students organise their study. Background pages give an introduction to the historical background and the themes that run through each case study. A glossary and a simple set of world maps can be accessed from the links at the foot of each page.
Disclaimer top
In some parts of this site we provide you with access to a database where you can save your work (on activities, exercises etc). While we take all reasonable care with this information, we accept no liability or responsibility should your work be lost. We reserve the right to withdraw access to this database at any time. See a full disclaimer and copyright notice for The National Archives.
Learning Curve accounts
In Gallery 2 of this Learning Curve exhibition there is an activity where you can create your own Online Exhibition. You can log in, work on this activity, save your work and then continue working on it at a later date. In order to do this, you need to sign up for a Learning Curve account. You can still create your own online exhibition without signing up, but your work will not be saved.

The Gallery 2 Online Exhibition section has a "Log In" button with instructions to guide you through the process of signing up. Details that you must give us to get an account (like your name) are shown with an asterisk; other details are optional. There is a “Help” page to assist you.

For more information, see on this Help page:

Creating your own Online Exhibition
If you choose to create a Learning Curve account, you will be asked to provide some registration information, such as your name and email address. This information is used only for the purpose of creating a Learning Curve account. We also ask you to provide optional information such as your school and year. You do not have to provide this information in order to receive a Learning Curve account, but if you do, we will use the information only to help us improve our service to you. We respect your right to privacy and we will always protect the personal information that you share with us. The National Archives stores information internally in a controlled, secure environment. No information collected will be passed on to a third party outside The National Archives. See our Privacy policy.

Recommended specifications and plugins top
For best viewing of this exhibition we recommend:
  • 800 x 600 (minimum screen resolution)
  • 16-bit colour monitor
  • Cookies, style sheets, automatically load images and JavaScript to be enabled
  • 16-bit stereo soundcard (or better)
  • Internet Explorer 4.5+ or Netscape 4.7+ or Opera 6.0+

To access our worksheets, presentations and films, you may need the following:

  • A word processing package that can read rtf files (e.g. Microsoft Word). If not available, get Word viewer: PC or Mac
  • Windows Media Player. Get Windows Media Player.
  • Macromedia Flash 6.0 player. Get the latest Flash plugin: PC and Mac
  • Adobe Acrobat reader. Get the latest plugin: PC and Mac
Search and other ways to find stuff
Finding your way around:
  • Site Map: At the foot of each page there is a link to a site map that will show you the main sections of this exhibition.
  • Getting back to where you started: At the top left of each page there is a breadcrumb trail (e.g. Home > Gallery > Case Study) that shows you where you are and how to retrace your steps through the exhibition. To go back to other exhibitions in the Learning Curve, click on the Learning Curve logo at the top right of any page.
  • Contact us: If you have questions for us, choose the link to ‘Feedback’ from the foot of any page.
How to use the Search:

Enter a keyword or keywords into the search to find web pages within the British empire exhibition on the subject of your choice. Note: This search only looks for web pages within the British empire exhibition, not the whole Learning Curve website. It only looks for web pages, not other file formats (such as rtf, pdf, films).

You can search for any word or phrase that appears on the web pages in British empire. Consecutive words are treated as a phrase, eg slave trade will find pages that have those two words appearing together in that order. To search for several words in a document, separate the words with a comma, eg Irish, migration, America will find pages with some or all of these words, with the best matches first.

To create a more precise search you can use Boolean operators (AND, OR, and NOT) and the proximity operator (NEAR).

  • AND - Use to search for both terms in the same page, eg missionary and Africa finds pages with both the words 'women' and 'vote'.
  • OR - Use to search for either term in a page, eg train or railway finds pages with the word 'suffragette' or the word 'suffragist'.
  • AND NOT - Use to search for the first term without the second term, eg war and not first finds pages with the word 'war' but not 'first'.
  • NEAR - Use to search for both terms close together in the same page, eg Gandhi near protest finds pages with these two words near to each other.
  • Use quotation marks (") to indicate that an operator should be ignored in your query, eg "positive or negative" will match pages with the phrase 'positive or negative', not pages that match the Boolean expression.
Use wildcard operators to help you find pages containing words similar to a given word.
  • * - Use to search for words with the same prefix, eg act* finds pages with words such as 'action', 'activities', etc, as well as 'act'.
  • ** - Use to search for words based on the same stem word, eg buy** finds pages with words such as 'buying', 'bought', etc.
Film sources top

To speed up download times and allow for the best viewing of each film clip in this exhibition, please choose the format that best matches your type of Internet connection. There is a trade-off, so the larger the film file, the slower the download, but the better the viewing quality. The table below is a rough estimate of the download times for the clips:

Average Time to Download a Film


100 KB

500 KB

1 MB


16.5 sec

82.3 sec

164.6 sec

ISDN (128K)

8.2 sec

41.1 sec

82.3 sec


0.6 sec

3.2 sec

6.4 sec

If you cannot view the films, try updating to the latest version of Windows Media Player. On each film page there is a link to where you can download the plugin you need.

Page has expired
If you see a "Warning: page has expired" message, then refresh the page using the <F5> key (Internet Explorer) or reload the page using <Ctrl> + <r> (Netscape Navigator). This usually happens when users are working on an activity and use the browser "back" button rather than the website navigation buttons.
Creating your own Online Exhibition (Gallery 2) top
The aim:

The online exhibition that you create will have between 6 and 12 sources in it, which will provide a balanced view of the empire, with a range of viewpoints, areas and issues.

You will create your exhibition in order from source 1 up to source 12. Note: it will be easier to create an exhibition if you complete the research stages first. Fill in the research tables to help you decide on the sources that you wish to use.

Researching sources:

Stage 1
You need to start your research by looking closely at the sources in case study 1. Make a careful note of all the evidence in case study 1 which supports a positive view of the British empire. The research table will help you record what you find out. You can print it out and write on it, and even enlarge it to A3 on a photocopier to give you plenty of space to work. Otherwise you could download it to your own computer and record on it there.

Stage 2
Now research case studies 2-6, looking for evidence that supports either a positive or negative view of the British empire. Use the research table in the same way as Stage 1 to record what you find out.

Stage 3
When you have finished your research, you can plan an online exhibition by clicking on the “Create Exhibition” button. Your exhibition should display between 6-12 sources chosen from the sources you’ve looked at in this gallery.

There are 2 ways in which you can select the exact source you want to use:
  • You can select the source from the drop down menu.
  • You can search for it by keyword, then select it from the list of search results.
If you choose to use one of the film clips in your exhibition, you will get a still image from the film, not the moving film itself. Once you have chosen your source, you can add a date, title, and caption (which you will write – there are suggestions to help you do this). You can move, edit or remove any of the sources you have chosen at any time by using the options in the box on the right-hand side of the page. Select the source from the list of those you have chosen and then use the buttons to make your changes. Note: Removing a source will permanently delete all the text you have typed into the caption boxes for that source. You can see how your exhibition will look by pressing the "View Exhibition" button. You can make more changes or you can print your exhibition in a printer-friendly format by pressing the "Print Exhibition" button. You can work on your exhibition for as long as you like during a single session, but you will need to log in if you want to save your work and come back to it another time. Important! You may lose your work if you are not logged in and you close your browser or do not use the exhibition for more than 20 minutes - the computer does this automatically. Remember to save your work by logging in if you want to come back to your work another day.

Logging In:
The "Log In" button will take you to a login page. If you already have an account you can log in by entering your e-mail address and password. If you are a new user you can create a new Learning Curve account. For more information, see on this Help page:

Learning Curve accounts

Logging Out: Once you have completed working on the exhibition, click on the "Log Out" button to end your session securely. Simply leaving the exhibition page does not log you out and you can resume work by opening the page again. You will be logged out if you do not use the exhibition for more than 20 minutes - the computer does this automatically.
Printing and PDF pages top
Most pages of the British empire exhibition have a "Print" button at the top right. For supporting pages (like transcripts, useful notes, help, glossary, etc.) this will just print the web page. For main pages (like the case studies and source pages) this will print a page specially designed to print the source images at a better quality.

These specially designed pages are in PDF format. Some PDFs are quite large (over 1 MB) and so may be slow to open. If you chose to print a whole case study rather than just one source page, this will be a very large PDF. You will need the Adobe Reader to open and print them. If you don't have it, get Adobe Reader from: Adobe
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