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Teaching the Americas

Core undergraduate teaching on the history of the Americas at York includes:

Washington and Napoleon: Images, Reputations and Ideological Uses

This module focuses on the public images and reputations of two of the towering figures of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte. Both came to prominence as military and political leaders during revolutions of world historical significance; both became symbols of national glory and post-Revolutionary order. The course examines Washington’s and Napoleon’s careers and achievements, but its central focus is the construction of their images (through a variety of media: political propaganda, the visual arts, literature, historiography, film and so on), and on their changing significance both for contemporaries and for later generations.

Anticommunism has been one of the most potent political ideologies in the United States during the twentieth century. Its features can be traced back to the founding of the American state, perhaps further, but anticommunism became a distinctive political philosophy only in the Wilson era, when foreign and domestic components of thinking about the Red Menace aligned.

This course looks at the origins and development of anticommunism up to the McCarthy era. Students examine anticommunism as an ideology, the varieties of anticommunism, and how social and cultural changes interacted with politics to transform the meaning of anticommunism over time.

Rhapsodies in Black: Harlem, 1917-35

From 1917 till 1935, Harlem (New York) was marked by an outburst of literary and artistic talent, militancy and racial pride. This outburst is better known as the ‘Harlem Renaissance’. This course explores the rise and fall of the movement and tries to assess its contribution to the African American quest for full citizenship, by examining in detail some of the movement’s artistic productions and political writings and relating them to changes that took place in the African American community and the cultural shifts that took place in American society as whole in the 1920s and 1930s.

It also addresses the gender dimensions of the Harlem Renaissance and the role that Caribbean migrants played in the movement; poses the question whether art can function as a tool of liberation; and engages with some of the historical controversies surrounding the movement, including the question whether white patronage prevented the movement from achieving its aims.


This module examines the flight of the Portuguese royal family from Lisbon to Brazil just as the armies of Napoleon entered Lisbon in 1808. The arrival of the royal family in Brazil was the first time a European monarch had visited the new world, in effect creating a European monarchy in the tropics. 

We use this event as a window into the world of the Atlantic empires, the relationship between the metropolitan area and its colony, Napoleonic Europe, and the crisis of sovereignty caused by the flight of the royal family. We see how the arrival of the royal family profoundly altered the destiny of Brazil, setting it on a path different from Spanish South America. We examine why radical political change left the social and economic structures of Brazil untouched. The module finishes by looking forward to what remained unresolved as Brazil broke free from the Portuguese Empire.

For more than four decades after the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union waged a cold war that touched nearly every part of the globe. Then, abruptly, the war was over: the Soviet Union withdrew from Eastern Europe in 1989, Soviet economic and political systems crumbled with remarkable speed, and American politicians and commentators began to speak of a "new world order."

This course asks students to consider the meaning and significance of the end of the Cold War for world history. Was 1989-91 an epochal moment? Did it represent a triumph for the West, for liberal capitalism, or for democracy? How did the abrupt termination of the US-USSR conflict affect the political trajectories of other nations from South China to Africa? And was the post-Cold War world significantly different from its predecessor? The course also explores the possibilities and difficulties of writing about very recent events: can we think historically about processes and developments which are still ongoing?

Empire of Liberty and Bondage: The United States, 1775-1877

In 1775, thirteen of Britain’s twenty-six North American colonies began an unlikely revolt against the most powerful army in the world. A century later, the United States had assumed continental dimensions and had positioned itself as an economic and political rival to Britain on the world stage.

This module examines the emergence of the United States from the American Revolution to Reconstruction, and asks two questions in particular: how did Americans come to understand the potential and limits of political power during this period? And who could be counted as an American citizen in the most diverse society in the world? The module will offer both an introduction to American history across this period, and an exploration of the historical approaches that have been applied to the early United States in recent decades.

Reform, Revolution and Nation-Building in Latin America, 1750-1900

Spain and Portugal ran the biggest and, for centuries, most lucrative empires in the Americas. Then, in just a few years, those empires fell apart. The independent states that were forged in this convulsive period faced an uncertain future in the nineteenth century as they tried to establish themselves as modern nations. 'America is ungovernable,' despaired independence hero Simon Bolivar at the end of his life. 'Those who have served the revolution have ploughed the sea.'

This module examines Latin America's transition from imperial rule to independence, and explores both the Atlantic world that shaped American empires and the political and social turbulence that followed the formation of independent Latin American states.

The British Atlantic World, 1576-1692

In 1577 the astrologer and alchemist Dr John Dee published an appeal to Queen Elizabeth to establish a "British Empire" in the new world. English navigators were already exploring the coastline of North America and Canada, plundering Spanish settlements and searching for the North-West passage to the riches of China. Collected by Richard Hakluyt, their stories were now edited into a manifesto for the plantation of the new world on the same model that English were attempting to impose on Ireland.

Starting with the Elizabethan sea-dogs like Martin Frobisher and Francis Drake, this module follows the fortunes of British efforts to explore, to settle and to understand America. Using primary sources as well as the rich historiography of the British Atlantic world, we examine the identity and beliefs of the British settlers in America, their enduring links to the old world and their responses to the new.

From the American Revolution to the Civil War, the United States expanded from a thin band of settlement along the eastern seaboard to a continental empire. In the process, white Americans were forced to recognize an awkward reality about this empire: it contained blacks and Native Americans as well as whites. The Declaration of Independence promised that all men were created equal, but most white Americans in the early republic refused to apply this principle to non-whites.

This module explores the connections between race, expansion and war in the United States from the 1770s to the 1860s. Some of the topics examined include: the failure of abolition in the Revolutionary era; theories of racial difference; the role of free blacks in the North before the Civil War; the various plans of the US government for "civilizing" Native Americans; and the influence of racial prejudice on the Mexican War and the Civil War.

Sugar and Slavery: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the British Caribbean

This course explores the rise and fall of plantation slavery in the British Caribbean. As most of the slaves in the region worked on sugar plantations, considerable attention will be paid to the development of sugar plantations; their physical lay-out; and the changes that they underwent over time in terms of technology, output and profits, and management structure.

The main focus of the course is on slave life. Not just the slaves’ working lives will be explored but also their material culture, family life, gender relations, and resistance against the slave system. By exploring slaves’ interaction with these various groups, the course will show that the slave plantation was not, as some scholars have argued, a "closed authority system." And finally, the course will address old and recent historical debates about sugar and slavery, such as the impact of slavery on the black family and the role that the decline of the sugar industry played in the abolition of slavery.

Revolutionary change has arguably been as central to the history of Latin America as constitutional change has been to the history of "Anglo" America. This course charts the development of the revolutionary tradition in Spanish-speaking Latin America, from collapse of Spanish control in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the social revolutions of the late twentieth.

We look at the causes and nature of revolutions in Latin America; the central features of Latin American revolutionary thought; the significance of gender, class, race, ethnicity and nationalism in times of rebellion; and the question of revolutionary violence. We will also examine the symbolic legacy of revolutionary heroes: such as Tupac Amaru, Simón Bolívar, José Martí, Antonio Maceo, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Augusto César Sandino, Fidel Castro, and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.

Knowledge and Empire, c.1760-1965

This course considers the role of European knowledge systems and practices in facilitating imperial expansion and colonial control, from map-making and botanical classification to the large-scale development schemes of the twentieth century. Students will be encouraged to assess the relative importance of science, technology and medicine to the success of the imperial project at different moments in history and also the importance of empire for European knowledge systems and medical and scientific practitioners from c.1760.

The course also examines the issue of the status of indigenous knowledge – both the ways in which local knowledges have been important for European science and medicine and also how historians have attempted to describe and define Western science with respect to other modes of knowledge production.

In the midst of the “Age of Empires,” the United States of America began to emerge as a world power, a process which would, by mid-century, establish it as the single most powerful nation on the planet. Overseas expansion wrought deep changes both in the metropolis and the periphery. For a nation that was seemingly both imperial and post-colonial, it also produced a diverse range of views over its implications and ethics. Was America building a European-style empire? And, if so, what might imperialism mean for America’s supposedly exceptional status as the home of liberty, the “last, great hope of mankind” (Lincoln)?

This module will examine the history of US overseas expansion between the Spanish-American War and the Great Depression and, by extension, the origins of America’s global power. In a spirit of “total history,” we define expansion as a political, social and cultural event: looking at the landscapes, languages, habits and ideas that shaped the path of expansion as well as the technologies, policies and institutions through which such expansion took place.

The slaves in the British Caribbean had high expectations of freedom. They hoped that it would give them, amongst others, the vote and control over their time and labour. This course explores the extent to which these and other expectations of freedom were realised in the period between the abolition of slavery in 1838 and independence in the early 1960s. It examines various factors inside and outside the region that impacted on the ability of the former slaves and their descendants to fulfil their hopes of freedom, such as the various legal and extra-legal constraints that the former slaveholders placed on the lives of their former slaves; a social hierarchy in which colour coincided with class; and the decline of the sugar industry.

These and other obstacles, however, did not prevent the former slaves and their descendants from trying to realise their hopes and dreams of freedom. By exploring these means and the social, political and economic condition of the former slaves and their descendants, this course will debunk the myth that slave emancipation was a crowning achievement.


The undergraduate degree at York also requires students to complete an extensive dissertation on a topic of their choice. For undergraduates interested in the history of the Americas, the dissertiation provides an opportunity for deep and sustained research in American history and a close working relationship with our teaching staff. Some recent undergraduate dissertations have focused on:

  • Changing Perceptions of Indian 'Massacres' in Revolutionary America
  • Architecture and the Experience of Slave Families in the Antebellum South
  • New England Responses to the Texas Revolution of 1836
  • Attitudes of African Americans towards immigration during the 1920s
  • Slave mistresses
  • African Americans and trade unionism in the interwar years
  • Managing the US relationship with Perónist Argentina
  • The early Civil Rights Movement in Chicago
  • The role of Congress in US foreign policy toward El Salvador, 1980-1984