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Richard Drayton was born in Guyana and grew up in Barbados, where he went to school at Harrison College. He left the Caribbean as a Barbados Scholar to Harvard University, going then to Yale, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation under the direction of Paul Kennedy and Frank Turner. He also spent two years as a graduate student at Balliol College, Oxford as the Commonwealth Caribbean Rhodes Scholar. In 1992 he first came to Cambridge as a Research Fellow of St Catharine's College, moving back to Oxford in 1994 to be Darby Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Lincoln College. After 1998, he was Associate Professor of British History at the University of Virginia. In 2001, he returned to Cambridge as University Lecturer in Imperial and extra-European History since 1500, and as Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Corpus Christi College. In 2002 he was awarded the Philip Leverhulme Prize for History. He was Visiting Professor of History at Harvard University in Spring 2009. He came to King's as Rhodes Professor in 2009.

Research interests and PhD supervision

  • How empires shape economy, society, politics, and culture at both their centres and peripheries
  • How ideas and sensibility have a Weberian long durée, and how, reciprocally, material facts-- in particular nature, technology, and economy -- order culture and feeling
  • The British Empire (from Tudor expansion to decolonisation), and the impact of imperial expansion on the British isles
  • French expansion and its impact on economy and society (c. 1500-1850)
  • The History of the Caribbean, in particular its intellectual life (both elite and ‘from below’) since 1800

After c. 1500 European imperial systems began to link together the human communities around the Atlantic basin, and ultimately in the Indian Ocean and Pacific regions, into one world society. This was a complex process, mediated by extraordinary violence, which reached its culmination c. 1750-1900, when new technologies allowed the command and exploitation of continental interiors. Its product was modern Europe and its postcolonial diasporic extensions in North America and Australasia, and their still unequal relationship with modern Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Professor Drayton’s research addresses this world historical process from several directions. In his earlier work he looked at the interactions of science, Christianity, political economy, and British expansion, and the emergence in the European Enlightenment of myths of Empires as engines of development and universal improvement. One dimension of this, he argued, was the rise of the idea of ‘scientific’ enlightened government in eighteenth-century France, and of the influence of this on British domestic and colonial ideas of enlightened reform after c. 1780, and in particular on the colonial patronage of science.

Professor Drayton would welcome applications from research students interested in working on topics relating to:

  • Any aspect of the history of any European empire, or on the imperial experience of any region of the world, including Europe itself. He is comfortable supervising research in any period of modern history, and with sources and historiography in any major European language.

For more details, please see his full research profile.



  • 4AAH1007 The Worlds of the British Empire, 1700-1960
  • 5AAH0002 History & Memory II (unit on Calypso, Reggae, and the Popular Memory of Slavery in the Caribbean)
  • 6AAH3015/16 Caribbean Intellectual History: c.1800 to the present


  • 7AAH0001 Advanced Skills For Historians (Modern & World)
  • 7AAH5002 Transnational History
  • 7AAH5003 The British Empire

Expertise and public engagement

Professor Richard Drayton is Senior Research Associate of the Centre for World Environmental History of the University of Sussex. He was a member of the Academic Advisory Committee on the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum. With Megan Vaughan he edits the Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies series of Palgrave-Macmillan and he is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, a member of the American Historical Association and the Association of Caribbean Historians. He served as External Examiner for the University of Bristol (2007-10). He is a co-convenor of the Imperial and World History seminar at the Insitute of Historical Research.

Richard believes that it is important for historians to communicate with the wider public, and in particular to speak up where their work on the past has relevance to the present. He has appeared on BBC radio on 'Nightwaves' and 'In Our Time', has participated in public debates on Britain's imperial past and present, and has published op/ed pieces in the Guardian (including An Ethical Blank Cheque and Africa and the wealth of the West). He has been invited to give many distinguished lectures including “Hybrid time: The Incomplete Victories of the Present Over the Past”, Throckmorton Lecture at Lewis and Clark College (2007); ‘The Problem of the Hero in Caribbean History’, 21st Elsa Goveia Lecture, University of the West Indies (2004); and ‘What happens when two ways of knowing meet?’, the Elizabeth T. Kennan Lecture at Mount Holyoke College (2003).