Dr Esme Cleall (she/her)

B.A., M.A. (Sheffield), Ph.D. (UCL)

Department of History

Senior Lecturer in the History of the British Empire

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+44 114 222 2619

Full contact details

Dr Esme Cleall
Department of History
Jessop West
1 Upper Hanover Street
S3 7RA

I research and teach on the social and cultural history of the British Empire; the politics of difference; and race and disability in nineteenth-century Britain.

I studied at Sheffield as an Undergraduate and as a Masters student. I did my PhD in History at UCL spending an additional year as a cross- disciplinary training fellow in the Department of Anthropology. I then taught at Liverpool for two years before returning to Sheffield in September 2012.

My first book, Missionary Discourses of Difference: negotiating otherness in the British Empire, 1840-1900, explored the difference of gender and race through the writings of British missionaries stationed in nineteenth-century India and southern Africa.

My second book, Colonising Disability: impairment and otherness across Britain and its Empire, c. 1800-1914, came out with CUP in 2022. It was funded by an AHRC-leadership fellowship and explores issues of disability, philanthropy, self-advocacy, discrimination, and immigration.

My current work builds on my analysis of disability to experiences and representations of disability, the body, health, and mental distress in nineteenth and twentieth-century imperial thought. Key themes include reproduction, trauma, violence, and emotion.

Research interests

My research is on the politics of colonial difference and exclusion in the British Empire. I am particularly interested in the production of categories of otherness including those based around race, gender, religion, and disability. My current work focusses on violence, trauma, emotion and the body in the British Empire.

Research Projects:

Missionaries, Race and Gender in India and southern Africa. Interrogating violence, sickness and the family in missionary thought, c. 1840-1900.

My first monograph, Missionary Discourses of Difference: negotiating otherness in the British Empire, 1840-1900, explores the difference of gender and race through the writings of British missionaries stationed in nineteenth-century India and southern Africa. The basis of this project was my PhD research supported by the AHRC, and for an additional fourth year, by an UCL Cross Disciplinary Training Fellowship in Social and Medical Anthropology. My work on missionaries also resulted in articles on missionary humanitarianism and gender identities in Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, South African Historical Journal and Cultural and Social History.

Deaf Connections: a social and cultural history of deafness, c. 1800-1914.

This project analysed constructions and experiences of deafness in the nineteenth-century British World. Supported by a British Academy Small Grant, this multi-archival research explored deafness in nineteenth-century Britain, US, Ireland and Canada. It looked at how deaf people were singled out as particularly ‘other’ given their use of sign-language (seen as primitive) and strong communities as well as how deaf people responded to these claims. Outputs included articles in Gender and History and The Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History.

Colonising Disability: race, impairment and otherness in the British Empire, c. 1800-1914.

My second monograph, Colonising Disability: race, impairment and otherness in the British Empire, c. 1800-1914 was published with CUP in 2022. It explores disability in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century British Empire. The project also led to articles published in History Workshop Journal and Historical Journal.

Empire Emotions: mental distress in the colonial archive, c. 1800-1914.

My new research aims to find out more about mental distress and emotional wellbeing in the colonial sphere. Franz Fanon pointed to the arena of mental health as a key place where the creation of colonizers and colonizers as interconnected yet oppositional figures, were forged. To take a different perspective, we might describe mental health as an area of ‘dense point of transfer’ where ideas about identity, belonging and health/pain/sickness were reconfigured. The project would tackle these issues by looking at missionaries’ and settlers’ internal worlds focussing in particular on emotion and mental distress. Key themes may include:  fever, anxiety, violence, guilt, doubt, loss and grief, powerlessness, loneliness, revulsion, betrayal, shame and obsession.



  • Cleall E (2022) Colonising Disability. Cambridge University Press. RIS download Bibtex download
  • Cleall ER (2012) Missionary Discourses of Difference: Negotiating Otherness in the British Empire, 1840-1900. Palgrave Macmillan. RIS download Bibtex download

Journal articles


Research group

Research supervision

I welcome students interested in working on the history of the British Empire; the histories of race, gender, and disability; missionary history; and the histories of nineteenth-century India, southern Africa and Britain.

Current Students
  • Rachel Garratt (second supervisor, with University of Leeds) - Enabling or Disabling: deaf responses to auditory technology in the early twentieth century.

All current students

Completed Students
  • Sabine Hanke - National identity and cultural difference in the British and German circus, 1920-1945
  • David Holland (second supervisor) - Natives and Newcomers, Marriage and Belonging - South Asian migration, settlement and working-class tolerance in the Sheffield area during the early twentieth century.
  • Fiona Clapperton (second supervisor, School of English) - From Servants to Staff : the making of a modern estate, Chatsworth 1908-1950.
  • Julia McColl (second supervisor, University of Liverpool) - Imagining the Missionary Hero:  juvenile missionary biographies, c. 1870-1917.

Find out more about PhD study in History

Teaching interests

I principally teach on the history of the nineteenth-century British empire including the way in which the empire was shaped and understood in metropolitan Britain and the history of cultural imperialism. overseas I also teach on the history of disability in nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain. I am interested in hearing from prospective research students who are researching the history of disability, race and gender in Britain and its empire. I am committed to decolonising the curriculum and am interested in hearing from students about ways to do this.

Teaching activities


  • HST3127/8 - Contested Visions: Imagining an Empire in mid-nineteenth century Britain
  • HST3307 - Conflict, Cultures and (De)colonisation 


  • HST6053 - Debating Cultural Imperialism in the Nineteenth-Century British Empire
Professional activities and memberships

I am a member of the Royal Historical Society.

Public engagement

I am committed to working with community groups to unravel new perspectives on the past.

I have recently been working with Sheffield Voices, a self-advocacy group for adults with learning disabilities, to make a film about the history of learning disabilities in Sheffield. You can watch the film we made here.

I have been an Early Career Researcher on the University of Sheffield’s AHRC-funded Researching Community Heritage Team. As part of this project, I worked as a consultant historian on a project on 'Indian Heritage in the Peak District' led by Hindu Samaj and funded by the All Our Stories National Lottery Fund to unravel the connections between India and the Peak District National Park. The ‘Indian Heritage in the Peak District’ project garnered some media interest and coverage. In particular by Martin Wainwright (Northern Editor) of the Guardian.

In the media:

I have written for The Conversation.