Empireland: How Imperialism has Shaped Modern Britain by Sathnam Sanghera

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Reviewed by Liz Dexter

“If we don’t confront the reality of what happened in British empire, we will never be able to work out who we are or who we want to be.”

Sathnam Sanghera has done an awful lot of research, and the 47 – count them – pages of bibliography in this volume bear witness to this. He also thanks several experts who have spent a lot of time explaining issues of economics and history to him. But this is no dry meta-study of everyone else’s work, as it’s personal, too: Sanghera was born in Britain with Indian Sikh heritage, and he is thus able to examine the topic from the inside out as well as the outside in. 

The book opens with a half-serious exhortation to reintroduce Empire Day and ends with a serious exhortation to include the history of empire in our national curriculum, and in between takes a wide-ranging look at how Empire is defined (it isn’t, it can’t be and he devotes some time in the Acknowledgements to explaining what he’s not going to define), how it affected British life at the time (more mixed than you might imagine) and how it affects British life today (more mixed than you might imagine, with a lot of echoes he cleverly draws out, as well as the more well-known legacies of slave-owners’ money (more complicated than you might imagine)). 

Taking all of the sources into account that he does, Sanghera finds he has to show the arguments from both/all sides and acknowledge the (very few) good points of balance as well as showing the lacks in our general national knowledge, the filling in of which might well mean that people more readily acknowledge and accept the presence and contributions of the British citizens who were born in the old empire. He has a strong thesis that people on the whole don’t realise that a) Black and Brown people have been in the UK since Roman times or before, b) the people who emigrated here in the 20th century did so as British citizens, in the main, and c) they were asked to come here in the first place. I thought that most people knew these facts, but then I have gathered them over an adulthood of reading, which maybe not everyone has been privileged enough to have, and I’m certainly still learning. 

He’s also clear on the issue of correlation not being the same as causality – he draws parallels between many behaviours of imperialists and modern Britons (disliking the food when on holiday, searching out British products in far-flung places, seeking a home abroad, bringing back artefacts if you’ve been away a long time, the purity of foreign conflicts, whether Imperial or the Falklands War, the colour bar which existed semi-officially in mid-20th century Britain, etc.) but makes it clear early on that 

“patterns randomly emerge, the lines between coincidences, patterns, echoes and correlations are fine and subjective, and in picking out modern legacies of empire you’re always at risk of resembling an imperial version of Mr ‘Everything Comes from India’ from the BBC sketch show Goodness Gracious Me”

This quotation also shows the occasional light-heartedness and definite readability of the book – certainly no dry tome. 

But there are inescapable parallels and effects, not least the huge amount of material lodged in the back rooms of museums (often not even on display) which was plundered and stolen in the process of empire-building – not a new topic, of course, but one carefully woven in to the narrative, and including a note that there was not universal approbation of this plundering at the time. And he has a major strand around “We are here because you were there” (quoted from Sri Lankan writer Ambalavaner Sivanandan), both a good thing for a multicultural society with all its richnesses and a point people should be educated on. And it’s not only to the benefit of White folk and race relations that we should be taught about this in schools: as he says, speaking of pioneering dwellers, activists and politicians in the UK (not all, he admits, arriving through the British Empire), 

“If I had been taught about these amazing characters, instead of endlessly being fed the idea that my family and I were some kind of novel social experiment, interlopers in a white country, it would have made a huge difference to my sense of belonging.”

Sanghera’s position as a British-born Sikh whose parents came from India, while, as he’s made clear in a number of forums, regularly reviled in comments ‘under the line’ and bringing him a lot of opprobrium from people who think he should be more grateful (he even feels he has to list the British things he’s grateful for; I was born here, too, and have never been asked to list what British things I’m grateful for, a bit of White privilege I don’t always think about). His assessment is very nuanced and balanced, doing classic history and taking the resources and showing different sides, letting them speak for themselves. He does cast off (as he should: I am in no way tone-policing here) some of his historian objectivity when discussing how slave-owners treated their human ‘possessions’ and it was interesting to see David Olusoga have the same reaction over similar content on his recent TV programme on slave-owners. I strongly believe we benefit from reading the emotions as well as the history, the experience as well as the research, as long as one doesn’t outweigh the other, as it doesn’t here. 

The book does feature some positives – moves to repatriate stolen artefacts which are important to the cultural and spiritual life of other nations, the Black Lives Matter movement (although he sees the concentration on monuments as a distraction) and the way other countries, as we have in some respects, have started to make amends for their imperial pasts.  Everything is of course carefully referenced, with the aforementioned humungous bibliography, copious notes and a full index, the three of which take up together almost a third of the book. 

There’s a lot more analysis I haven’t covered, on the economics of empire, how free ‘free trade’ actually is, etc. but I don’t have room to cover it here – I encourage you to get hold of the book and see where it takes you. 

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Liz Dexter ‘did’ the Partition of India on banda-machined sheets during her History O-level but has fortunately educated herself a bit more since then. She blogs at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Sathnam Sanghera, Empireland: How Imperialism has Shaped Modern Britain (Viking, 2021). 978-0241445297, 306 pp.

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  1. Wonderful review Liz – sounds like essential reading, and the kind of book I would like to see read by the sort of people who wouldn’t want to, if you see what I mean. I take on board your point about the emotional reaction to past events – I don’t see how he could not, and maybe that helps to get across the enormity of some of the behaviours of the past.

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