Journalist and author Sathnam Sanghera received a warped education when it came to the British Empire. Growing up within Wolverhampton’s Sikh community (at a time when the legacy of Enoch Powell as MP was still being felt), while also attending a prestigious independent school, made for mixed messages. But worse than these mixed messages was the overwhelming lack of any messages at all. Sanghera is honest about how ignorant he was before embarking on this book, an ignorance shared by many Brits whose historic education favoured the World Wars and the wives of Henry VIII. His central argument then – that British children should be taught more about the British Empire – makes a lot of sense, particularly if you agree with his thesis that the Empire remains hugely influential when it comes to British culture, customs and, sadly, racism.
Sanghera communicates this message persuasively, drawing upon an extensive reading list. Highlighting both the very worst aspects of British Empire and some of its more laughable contradictions and predilections, he demonstrates the various ways in which it shaped modern Britain. Empire, he says, can explain so many things. It explains why there are millions of Britons living abroad, why our public schools idolise sporting achievement over academic attainment (links here to the ‘Great Game’ of empire), and our particular brand of exceptionalism (links here to Brexit). Even our propensity to get violently sick abroad has imperial precedent.
Nor is it just our attitudes and culture. In the chapter titled Dirty Money, which I found the most upsetting of all, Sanghera examines the vast quantities of loot plundered from Britain’s territories – items that now lie in our museums and beloved country houses. The latter are certainly ‘dirtier’ than we might like to think, with one study demonstrating that almost a third of National Trust properties are tainted by wealth from slavery or contain treasures plundered from overseas. This loot was seen by many as the coloniser’s right, an attitude that lead Lord Salsibury, who later became prime minister, to declare in 1878: ‘As India must be bled, it must be bled judiciously.’ It makes for deeply uncomfortable reading.
From there, Sanghera turns to ‘the origins of our racism’ demonstrating through some truly horrifying case studies the way in which the Empire impacted British attitudes to the very people we ironically invited in. One feels that only the most determinedly ‘in denial’ could feel proud of the Empire at the end of this chapter (though I have no doubt, and neither does Sanghera, that these people exist and will probably write to him). Most interesting here are the lesser-known stories – for example that of the Tasmanians. The British moved into Tasmania en masse in 1803, at which time it was home to several thousand Aboriginal Tasmanians. The conflicts that followed were so brutal that between 1831 and 1835 Christian missionaries took the remaining population of around 200 Tasmanians to ‘safety’ on a nearby island. By 1847 there were fewer than 50 left.
What really stands out about Empireland is its thoroughness and intelligence. Sanghera clearly comes away from his task horrified by many aspects of the Empire, but he doesn’t cherry-pick evidence to suit this view. Addressing the common claim that Empire ‘made Britain rich’ he turns to several historians with very different views on this subject, acknowledging that when it comes to trade, it is very hard to draw the line between that which was coerced and that which was undertaken freely. So too does he acknowledge that his own community, now British Sikhs, arguably came out of the Empire better than some other groups.
That said, there were times when this academic quality overwhelmed the book a little. I suspect that coronavirus had something to do with this – Sanghera says himself that a research trip was canceled due to lockdown. The problem lies in the fact that he seeks to hold up modern Britain for inspection, but he never actually talks to any modern Britons. Empireland builds its argument through the words of academics, authors and some of the noisier members of our society (men such as Nigel Farage) rather than through primary source material. The slightly astonishing bibliography suggests that Sanghera threw himself into reading instead of travelling and talking, resulting in an authoritative, but slightly drier book than might otherwise have been, particularly considering the author’s natural wit and story-telling ability.
That aside, Empireland is essential reading for anyone who feels let down by their education on this vital topic. A darkly illuminating picture of a country strangely nostalgic for a time it knowns little about.