By Ramnik Shah
In Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain, Sathnam Sanghera offers a new critique of the history of the British Empire and its continuing impact on British society, drawing on secondary source material, personal experience and sharp enquiry. With an impressive bibliography, this candid and informed book is deserving of all the plaudits heaped on it, writes Ramnik Shah.
Empireland is a fresh critique of the British Empire (hereafter ‘Empire’) from Sathnam Sanghera’s unique perspective as a UK-born child of Indian Sikh parents who migrated to Britain in the late 1960s. Sanghera is an accomplished journalist who has won many prizes for his writings in The Times and the Financial Times. He has also, among other things, twice been shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards, including for his memoir, The Boy with the Topknot, which was adapted for a BBC Drama production in 2017. Now his credentials as a public intellectual have received a further boost with this well-publicised study of Empire.
The publication of this book could not have been more timely, coinciding with Black Lives Matter and related movements which have brought into sharp focus the historical dynamics of Empire as well as its contemporary significance generally, and to Britain’s BAME communities in particular.
Until these recent happenings, however, it was no exaggeration to say that on its metropolitan home front, the Empire had more or less been forgotten, with little left by way of folk memory. While it did not much figure in our national conversation, the legacies of Empire have nevertheless remained visible in material and human terms, although largely unacknowledged.
As Sanghera puts it in the first chapter, ‘Despite a recent surge of interest in British colonial history […] the effect of British empire upon this country is poorly understood’ (1). He attributes this to the failure of the UK education system to teach successive generations of schoolchildren about the subject. He returns to this topic in his last chapter, ‘Working Off the Past’, in the context of the demands for ‘decolonising’ curriculums. He suggests that campaigners might have a better chance of succeeding if they talked about widening rather than decolonising curriculums, essentially by inclusion of black and ethnic minority history, culture and migration in the syllabus. In this reviewer’s opinion, Sanghera’s own book would make a valuable contribution in that regard!
The second chapter, ‘Imperialism and Me’ is, as its title implies, a candid account of the author’s personal journey, both physical and metaphorical, of discovery and learning about Empire. Sanghera’s immigrant trajectory and Sikh heritage come alive on his many visits to India – as a child, as an adult and as a documentary-maker. He ends this chapter poignantly: ‘Having faced up to how Britain has shaped and defined my life in deep ways I had never realized, I can’t help but wonder how imperialism may have shaped modern Britain itself’ (29). This is the central theme of the book.
In the third chapter, ‘Difficult History’, Sanghera advances five propositions as a guide to the fundamentals of Empire, with quotations from some of the numerous books listed in his extensive bibliography. Under the proposition that ‘Britain’s relationship with its colonies varied across the globe and over time’, for example, he discusses the early stages of Empire: ‘The first British empire, which ran from the seventeenth century to the 1780s, was founded on the development of sugar plantations in the West Indies and involved large numbers of settlers to the American colonies and the Caribbean. The second British empire was a more concerted power grab of India and Africa, at first dominated by the East India Company [EIC]’ (35). However, when the British state took over from the EIC in 1858, ‘parts of the empire were still expanding in the 1870s (the Scramble for Africa was just beginning) when in other areas it was very old (the Caribbean) or had already collapsed (the USA)’ (36).
Next, under the proposition that ‘The tone and culture of empire varied wildly during its history’, we are given an overview of the ‘extended period between 1660 and 1807 when Britain profiteered from the evils of the Atlantic slave trade’, and ‘a long period when missionaries were [at first] discouraged […] but then […] encouraged […] as a civilizing mission’ (36). There were varying attitudes to cultural integration with the ‘natives’. By the start of the twentieth century, ‘India [and indeed the rest of the Empire] was divided along racial lines, with Europeans living, working and socializing separately from the people they colonized’. Yet, in the early days of the EIC, many of its employees had ‘enthusiastically embraced their exotic new milieu’, even including sexual relationships and intermarriages with the locals, though this stage did not last beyond the latter half of the eighteenth century (37).
The third, fourth and fifth propositions take us right to the heart of the matter: ‘Empire was never unanimous’. While of course there were those who supported it, ‘there was not a single phase of empire when the enterprise was not being criticised [by] establishment voices of opposition’. Fourth, ‘There are intense disagreements about what happened during empire and what it means’, raising the questions of when the first empire became the second and whether there was an overlap or even a third incarnation. Finally, ‘There was no clear motivation for the establishment and development of empire’, with Sanghera citing Sir John Seeley’s oft-repeated aphorism that ‘the British empire was acquired in a fit of absence of mind’ (34-43). All through his extremely readable narrative of the British Empire – its formation, whether accidental or otherwise, its duration, vicissitudes and decline and, above all, its moral complexities – Sanghera makes a conscientious effort to present both or all sides of the conundrum with candour and balance.