"In this brilliantly illuminating work exploring the realities and legacies of empire, Sathnam Sanghera demonstrates how so much of what we consider to be modern Britain is actually rooted in its imperial past. In prose that is at once both clear-eyed and full of acerbic wit, Sanghera shows how the past is everywhere in the United Kingdom, also drawing critical links to similarities in the United States and around the world. Empire--British or otherwise--informs nearly everything, from common thought processes to the routines that shape everyday life, from the foundation of the National Health Service (NHS), to the nature of racism in the UK, from the British distrust of intellectuals in public life to the exceptionalism that imbued the campaign for Brexit, and the government's early response to the COVID crisis--all while empire is a subject shockingly obscured from view. Revelatory and lucid, Sanghera suggests that cultivating a new, more honest relationship to the past is essential in moving forward"--
Sathnam Sanghera has written a remarkably lucid book about the one subject most people in Britain know little about, but talk a lot of – empire, Britain’s Imperial Past. Those of us who are historians are used to being attacked as woke when we address the
This is a very personal journey of discovery for Sanghera, as a Black Country Sikh like the rest of the country has been taught very little or nothing at all about what happened in the empire. In Empireland he shines a light on some of the darkest corners and misunderstood corners of our shared history. As a journalist Sanghera has brought a flourish to the writing of a very difficult subject.
This book challenges some of the nostalgia that has festered around the empire, when a quarter of the world’s map was covered in pink for “our” empire. As someone born in 1969, I have none of the rose tinted glasses towards an empire and neither do many people alive in Britain today. This can be seen in the Brexit vote with the desire of head back to a time of nostalgia of the 1950s and 1960s.
Across twelve chapters we get an excellent investigation on how imperialism shaped modern Britain. It does not make for comfortable reading, if you open the book with an open mind. With the recent acts of statues being torn down or defended, concert halls and schools being renamed or companies apologising for past actions as Sanghera puts it “the effect of British empire upon this country is poorly understood. I could not have put it better myself.
Sanghera is not afraid to tackle some of the tougher subjects including Enoch Powell’s infamous speech. Explaining how his view was framed by the history of colonialism and that the white imperialists were the guiding lights and protectors of the dark ‘natives’. The idea of equality was a calamity for Powell.
We are reminded that for a long period of time, 1660 to 1807, Britain profiteered from the evils of slavery by shipping around 3 million Africans to America. It was during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that the Prime Minister called imperialism and empire “the vulgar and bastard imperialism of irritation and provocation and aggression… of grabbing everything even if we have no use for it ourselves.”
In the imagination of the modern imperialist, the empire was a good thing, there are only two states: dominant and submissive, coloniser and colonised. If England is not an imperial power, it must be the only other thing it can be: a colony. Those who campaigned to leave the EU described our past and future relationship with the EU in colonial terms. Dominic Raab said Britain would be able to resume its historic role as a buccaneering free trader. Clearly did not understand that British free trade in the nineteenth century was accompanied with a Royal Navy gunboat, and canon to fire our way to “free” trade.
It must be remembered that Clive of India is blamed for the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 estimated to have killed 10 million people. Clive received one of the largest windfalls in history which today was the equivalent to £702 million. When William Dalrymple describes Clive as an “unstable sociopath” it seems rather restrained. Clive was widely loathed during his lifetime, Samuel Johnson stated that Clive had “acquired his fortune by such crimes that his consciousness of them impelled him to cut his own throat.” When Clive committed suicide in 1774 he was placed in an unmarked grave.
Empireland is an excellent book, that is accessible, well researched and conveys a message that we all need to learn about imperialism and the empire, and not see things through rose-tinted glasses. We need to open our eyes. We need to ask how people gained their fortunes at the expense of others. Remember the slave compensation act was in favour of those who owned slaves not the people who were enslaved. The compensation bill we finally settled in 2015, nearly 200 years after it was enacted.
We really need to do as the Germans would say – Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, work off the past. Maybe it is because we have not been invaded since 1066, that we have never had to revaluate our actions and our history. If we did we may understand why some countries in the world see us as the bogeyman, Iran, Iraq spring to mind.
Buy this book, read this book, it is engaging and you will learn something.
History isn't worth knowing about unless we learn from it and apply it to the future - I wish I'd known about some of the events described in this book earlier in my life, and it seems odd that is has taken a fellow Brit with a slightly different back story to mine to bring it to our attention, but then he is an acclaimed journalist and wordsmith whereas I'm just a humble bookman.
Is there a book that tries to do the same thing for our American divide on politics, race, and history? Or is our own country past hope?