We may know well Britain’s impact on the world. We have all heard about how, given that it covered a quarter of the globe at its peak, the sun never set on the British Empire. Through empire, Britain spread its language, its customs, and its philosophies. It also spread fear, hatred, and death. While this has been the subject of intense debate, especially as it concerns the statues that stand in our public places, less is said about how empire changed Britain. What impact did the British Empire have on the British people?
This is the question that Sanghera seeks to explore. He argues that it is impossible to understand Britain without first understanding its imperial past. Much of what makes Britain Britain was forged during centuries of imperial expansion, as Sanghera shows through twelve carefully researched chapters. He explores how empire affected his own upbringing, how it resulted in the establishment of many of Britain’s museums and cultural institutions, and how it contributed to the migration of hundreds of thousands of individuals, out of Britain, and in. Indeed, as he argues, Britain “is a multicultural, racially diverse society because it once had a multicultural, racially diverse empire”. He shows how imperial rhetoric and the mindset of empire influence present-day politics, investment, and attitudes towards race and education. Above all, he demonstrates just how important it is to properly remember the past. Reading this book, it is almost impossible to conceive how Britain could not be shaped by its empire. As we learnt here, empire was central to Britain’s foreign policy up to the mid-twentieth century, and the emphasis on Britain’s relationship to the Commonwealth is a major part of the rhetoric of Brexit.
Empireland is a very easy-to-read book, written by someone who is very knowledgeable, and who is skilled enough to make that knowledge accessible. Sanghera’s writing is accurate, and it is detailed (but not overwhelmingly so). Importantly, Sanghera isn’t preachy. There is no suggestion of guilt, and he actively stays away from thinking about the Empire in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. It is “inane”, he says, “to read history as a series of events that instil pride and shame, or a balance of right and wrongs”. Sanghera also imbues the text with his own experience, giving it added value. In this way it is, above all, a story of his intellectually journey as he came to find out more about Britain’s past. What this produces is a thematic retelling of many of the important works on the subject. He adds to this his own insights from growing up as a Sikh in late-twentieth century Britain. This leads to some touching moments of honesty. His parents were surprised when they arrived in Britain, for example, “that even white people could be poor”. He considers how his identity as a Sikh on one hand meant that he received both easy acceptance and special status in Britain, and on the other his skin colour led to his experiences of racial prejudice and belittlement. His honesty about his own ignorance on the subject is refreshing: “perhaps because we Sikhs have a complex relationship to empire, and maybe because my history education was so poor, I didn’t appreciate the depth and detail of [racism in the British Empire]”. In this way, it becomes semi-biographical as Sanghera divulges these reflections.
There are places where some of the points fall flat. In framing an element of British hypocrisy, Sanghera makes the case that British people fail to integrate as expats, but expect people to integrate when arriving in Britain, attributing this to a hangover of imperial arrogance. Yet this only becomes hypocritical if you imagine the same people leaving Britain are the same people demanding integration from those arriving, which I doubt is often the case. Likewise, in seeking to explain the behaviour of Brits today, Sanghera needs to do more than point out the parallels with the past. A parallel between the past and present does not, in itself, prove a causal link between the two. To properly demonstrate his argument, he needs to explain why and how behaviours continue. If behaviours were conditioned during empire, how were they passed down to generations, even when empire ceased to exist? In the case of foreign policy, for example, are politicians looking for precedents set by those who came before them? While I do not expect this to perform as an academic or theoretical text, because it does not pretend to be one (it reads as a discussion of these issues), explaining this more carefully in places would solidify the argument where some of the connections are a little more tenuous.
These are minor quibbles, however, of a book that is generally very well researched, and wonderfully sensitive to active historical debates. Sanghera presents arguments and counter-arguments, before explaining his own view in a manner that it tempered but earnest. You very much get the sense that were you to sit down in conversation with Sanghera, you would be having a discussion with someone genuinely open minded and considerate of what you have to say. Furthermore, when he is decided upon a subject he doesn’t hold back. He even goes so far as to challenge some historians whose claims he does not find persuasive. The level of exploration is such that anyone wanting to learn more about empire could do worse than starting with this text. It’s very accessible, and provides multiple avenues for further reading.
I would recommend this book to anyone who knows very little about Britain’s empire. It could be a very difficult read for someone who feels proud of Britain’s imperial past, but a very necessary one. Knowing more about our past can only be a good thing. It can only make us more considerate of each other. It also means we can start to let go of this obsession with Britain’s history being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Yes, Britain abolished the slave trade and was instrumental in forcing others to stop, and yes, Britain was an active participant in the slave trade. Yes, Britain stood in defiance of Nazism and the Holocaust, bringing an end to one of the worst genocides in human history – and yes, Britain, only decades before, had brought about genocide and famine in its colonies, and introduced concentration camps in South Africa. Britain is a country of many different people, who are defined collectively in their unbridled support for and unwavering opposition to many of the same things. As Sanghera concludes, however, “if you don’t face up to these uncomfortable facts” that make up Britain’s history, “you’ll never be able to navigate a path forwards”.
Sathnam Sanghera, Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain (UK: Viking, 2021), pp. 320.