Saturday, 13 March 2021

Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

On the morning that I sit down to write this review, there is an article in the Guardian about the depth of abuse Sathnam Sanghera has faced since the publication of Empireland. That such a balanced and measured book could make its author the subject of vitriol is as clear an indication as any of just how blind we, the British public, are to our own history and how necessary this book is.

After a light-hearted opening, where the author imagines a revived Empire Day, repurposed to teach the history and ongoing ramifications of the British Empire, Sanghera goes on to look honestly at his own connections, through his Sikh ancestry, with Empire, both the positive and the negative. He concludes:

“Having faced up to how British [Empire] has shaped and defined my life in deep ways, I had never realised, I can’t help but wonder how imperialism may have shaped Britain itself.”

He then immerses himself in historic research, only to discover how difficult it is to fix precisely where the British Empire began. Arguably it goes back as far as 1497, when John Cabot sailed across the Atlantic to ‘discover’ Newfoundland, or it could be as comparatively recently as 1858, when the Government of India Act abolished the East India Company and established the supremacy of the British Crown. He points out how, over that time, the tone and culture of empire varied wildly. And he shows how, throughout much of its history, there were those who were deeply critical of the imperial ‘project’: to be critical of Empire is not simply a case of applying the values of the present to actions of the past.

Sanghera doesn’t shy away from what is perhaps for many the most discomfiting fact of the British Empire – that between 1660 and 1807, Britain profiteered from the slave trade, shipping around 3 million Africans to the Americas.

Another aspect many in the present day find profoundly uncomfortable is the question of loot. Precious items stolen from colonised lands vastly enriched some and became the foundation of many of our best-known and most beloved museums. Even more disturbingly, sacred items, including human remains, were treated with scant respect and never returned.

Empire is the reason that, long before the famous Empire Windrush docked in Southampton, people of Indian and African heritage were living and working in Britain. There were servants and doctors, cafĂ© owners and tradespeople, nurses, lawyers and actors. The first MP of Indian heritage was elected in Finsbury in 1892. 

An understanding of all that ought, one might think, lead to a greater understanding and tolerance of our multicultural, multi-ethnic society. But Sanghera also shows how the need to justify slavery and the appalling abuses that accompanied it led, if not to the invention of racism, then at least to its codification. And until we recognise that, it will continue to haunt us.

We are very good at comparing ourselves to other European empires of the 19th and 20th Centuries and persuading ourselves that we were much more benign. But we have conveniently buried the stories of some of the most brutal episodes of our Imperial history. Until we are willing to face up to that – until someone like Sanghera can write a book about Empire and face, not death threats and abuse, but honest reflection - we are never going to be able to move on from Empire and become the tolerant, diverse and non-racist society we like to imagine ourselves to be.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch; Natives - Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala

Avoid If You Dislike: Taking off your rose-tinted spectacles and seeing Britain’s role in the world clearly.

Perfect Accompaniment: What could be a more perfect expression of Empireland than a cup of tea?

Genre: Non-Fiction

Buy This Book Here

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