Book review: Empireland, by Sathnam Sanghera

Empireland is already a bestseller and doesn’t really need my review, but it’s an interesting time to be reading about empire. The complex legacies of the British empire is a matter of vigorous debate already, with a whole shelf of books on the topic in the last few years, many of them written by authors of colour. I suspect that conversation will enter a new phase with the end of Queen Elizabeth’s long reign. Give it a couple of months, and it might be possible to talk about the last century of British history in some new ways.

Of the many angles you can take on the empire, Sanghera’s particular interest is how it shaped Britain itself. How did it affect our sense of ourselves and our place in the world? How has it imprinted itself on our culture, demographics and attitudes?

There’s no doubt that it has, for better or worse. Britain’s multiculturalism is a legacy of empire – a positive one, to my mind, as a resident of multicultural Luton. Less positively, Britain’s exceptionalism is forged of empire, our sense of entitlement, and a specifically British brand of racism. Empire, Sanghera reminds us, was a white supremacist project. Explicitly so, with no shortage of imperialists on record as saying the Anglo-saxon race were the pinnacle of humanity and should rightly run everything.

These sorts of observations are contentious at the moment, and likely to get people shouting at you on the internet. But Sanghera insists that it’s a fool’s errand to take the “balance sheet view of history” and draw a binary conclusion of good or bad. It’s more complicated than that, not least because we’re talking about almost 500 years of history. At no point in that history was the empire an organised and monolithic entity. There were a variety of forms of colonial control, with multiple motivations for expanding British influence – sometimes the plundering of resources, sometimes geopolitical maneuvering against competing powers, sometimes a ‘civilising’ mission.

There was no central authority or guiding strategy behind it, with imperial expansion involving corporations such as the East India Company, wealthy private individuals, local elites, as well as the British government and its armed forces. You wouldn’t know it from the jingoism around it today, but colonial actions were controversial in their own time. “There was not a single phase of empire when the enterprise was not being criticised,” writes Sanghera, with critics including highly influential figures such as prime minister William Gladstone.

Rather than insisting on shallow for or against positioning, Sanghera argues that we teach empire properly. Tell the stories. At the moment it is ignored in the national curriculum, while simultaneously defended by populist elements of the media and politics. It means people leap to celebrate something they don’t actually know anything about.

Would anti-immigration attitudes soften if more of us understood that it is legacy of empire, and that people were invited to Britain from the colonies? How many people would reconsider their pride in the empire if they knew about the Tasmanian genocide or the use of concentration camps in Kenya? Perhaps we would resist shallow #whatabouttherailways arguments if we knew more about the massacres and famines that are part of the story of Britain in India.

Empireland explores all of this with wit, and frames the debate around his own journey of discovery, making this a very readable book as well as an eye-opening one. It’s already proved influential and may yet prove more so, if Britain takes the opportunity of current events to engage in some constructive reflection on itself and its history.

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