My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A long-time lover of Global history, I’m very aware just how too much of what I’ve read has been written by white British historians (Peter Frankopan is just about the best of them). I recently started a run of reading non-white historians to get a much better balance of interpretations.
I came to Sathnam Sanghera’s book then through recommendations of a British Asian history teacher I followed on Twitter for a while. I expected a brutally honest and scathing critique of the British Empire. I was really quite surprised by what I actually read.
Sanghera, a journalist and member of the Sikh community in Britain, begins by toasting the idea of bringing back ‘Empire Day’. Initially, it sounds like he’s being dryly ironic; I kept waiting for the gut punch. But after a period of time, it starts to be obvious that he’s not some guy with an axe to grind against the British. Later in the book he is effusive in his praise for Britain, how’s he’s glad he’s British and how there is much in the Empire to be grateful for. His words are, relatively speaking, kind, gentle and wise.
But is this an apologetic for colonialism then? Absolutely not. While the author takes us on his own journey of discovery as he researched for the book, he also leads us – carefully – down to the dirty and murky paths we do not wish to go by ourselves. Indeed, it is this reluctance to look properly at our own misdeeds that becomes one of the key themes of the book: a collective amnesia the British have had since the end of Empire that carries on to the present day.
It is this premise which I have found most helpful in putting my own feelings into words. I’ve long known of our atrocious behaviour, our hypocrisy and ‘evil’ moments such as Amritsar. I’ve also known that we are told almost nothing of colonial times in our education and most the UK population is ignorant of our crimes – both legal and moral. But what Sanghera makes very clear is just how dangerous this amnesia is here and now; how it is the origin of the anti-immigrant myths and the constant, quite ridiculous, xenophobia for which Britain is now famous all over the world (Brexit having shaken the scales from the eyes of anyone – bar the British themselves – still under the delusion that this country is a fair one). Where the Germans have owned their wrongs of the two World Wars and changed their whole cultures and social thinking as a result, the British have carried on almost as disgruntled overlords of the world, upset that no one treats them as such any longer and desperate to be seen as important again. But the most awful thing is that most of us don’t realise that’s what we’re doing.
Sanghera has every right to be angry with this kind of Briton. Growing up in 70s and 80s Wolverhampton – home to the famously xenophobic colonialist Enoch Powell – he knew what it was like to face physical and verbal abuse from National Front white youths and the general white population. This should be enough to be forever aggrieved; but he’s not. Yes, it was tough, he says, but he did get the opportunities and did obtain the good education and eagerly-sought-for career. He acknowledges that there’s every probability that his life in Britain is considerably better than it would have been if he had grown up in his ancestral India. In short: the British Empire is not an ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’ part of our history.
What is very definitely bad is the ignorance of the general public who are fed their beliefs about immigrants and non-white British by a biased press and false ideas passed from generation to generation. More than ever, after reading ‘Empireland’ I find myself thinking it is vital we address our colonial past in the classrooms when we’re still young enough to take on our wrongs as well as our rights and balance them without having to take sides. We need to create generations of young men and women who can break the hold of British exceptionalism and superiority. This is all the more important as we begin, again, as a nation, to explore ‘free trade around the world’ which Sanghera quite rightly demonstrates is exactly what the English intended back in the early colonial days. One of the things that makes the Empire so difficult to define and fix a beginning and end to is the denial among ourselves that we were doing anything other than ‘free trade’. If we are to try trading again today, we must make sure we don’t continue our colonial values. The world is a different place now and (I hope) no one is going to have any patience with such thinking.
Will that happen? That Britain can produce the likes of Sathnam Sanghera gives me hope. But my cynical, too-many-times-around-the-block soul tells me that it is unlikely. The British are an island nation and one whose history is littered with invasions and attempted invasions of our lands. That the Tudors brought in-fighting and invasions to an end was a good thing but Henry VII’s paranoia of being usurped led to Henry VIII’s desire for England to be important in Europe and, eventually this all led to Elizabeth I attempting to make England great and glorious. This, unfortunately, timed with the great expansion of exploration and…well, the roots of suspicion and self-importance were sown deeply into our collective psyche wherever we went. I don’t know if we can unpick the weeds and untangle the roots, quite honestly.
Sanghera’s book isn’t absolutely perfect. I’m still looking for the history book which will really properly balance the actions of the English with the context of the times. Those of us who are anti-colonial still tend to forget that India was also a conquered land many times over (the latest before us being the Muslim Moghuls) and that the ‘rediscovery’ of slavery came from adapting the practises of African chiefs who first supplied us with captured enemies from rival tribes. Every tribe and nation firmly believed in their religious values and the idea of cross-cultural understanding just wasn’t a concept anywhere in the world. The list goes on and it by no means exonerates how we behaved, but it does give contextual understanding to the times rather than try to paint the English as a race of evil overlords – and that is important for creating the bridges necessary for dialogue with those who continue to believe that the loss of the ‘great and glorious Empire’ was a terrible thing. Many are good and decent people; but there are too many Enoch Powells among them. Sanghera does make some good way to give context and to allow the nuances a voice, but I’d like to see more.
Nevertheless, ‘Empireland’ is one of the best books I’ve read on the subject and is not just informative but entertainingly well written. This author is one I would absolutely like to meet and have little doubt I would enjoy his company and our discussions would be both frank and delightful. Such authors are worth their weight in gold generally, but Sanghera is a vital voice who must be heard.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
His latest book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at email@example.com. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review. His reviews have been read more than 2.2 million times.