In the main building of the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office in Whitehall is a marble-floored plaza formerly known as the Grand Durbar Court of the India Office. It’s flanked by artefacts of the British empire, among them a painting by Spiridione Roma entitled The East Offering its Riches to Britannia.
Originally commissioned in 1778 by the East India Company, this depicts a dark-skinned character representing India holding up her treasures to fair Britannia. China and Indonesia await their turn, among others, while a John Company vessel laden with the riches of the East is visible on the horizon.
This representation, as British novelist, memoirist, and journalist Sathnam Sanghera writes, turns “violent looting into an act of peaceful benevolence”. The larger question he addresses in Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain, his new book, is how these riches and the overall colonial experience shaped modern Britain.
Given the blinkers that many Britons wear when it comes to this aspect of their past, Empireland is a vital investigation. In the stammering words of a character named Whisky Sisodia in Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses: “The trouble with the Engenglish is that their hiss-hiss-history happened overseas, so they do- do-don't know what it means.” It’s the perfect epigraph for the book, which stands apart from most volumes on the merits and demerits of the British empire because it is cast as a personal journey of understanding.
Sanghera, whose parents migrated from Punjab in the Sixties, writes of a trip to Amritsar for a documentary on Jallianwala Bagh, for example, and of attending a school reunion in Wolverhampton where he reflects on the abbreviated history he and his classmates were taught. Such explorations are complemented by digging into the immense literature on the subject to “plug the gaps”, decolonize himself, and see through a fog of nostalgia and amnesia that surrounds the imperial era.
The result is an extremely readable and well-researched book that seeks to explain, among other things, the country’s sense of exceptionalism when dealing with Brexit and the pandemic; the position of the City of London as one of the world’s major financial centres; the wealth of its richest families and institutions; and the state of its grand country houses and museums.
The influence goes much deeper. As Sanghera writes, “imperialism is not something that can be erased with a few statues being torn down or a few institutions facing up to their dark pasts; it exists as a legacy in my very being and, more widely, explains nothing less than who we are as a nation.”
In some ways, it can be fiendishly hard to attempt a book on the impact of the British empire because of the assumption that it was an indivisible unit which existed for a specific period. Sanghera walks in the footsteps of others in showing that this was far from the case. He discusses John Seeley’s dictum that “the British empire was acquired in a fit of absence of mind”, clarifying that its tone and culture meant different things to different people at different times.
Importantly, he is against reading history as a balance of rights and wrongs, or a series of events that instil pride and shame. He isn’t blind to instances of loot and brutality, such as in Jallianwala Bagh in 1919, Tibet in 1903, or the reprisals following the events of 1857 in India and of 1865 in Morant Bay. However, he also writes: “The British believed from the start that their rule in India represented an improvement in the lot of ordinary Indians, and, on the whole, I think they were right.” (Debatable.)
Empireland can’t help but touch upon the more obvious manifestations of British colonialism, from the words that made their way into the English language, to the need for tea sweetened with sugar. The book goes a lot further, though. A key observation is summed up in the words of Sri Lankan writer Ambalavaner Sivanandan: “We are here because you were there.”
Sanghera amplifies this: “The reason I am sitting here, as a person of colour in Britain, talking about this country as my home, is because several hundred years ago some Britons decided to take control of parts of the Asian subcontinent.” As cultural theorist Stuart Hall has said elsewhere, “I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea…There is no English history without that other history.”
Pressure is put on immigrant communities to integrate, but the ‘host’ society should also acknowledge that brown people are here “because Britain, at best, had close relationships with its colonies for centuries, which included millions of the colonized putting their lives on the line for Britain.” Many arrived as citizens and subjects, such as those on the Empire Windrush.
Another example is that of Sake Dean Mahomed, whose life Sanghera finds fascinating enough to consider writing a novel about, and whose secluded grave in Brighton’s Saint Nicholas Church he visits. Not content with opening Britain’s first curry house in 1809, Mahomed went on to introduce shampoo baths, offer therapeutic massages, and become the first Indian to publish a book in English.
People like Mahomed demonstrate that Britain is a multicultural, racially diverse society because it once had a multicultural, racially diverse empire. Indeed, it’s hard, as the book says, to imagine modern Britain functioning without its Indian restaurants and shops, its brown railway and other transport workers, its black and Asian entrepreneurs, and talents such as Lenny Henry, Mo Farah and Meera Syal.
The same society also suffers from undeniable racism. Sanghera writes, “Our experience of empire has influenced, if not created, the distinct brand of racism practised in Britain.” Imperial conceptions of racial units explain much about the differing ways ethnic groups are treated in Britain, with notions of good and bad immigrants.
Again, he strives for therapeutic balance. He agrees with the words of Bernard Porter in saying that because of its empire, “British views of other peoples were not as generalized, simplistic, and stereotypical as in countries that only had their ignorant prejudices to guide them.” On the other hand, he doesn’t deny that notwithstanding abolition, the defeat of the Nazis, and social justice movements, “we also dominated the slave trade for a significant period, ran one of the biggest white supremacist enterprises in the history of humanity and dabbled in genocide.” The stain of this has seeped into many aspects of contemporary culture, from the jobs market to “the sinister re-emergence of violent white supremacy”.
Given our fractured times, Sanghera points out that expressing reservations about British empire-building isn’t just a contemporary “woke” phenomenon. There were concerns almost from the start, from those such as Robert Graves, H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster, George Orwell, and William Gladstone. To interrogate dark episodes is not to criticise Britain “any more than discussing kamikaze pilots of the Second World War is anti-Japanese or talking about America’s Civil War is anti-American.”Empireland
is centred on a uniquely British legacy but its inferences can certainly be applied to other countries, too. Ernest Renan asserted that “the essence of a nation is that all of its individuals have many things in common, and also that everyone has forgotten many things,” but it’s by squarely facing up to a past of ups and downs, of giving and taking, that one can come to an accommodation with a messy present.