Review: ‘Empireland’

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As one of the pitifully few students who learnt, for my History A-Level, of some of the atrocities which the British Empire committed during its colonial rule of India, Sathnam Sanghera’s new book, Empireland, immediately caught my attention. 

Born in the UK, Sanghera’s parents emigrated from India in 1968 and, having entered the education system not speaking a word of English, Sanghera went on to earn a first-class degree in English Language and Literature from Cambridge. He has now written several novels including his memoir, The Boy with the Topknot, and writes regularly for The Financial Times and The Sunday Times

In light of his examination of the British empire, he has received criticism for what is perceived to be his ingratitude for the life he has led as a consequence of the British colonisation of India. He, therefore, feels the need to assert his Britishness. As he puts it: ‘Yes, I have had a better life than I would probably have had in India, but I was born here, not India, I am British, I am as entitled to comment on my home nation as the next man and the endless insistence that I display my gratitude is rooted in racism. Racism which is, in itself, rooted in the fact that the children of imperial immigrants born here are not always seen as fully British’. He has subsequently explained in an interview on the Stories of our Times podcast, how the term ‘second generation immigrant’ fails to recognise that he isn’t, by definition, an immigrant. Ultimately, Sanghera lives in the UK today because ‘several hundred years ago some Britons decided to take control of part of the Asian subcontinent.

It is the very fact that these Western eyes have caused a certain ‘selective amnesia’ … which makes Sanghera’s unveiling of its colonial secrets so compelling

The book was a four-year-long project (the bibliography alone runs to 47 pages), in which he had to painfully teach himself the traumatic history of his ancestors which, despite (or maybe because of) his first-rate education, he knew almost nothing about; he has been enculturated. Indeed, before reading Empireland, I found myself questioning if someone who has had a Western education like his could ever disassociate themself from what Sanghera describes as the ‘patronising Western eyes’ through which we are conditioned to view history. Audre Lorde’s statement, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’ springs to mind here. Yet it is the very fact that these Western eyes have caused a certain ‘selective amnesia’ towards Britain’s colonial history, which makes Sanghera’s unveiling of its colonial secrets so compelling. He admits that ‘psychologically, I may well have been colonised’. Empireland, then, seeks almost to decolonise his own understanding of British imperialism; a narrative so powerful, that he has, much to his disdain, ‘absorbed…[it] [him]self’. 

What is often overlooked when broaching the often widely misunderstood subject of empire, is that whilst the British Raj governed India, Indians were entitled to a British Indian passport, meaning that they were officially British citizens. Yet they were (and continue to be) mistakenly seen as immigrants who do not have British citizenship. Not only that, but thousands of Indians fought for Britain during both world wars, yet whilst these wars form an essential part of our History syllabus, the details have been whitewashed and constructed to focus on the victories rather than the failures. What is often left out is that we exploited the colonies’ lucrative resources; promulgated a wider discourse of Western hegemony which we justified through a barbaric ‘civilising mission’, in the imposition of our (supposedly superior) language and culture; and made the colonies economically dependent on us. Ultimately, this is a history that is ‘just too painful to digest’. 

Whilst we have (very successfully) managed to spin a one-dimensional tale of British colonial victory, the defeat of the Nazis, and ‘sometimes even the success of multiculturalism’, Sanghera reminds us that ‘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…’. For too long now, the history of the ‘victors’ has drowned out the voices of the victims. But is it constructive to view colonialism through a narrative of good versus bad? As Sanghera puts it, ‘the ‘balance sheet’ approach to British Empire is ludicrous’; a history as complex as colonialism could never be reduced to binary oppositions. If the British Empire was as ‘glorious’ as we make out, then why don’t we learn more about it? 

Sanghera points out that the irony of our imperial bias is that elements of quintessential British culture emanate from our colonial riches. The Sunday roast came into being ‘after the development of refrigeration and imports of meat could be brought in from the colonies…’ and the much-loved G&T was introduced by the army of the British East India Company in India. Even the classic cuppa, so intrinsic to British identity, is a remnant of Britain’s imperial conquests; the tea was imported from India and the sugar from West Indian sugar plantations. But how is it that we have managed to create a British identity which fails to recognise its multiplicity of colonial components? 

The irony of our imperial bias is that elements of quintessential British culture emanate from our colonial riches

Sanghera explains how this same narrative has even been transplanted into the modern-day: ‘empire explains the feeling that we are exceptional and can do it alone when it comes to everything from Brexit to dealing with global pandemics’. He details how the British government’s reaction to the Covid-19 outbreak has been characterised by ‘the idea that Britain is a special case’, such as wanting to develop our own NHS tracing app, when Google and Apple were combining to develop a global app. Boris Johnson is very keen to trumpet the (admittedly impressive) success of the vaccine programme, yet he is quick to forget the fact that the UK has the highest death toll in the world. Even our rapid approval of the Pfizer vaccine engendered overzealous expressions of vaccine nationalism, whereby Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary deemed the UK to therefore be a ‘much better country’ than others. Our attitude of being ‘world beating’, of being Great Britain, continues to be imbued in everything we do. 

Epitomising the white saviour complex when he visited Amritsar in 2013, where the bloody 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre took place, Sanghera quotes David Cameron’s claim that there was ‘an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British Empire did’ (he did also acknowledge that it was a ‘deeply shameful event in British history’). Haven’t heard of the 1919 Massacre? I rest my case.

Image: Matias North via Unsplash

One thought on “Review: ‘Empireland’

  • The reviewer has given a faithful account of Empireland and her reactions to the book are interesting. As a Commonwealth immigrant from Sri Lanka, I, too, looked forward to the book and found it good in parts. Both the reviewer and Mr Sanghera are correct in saying that British people do not enough about their Empire. The majority of the book which describes how Britain has been affected by the Empire is fascinating and illuminating. As someone from an Asian background, Mr Sanghera has observed facets of British life which white Britons might not notice. However, I am troubled by Mr Sanghera’s account of how the Empire affected the colonies. Mr Sanghera has taken the view that if a government does beneficial and harmful deeds, one cannot make an overall assessment. There is no government in history who did only beneficial deeds. So he completely ignores the Empire’s role in transforming the governance, public services and infrastructure of the colonies and only gives gory details of slavery, oppression and racism. In Sri Lanka, our entire educational, health, parliamentary and legal systems are based on the British model. Practically my entire extended family there are working in professions or institutions introduced by the British.

    The reviewer is correct in saying that the book has en extraordinary large number of references, possibly about 650 but there is a problem with them. They are virtually all publications by Western, liberal, elites who are invariably antagonistic to the Empire. Astonishingly, I could find only one by an Indian who actually experienced the Empire the first hand. This is surprising as large numbers of Indians wrote books about their lives during the British period or the immediate decades thereafter. These people had personal knowledge of the Empire. Why have they been ignored?

    I also wonder how much personal knowledge Mr Sanghera knows about India. He admits his family has told him little about the country. Has he ever been to an Indian school, hospital, law court, Town Hall or museum? I suspect not. The only direct knowledge he has is when he went to research into the Amritsar massacre and his views of the Empire are seen through the prism of the terrible deed.

    This is an interesting book but it gives a distorted view of the Empire. A critique of it based on the views of Indians who experienced the Empire first hand is given in the website Forgotten Raj.

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