Rating 4 stars
I like Sathnam Sanghera. He makes difficult, emotive subject matter accessible. His documentary about the Amritsar massacre led me to Kim Wagner’s book Amritsar 1919. I haven’t yet watched his Empire State of Mind series, but I reserved his book Empireland somewhere in the distant past of 2021 and it arrived from the library at the start of this year.
Empireland begins with a set of acknowledgements that include the following statement, “… I’m going to spend as little time as possible fretting about definitions: almost every term used in discussion of empire, from ‘colony’ to ‘commonwealth’ to ‘colonialism’, to say nothing of ‘race’ and ‘racism’, can be contested, their meanings changing over time.” Sanghera goes on to say that immersion in definitions produces long academic books, and his ambition in writing Empireland was to create the opposite.
He has succeeded. Empireland is Sanghera’s personal exploration of who he is, as a British Sikh, and how empire has created the environment he grew up in, as well as influenced the language and attitudes everyone in Britain has, across race, gender, religion and politics.
As I was reading, the thought came into my head that Sanghera lays things out clearly and logically, and that this is a book that it would benefit everyone to read. But then I remembered that some people have minds that are closed to the idea that a brown or a black person’s work in the area of race has legitimacy. I thought about the other books I have read by black and brown writers that examine the issue of race from the perspective of the negatively racialised, and about how that aspect of direct experience of racism by the writer will be a turn off for those who denigrate people of colour because of their colour, and likely seen as bias.
Sanghera is honest about how little he knew of the history of the British Empire when he travelled to Amritsar to make his documentary about the 1919 massacre in Jallianwala Bagh. When you’re British, born in the 1950s or later (Sanghera and I both arrived in the 1970s), the empire isn’t something you studied as part of history. Not really. It was like background static to the history covered by the curriculum. Those of us who are white probably absorbed more about the legacy of empire from our parents, because nostalgia for empire seems ingrained in white British culture. The research Sanghera went on to do underpins this book, and the bibliography at the end is a trove of sources for any reader who wants to increase their own knowledge.
I had read a handful of the books Sanghera cites, and have plenty still to learn about my country’s colonising past. The chapter on looting was an eye-opener. I admit that I had never thought in depth about what actually lies behind that verb when I encounter it in descriptions of artefacts acquired during empire. I was also unaware of the contemporary opposition to looting from the British authorities in London and the British public when news reached home about how British representatives in occupied, colonial countries were obtaining their treasures. This isn’t something that I’m aware of being used as a counter argument to that made by empire apologists of not judging imperial behaviour by modern standards. From contemporary news reports, Sanghera makes the point that,
… when the British authorities became aware of what had happened in Tibet, for example, there was outrage. The raid occurred at the height of British empire, when jingoism about colonialism was fading and international law was altering the way colonialism could be pursued, with the Hague Convention of 1899, one of the first multilateral treaties to address the conduct of warfare and a forerunner of the Geneva Convention, declaring in Article 46 that ‘Private property cannot be confiscated’ and in Article 47 that ‘Pillage is formally prohibited.’ Indian newspapers published rumours of looting in Gyantse, and the British press followed them up. … At other times there was uproar when the public became aware of the colonial practice of collecting human remains.
That paragraph goes on to cover other expressions of outrage at the time, so perhaps we should begin judging imperial behaviour by its contemporary moral standards, as they seem stronger than our present ones. Never mind the fact that Empire wasn’t so long ago in the grand scheme of things. It’s not as though it was a mediaeval or prehistoric endeavour, when you might get away with claims that the moral code was a less enlightened one. Although, I’ve been watching the Digging for Britain programmes on the BBC recently, and Britain wasn’t as barbaric back then as had been previously posited. Our understanding of the past isn’t set in stone; history is always open to reinterpretation.
In the next chapter, We Are Here Because You Were There, Sanghera presses the point that Britain is “a multicultural, racially diverse society because it once had a multicultural, racially diverse empire.” People from countries the British occupied during the empire have been making their homes in Britain for as long as empire existed and the Commonwealth continues, and even as early as the Tudor period and back to Roman times. Many early migrants came because owners or employers brought them to Britain. Later generations came because the British government welcomed them as migrant workers and because empire afforded them British citizenship. Because of an attitude towards empire that rendered it best forgotten after it ended, Sanghera cites Laura Tabili’s view that “a long history of migration to and from the colonies has been essentially rubbed out”. With the Nationality and Borders Bill, in which the government can strip someone of their British citizenship without notification, making its way through parliament, the prevailing and erroneous political narrative is that all people of colour “are aliens who arrived without permission, and with no link to Britain, to abuse British hospitality.” Successive Conservative governments since 2010 have worked to make the UK a hostile place for those seeking to make it their home, particularly refugees and asylum seekers, but also citizens of former empire countries who have the right to take up British citizenship. The policies of these governments are right wing and nationalist. Sanghera’s argument is that, if the British empire were to be better taught in school, so that everyone understood its role in forming the Britain we all live in today, it would be harder for such right wing nationalism to take hold. Like me, he thinks that knowledge is power and lack of knowledge allows people’s fears to be manipulated.
He pulled me up on my own lazy thinking with this line, referring to the reference made in public discourse to ‘second generation immigrants’, “how can you be an immigrant if you were born here?” Whenever I have seen that classification of people, whenever I have used it, I’ve taken it to be an acknowledgement of the culture of the immigrant generation, a shorthand for saying a person has a heritage beyond Britain. But it’s the word immigrant that’s problematic. How can you be an immigrant if you were born here?
From pretty early on in my life, being from a former mill town in the north west of England, I’ve been out and about with friends who have a different heritage to mine and heard them be told to fuck off back to where they came from by passing strangers. My niece’s partner has Pakistani heritage and, quite aside from the abuse he will have grown up receiving because he was born in the same town as me and many white residents there are racists, my niece has been abused for having a relationship with a person perceived by racists to be in some way unclean. Including within our family. Racism is often learned behaviour, passed along generations. It can only be changed by improved knowledge. I grew up in an unthinkingly racist family (as opposed to a nationalist/far right/white supremacist one), racist thinking was passed on to my siblings and me by my parents, and my older siblings’ acceptance of that thinking seems stronger than mine. I believe the difference between me and them is that, having been at school with people from lots of different cultures, and at schools that celebrated those cultures, I was encouraged to question that racist thinking. I’m an ongoing project to myself, continually learning ways in which racist thinking is still embedded in me. Books like Sanghera’s are a pin to winkle them out.
Sanghera also acknowledges that Britain’s multiculturalism isn’t solely down to empire, that we also have a history of welcoming and absorbing migrants from Europe, some economic, others political or religious fleeing persecution, and that most of the Irish communities established in 19th century Britain came about because Ireland, although technically part of Britain at the time, had long been treated as a British colony because of differences in language and religion. This aspect of Britain’s imperialist attitude to what was technically a ‘home nation’ is true, and yet Sanghera’s inclusion of it didn’t feel as connected to his main focus on how empire manifested further afield. Sanghera is a journalist and employs certain journalistic approaches to narrative, including presentation of both sides of an argument and questioning the reliability of evidence presented as fact. He makes particularly good use of his skills in his examination of the belief that “colonies were systematically bled and looted for wealth” to underpin the Industrial Revolution. In his consideration of immigration, though, deploying those journalistic approaches felt a little as though Sanghera had thoughts of the ‘what about-ism’ he would inevitably encounter as a result of this book; as though he wanted to head off at the pass those who didn’t like his personal interest in this history and who would argue that the Irish had it as bad as anyone brown or black. It’s not wrong that he included this as a section, but it didn’t feel seamlessly integrated with the rest of the text.
It’s understandable that he might want to head off some of the more predictable responses. I can imagine that this book will enrage a fair few of the types who like to engage in ‘what about-ism’ as a reaction to opinions or facts they don’t like. The discussions about the intersection between nostalgia for empire and support for Brexit will no doubt light the touchpaper for some.
Sanghera also looks at Britain’s continuing imperialism, despite us no longer having an empire, in which we are joined by the US, the former colony of Britain that has overtaken us as a global player. Our governments and other leaders in the white west believe that we have a monopoly on knowing how to run a country, and feel free to intervene, violently if necessary, in countries perceived as failing or uncivilised. Sanghera quotes an Iraqi man interviewed by Robert Gildea for his book Empires of the Mind, who says about the Iraq War and previous interventions by Britain in Iraq, “I often wonder how they would feel if we had been bombing them in England every now and again from one generation to the next, if we changed their governments when it suited us.” I wonder who would stick up for us if that scenario ever came to pass. Or, if the current path towards autocracy reaches its destination, who would take it upon themselves to declare our society failing and intervene in the name of restoring democracy.
Empire is complicated. For every example of how colonised countries and people suffered under empire, Sanghera also presents examples of how empire brought benefits. There is evidence that literacy, income and living standards improved for some, albeit in a way that increased inequality. Governance, although held by the British, was delivered in most countries by the indigenous population, developing an elite with the skills to run the country, and providing a mechanism for keeping some of the money in the local economy. Yes, it’s the imposition of one country’s way of doing things on another, but I sensed that Sanghera is trying to be balanced, wanting to avoid writing a book that is completely negative.
Because my politics is to the left, my unconscious bias picked up more frequently on Sanghera’s sources that are on the right. I decided to check the bibliography for British newspapers. I also included references to the website of the UK’s state broadcaster. Out of 111 citations, 50% were from publications that sit on the right or are supportive of liberalism and free trade economics, which I categorise as being on the right. 29% were from publications I perceive as being on the left. The remainder (The Independent and the BBC) present themselves as centrist publications with no political affiliation. Sanghera writes for two of the newspapers I consider to be on the right, and together they accounted for 34% of citations. I’m not suggesting that Sanghera has a bias, the citations are a mix of evidence of racist thinking and debates on whether empire was racist, but it made me think about the way, with the exception of The Guardian (22% of citations), most of the newspapers that publish regularly about empire or imperial legacy are titles on the right of the political spectrum: in order of frequency The Times, Telegraph, FT, Daily Mail, and Spectator are cited by Sanghera. I thought that was interesting, and something to bear in mind while reading critically.
The ninth chapter attempts to unpick the origins of racism in British society. It begins with a moment in colonial history that I was completely unaware of: the genocide of Aboriginal Tasmanians, a nation genetically distinct from Aboriginal Australians. As with any event involving the brutal demonization of an othered people, Sanghera’s brief synopsis of what happened left me feeling sick. The European convicts and settlers sent to Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was originally known by the invading westerners, simply didn’t like the look of the indigenous people, and used this as an excuse to kill them for sport, using the men as target practice and raping the women. Aside from the murder of these existing inhabitants, the Europeans also brought diseases that killed many of the Aboriginal Tasmanians. Although it was believed that the nation had died out, from the 1970s people descended from the children of Aboriginal women and European men reclaimed the Aboriginal Tasmanian identity. An account of the genocide given by Jan Morris in volume 1 of Pax Britannica is the stepping off point for Sanghera to examine British racism. Morris accepts the contemporaneous accounts of the people who committed the genocide, in which the indigenous Tasmanians are described pejoratively, before going on to claim that the colonising British “were not often physically cruel … They were more generally unsympathetic, or misunderstanding, or contemptuous …” and then attributing the British attitude to the consequences of the Tasmanians fighting back against their aggressors. Victim blaming, in other words. And Jan Morris is considered a more enlightened historian.
For Sanghera, Morris’s take makes him wonder “whether you need to be a descendant of the colonized or a person of colour to feel the full gut-wrenching horror of it all” and whether racism correlates directly with empire and continues to be part of Britain’s imperial legacy. For someone as well regarded as Morris to express something so unthinkingly racist could be taken, as Sanghera justifiably does, as evidence that racism is ingrained in white British culture. Coincidentally, another writer who I admire, Jeffrey Boakye, tweeted a thread inspired by an encounter he had on a train. Within the thread, Boakye introduces the idea that white people have been racialised as much as people of colour, except we have been tutored to think of ourselves as superior and to have privilege. In the tweet that struck home the most with me, Boakye says, “My recommendation for anyone racialised as white who has read this far is simple. Admit what you know about racism. Admit your privilege. Challenge it openly and have the security to distance yourself from what you have [been] told you are.” I found it helpful to think of the descriptor ‘white’ as a racialised term, a label the same as ‘black’ or ‘brown’, and something that doesn’t eradicate me as a person if its racialised meaning is taken away.
Sanghera examines arguments for and against racism being at the heart of empire, advocating for caution in the face of temptation to make colonialism and empire synonymous with racism. He quotes Caribbean historian Eric Williams, who asserted that slavery was an economic phenomenon given a racial twist; that racism was the consequence of slavery, not the other way around. Similarly, the development of empire was an economic phenomenon and racism became a way of justifying the brutal treatment of the colonised by the colonisers. In order to brutalise another human being, disgust for them needs to be felt and their humanity denied. Sanghera provides instances of how white people have been doing this since they first came into contact with people of a different skin colour, regardless of whether any concept of race, or ‘race science’, had been developed.
It is undeniable that race and racism didn’t exist in a formal way during the early phase of British empire in the way they do now, but there was a whole load of dehumanizing behaviour which more or less amounted to racism.
Sanghera also acknowledges the brutality on both sides of empire, focusing on events in India where Indians rose up against the British in response to the dehumanising treatment they received. Contemporaneous accounts giving the numbers of white men, women and children tortured and killed by Indians, along with some of the acts ascribed to the Indian mutineers, are now considered to be exaggerated, in order to justify the ever more brutal response from the British.
Defining people by their skin colour has many ramifications, stemming from that notion that the white skinned are superior. Sanghera mentions Victorian adverts for Pears Soap in which a white child helps a black child “to become more like him”. This made me think of a collection we have at work, of marketing material and product packaging for toiletries made by PZ Cussons. There are examples of skin lightening soaps for the African market as late as the 1970s in the collection, and skin lightening products are still available for those who feel impelled to bleach their skin. There was a storyline involving Asha Alahan in Coronation Street using illegal skin bleaching products a couple of years ago.
On the question of whether the racism that developed as a consequence of empire still influences British society now, so many of the white supremacist statements made by colonialists and quoted by Sanghera are statements that are still made today. The quote from Cecil Rhodes in particular has echoes in statements made by members of our current government.
We [the Anglo-Saxon ‘race’] happen to be the best people in the world, with the highest ideals of decency and justice and liberty and peace, and the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for humanity.
Rhodes believed that African people were “the most despicable specimen of human being”, something that our current (although hopefully not for much longer) prime minister potentially agrees with, on the basis of published opinions and speeches given over the years, some recorded in the archive of The Spectator if you want to expose yourself to them.
Sanghera recognises that the question is “the single question that provokes more anger, when it comes to empire, than any other”, provoking white people who feel their identity is under threat to attack anyone who asks it. Which brings us back to Jeffrey Boakye’s assertion that ‘white’ is also a racialised term and one we need to acknowledge if we are to have open conversations about what British means. Racism isn’t the preserve of the British, it exists in other countries and cultures, but that’s not a reason not to examine its existence in British culture.
Sanghera acknowledges that empire’s contribution to the development of racism isn’t all on the negative side. Empire also fostered anti-racism through white Britons living among and getting to know people from other countries and cultures. For Sanghera, anti-racism manifested in the abolition of slavery, Britain fighting against the Nazis, and “the roundabout success we have made of multiculturalism”. He has these as entries on the balance sheet, but contends that racism is still the stronger consequence of empire. He goes on to draw parallels between actions and fears prevalent in empire with actions and fears in post-colonial 20th century Britain. His conclusion is that empire and its connection to racism is complicated, that sometimes you can’t point to firm evidence, but you can get a feeling that empire fostered a form of racism that still echoes in the world we inhabit in Britain today.
In the following chapter, Sanghera expands this to include the opportunities afforded to people, and the way social structures hardened during empire have long term impact on people today. Sanghera is a working class person who went to a private school through the Assisted Places Scheme, under which the Conservative government funded student places at independent schools, a mix of public and private, for children whose parents couldn’t afford to pay the school fees. It was intended to replicate the old grammar school offer. You sat an entrance exam, had an interview with the headteacher and, if you passed both, were offered a place. Your parents’ income was means tested each year to determine how much they could pay. I went through secondary education at an independent grammar school. At my school, the AP was known as a bursary. My mum still had to take two jobs to afford the portion of my fees judged to be affordable for my parents. From Sanghera’s description of his education at a similar grammar school in Wolverhampton, he had a similar experience to mine: the bizarreness of being plunged into a community of people with a different background to your own; having to navigate a social structure you’re part of but not fully accepted by; reaping the benefits of having improved access to university and white collar jobs; learning to pass as middle class. The difference between us is that I have the added privilege of being white. There was nobody black at my school during the seven years I spent there. There were girls of Indian, Pakistani and Egyptian heritage, all the daughters of doctors or solicitors. The bursary students were all white, from working class catchment areas. I know this because the school roll that came out for the special church services that punctuated the year, had AP next to the names of the bursary students. As if our classmates couldn’t have guessed. Never forget your place. For me, grammar school suited my learning style and I am grateful to my mum for giving me the opportunity to study there and end up with the life I now have. But it wasn’t perfect, and I still sometimes feel like an imposter among the people whose upbringing did everything to foster in them a sense of entitled belonging.
You can see this sense of entitled belonging in the public school Old Boy Network that fills much of the UK parliament’s benches. You can see it in the way people in the lower chamber who don’t have the correct school tie are jeered by those who consider themselves superior because they do.
… the fact is that the success of Britain’s public schools is another legacy of British empire – many of them thriving during the Victorian age, and in some cases being established, because they served as preparation, even training, for a role in empire.
Sanghera goes on from this statement to consider whether his private school Oxbridge education has rendered him psychologically colonised.
… through its assumptions and relentless omissions, it was narrow and encouraged me to belittle most non-Western thought, history and literary forms as irrational and illogical, including the heritage that my parents attempted to inculcate in me through bedtime stories, Bollywood movies and weekend Punjabi language lessons. I may never have described myself as colonized, but … my view of South Asia has been heavily influenced by books written by Britons, or by South Asians writing for Britons …
At school, I never questioned my education, because I’m white, and the teaching was from my cultural perspective. What a thing to experience when you’re not white. This acceptance of the narrative that white is superior, even unconsciously, while not evidence of the coloniser being colonised, is perhaps evidence, Sanghera suggests, of a reshaping of collective British psychology during empire to produce a psychology that persists.
The choice five years ago to leave the European Union has links to the psychology of empire. As much as some voters’ desire to leave was grounded in the British tenet that nobody tells us what to do, some of the political decision to campaign to leave could be attributed to the fact that, post empire, a nation predicated on serving the interests of empire needs a new self image. Plucky Britain, going it alone, unimpeded by the meddling of other nations seems to be an attractive image for a slim majority of the UK population.
Sanghera is interesting on a curious aspect of Britishness, too. The ingrained mistrust of anyone who publicly displays their intellect fascinates and frustrates me. I love being ‘clever’, in the sense of learning and applying knowledge to do something well and to understand the world around me better. I see cleverness as something to be proud of. I love other people’s cleverness as well. Most of the people I admire are clever. But as someone identified as clever, or ‘bright’ as the teachers liked to frame it, in primary school, I’m also someone who has been bullied for being intellectual, including as an adult, under the guise of banter, because my joy in learning apparently threatens some people. Sanghera quotes an anthropologist, Kate Fox, who lists all the things a British person is expected to do in order to disguise or appear modest about their excellence. For Sanghera, this phobia of cleverness was institutionalised during empire, with the belief that anyone who was clever might use their intellect to be seditious. Reliability was preferred to brightness. A comprehensive celebration of getting on and doing it, because who needs to read the manual? And here we are today, in a world where government ministers declare that the nation is sick of experts and where anyone displaying expertise is defined as a ‘smartypants’ or a ‘swot’. The strangest thing for me about this anti-intellectualism is the parallel national sense of exceptionalism. How can you be exceptional without intellect? I guess I don’t believe that being exceptional is an inborn thing.
In his penultimate chapter, Sanghera explores the collective amnesia of white Britain about the brutality of empire in terms of forgetting being a mechanism to protect mental health. He likens it to the forgetting he instinctively did when he uncovered trauma in his own family history. Our brains are wired to protect us from the perpetual reliving of trauma. For some, of course, it’s easier than others. Sanghera’s suggestion caused me to reflect on how abuse often doesn’t just affect the person directly abused. Its effect can travel down generations. In Britain, we have a white majority attempting to collectively forget the darkness in our history, and a substantial minority of people descended from those who suffered directly as a result of that darkness, who need us to remember. If we don’t remember, we negate their experience and we can’t move forward together. This is a point also made by Sanghera: “… if you don’t face up to these uncomfortable facts, you’ll never be able to navigate a way forwards. … If we don’t confront the reality of what happened in British empire, we will never be able to work out who we are or who we want to be.”
Sanghera closes the book with a chapter that summarises how he feels about the research he has done, the thoughts it has provoked in him, and the way what started as his personal research has dovetailed with national news stories and debate. I appreciated his belief that “It is puerile to reduce imperial history to a matter of ‘good’ and ‘bad'” and that “The ‘balance sheet’ approach to British empire is ludicrous”. For Sanghera, the answer to the question of how Britain acknowledges its colonial past is to be found in honesty about the complexity of empire and a balanced weighing of its legacy through the inclusion of colonial history in the school curriculum.
From the perspective of someone who works in a museum, Sanghera has useful and challenging things to say about the role museums have played and continue to play in presenting empire in a particular way. Over the 18 years I’ve worked where I do, we’ve had regular conversations about how we represent empire, slavery, migration in our galleries and exhibitions. We have never found a way of doing it well. That’s partly down to the way funding for ‘diversity’ interventions is siloed and doesn’t prioritise embedding these aspects of our joint history in gallery narratives, but it’s mainly because the teams that lead on gallery development are 100% white. Museums will only truly change when our staff profile fully reflects the society we are serving. The Museum Detox network is leading the conversation on how to do this. Sanghera talks about Alice Procter, an art historian, anthropologist and activist who runs Uncomfortable Art Tours of museums and galleries that challenge the official narratives of those institutions. Her work should become the norm for museums and galleries.
We have a new reading initiative at work. Part of its remit is to encourage us to read books that encourage us to think about the world from different perspectives. The first book we’ve been given is Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age. I’m going to suggest that Empireland is added to the reading list, if it’s not already on there. It’s a book that works whether you have already started exploring Britain’s colonial history and legacy or whether you want to know more but don’t know where to start. It’s accessibly written, it’s not too long, and it’s from the perspective of someone for whom colonial history is personally relevant in a way that it isn’t for white people.