Without getting bogged down in definitions, calculations or complicated comparisons, Empireland also manages to convey something of the sheer variety of imperial experiences over four centuries, and the limits of broad-brush explanations... Sanghera’s unflinching attempt to understand this process, and to counter the cognitive dissonance and denial of Britain’s modern imperial amnesia, makes for a moving and stimulating book that deserves to be widely read.
Sanghera begins Empireland by talking about Empire Day which, from its founding in 1916 to 1958, celebrated Britain’s imperial identity. Youngsters, too, celebrated because they received a half-holiday. Their grandchildren today may reasonably insist that they can’t slough off an identity they never felt they possessed. Equally, many of the immigrants who came to Britain after the Second World War only caught the final phase of empire; for them processing the legacies of imperialism was secondary to earning a living. In their willingness to get their heads down and keep working, they were perhaps unconsciously enacting Ernest Renan’s belief that “Forgetfulness, and I would even say historical error, are essential in the creation of a nation”.
Empireland emerges from a similarly assimilationist motive. Sanghera wants Britons to recognise, with him, their “deep and complex relationship with the world through empire”, to reclaim intimacy with the multiracial nature of a common history...
In the wake of personal epiphany, we glimpse with Sanghera pathways of transformative potential. “I may well have been colonised,” he admits. “[But] in embarking on this project, I’m making an effort to decolonise myself.” It’s a simple but profound response – this searching introspection and a quest for new horizons, combined with a readiness to sit with the contradictions of it all.
In this excellent book, the Times writer Sathnam Sanghera tries to understand why the modern British display such amnesia about their forebears’ vast, world-changing project. In part it’s because there is so much we would rather not remember clearly. Sanghera, who has written a much lauded book about his own family, argues that families tend to have secrets for a reason: “It is hard to function if you walk around with full knowledge of every terrible thing that has ever happened. It is important to forget for your own mental health, and . . . the same might be true for nations.”
Sanghera’s point, I guess, is that we are unconscious citizens of Empireland: empire made us, whether we realise it or not. He might be correct, but no one likes being told “I know you better than you know yourself”, and I suspect that the reason why many take offence at the attempt to “decolonise” high streets or the school curriculum is not because they are protective of empire but because they see it as an attempt to politicise their culture and daily life. They also suspect that history is being invoked to compel us to think or behave a certain way, that because Britain is guilty of crimes in the past, we must shuffle into the future with an embarrassed air, perpetually voting for whatever liberals want, to prove that we aren’t as bad as our ancestors were.
The problem with Empireland is that it is likely to provoke the same sense of mild surprise. There will certainly be readers who hate being reminded of what we have done. But whether they think of the British Empire as a great civilising influence, or a sustained exercise in greed, racism and oppression, there can surely be nobody, interested enough to buy a book on empire, to whom filthy-rich nabobs, atrocities, imperial booty, opium wars, Amritsar, the horrors of the slave trade or the simple fact that our island history has been one of continuous immigration come as any sort of surprise.
Empireland is not an angry diatribe; there’s enough of those already. It’s a sensitive, often uncomfortable commentary on the stubborn influence of empire. Sanghera loves his country but is no longer blind to its faults. Like Johnson, he’s optimistic, but in a better way. He’s proud of being British and hopeful about what his country can become. But he rejects simple solutions. A statue of Robert Clive that he regularly passes in London offends him, but pulling it down will not by itself eradicate racism. The real remedy is education of the kind that Sanghera has himself embraced — accepting, not ignoring, the past.
In this witty and multi-faceted portrait of our nation, the award-winning journalist and novelist looks with great acuity at how the Empire wrought contemporary Britain; from the attitudes of our politicians and our response to Covid-19, to the words we use daily without appreciating their colonial origin. How is it, he asks, that despite the ubiquitous evidence of imperialism in our lives, we still so often refuse to acknowledge it, let alone teach it in schools?