It seems to have become a virtual orthodoxy of the academic and publishing worlds that history and fiction now have their ‘reserved areas’. Sathnam Sanghera’s sprawling and intimidating bibliography — more than 50 pages of it — underlines just how wide and eclectic his own reading has been, but there is one sentence, more than half way into Empireland, that might make readers think. He is talking about a passage from Jan Morris’s Heaven’s Command, dealing with British racial atrocities, that seems, to Sanghera, indecently trivialising in its tone:
The comment briefly makes me wonder whether you need to be a descendant of the colonised or a person of colour to feel the full, gut-wrenching horror of it all.
It would be a desperately sad thing if that were true, but true or not, there is no questioning Sanghera’s own credentials to write about race and racism in modern Britain. Born in Wolverhampton in 1976 to Punjabi immigrant parents, he ‘grew up under the shadow of “Paki-bashing”’, kept at home by his mother on Molineux match days for fear of violence, and forced — one of his earliest childhood memories — to hide ‘with tens of other Sikh families in the local temple, as far-right gangs terrorised Wolverhampton’.
It is not just the most violent kind of racism that Empireland addresses; it is also those omissions, silences and subtler forms of conditioning that Sanghera only became aware of himself much later in life. In every obvious way he would seem the perfect type of the immigrant role model he wished he had had as a child. But as he looks back now on his upbringing, what stands out is an education — grammar school and then Cambridge — that could leave him with little more history to his name than a selective knowledge of the two world wars, a nodding acquaintance with the Tudors and Tollund Man, and a blanket ignorance of all those historical forces that had helped shape the life of a young British Sikh.
If these do not sound the most obvious credentials for writing history, Empireland — an exploration of the ways in which the British Empire has shaped modern Britain — is as much as anything the story of a ‘late education’ that has all the born-again virtues and drawbacks of such a book. That bibliography is evidence enough of the work that has gone into it. But of more relevance perhaps is a disarming anecdote he tells of a journey to the Punjab to make a programme on the notorious 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre at Amritsar:
When I made my documentary some people were surprised that I was surprised… One TV reviewer wrote: ‘It feels like a genuine revelation to Sanghera that the British Empire is, as he describes it, “an exercise in institutional racism”. Don’t many of us know this?’
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.
This does not, of course, invalidate Sanghera’s argument, any more than familiarity inevitably desensitises people to the ugly realties of British power. What does weaken it, however, is his determination to see the influence of empire in every aspect of national life. There is no doubt that the British could be as brutal as any other colonial power, but Britain has always defined itself in opposition to continental tyranny and its European enemies, and British (or English) ‘exceptionalism’ — something that Sanghera pins so many of his arguments to — has far more to do with the Reformation than it does with empire.
While Britain’s ‘imperial mission’ to civilise the world, to bring Christianity to its ‘darkest corners’, might be a symptom of this ‘exceptionalism’, it is not its cause. Sanghera knows perfectly well, too, that there is a difference between a casual parallel and a causal relationship, but ‘legacies, patterns, correlations and echoes’ all tend to merge in the interests of good copy. British sex tourism? — just look what they were getting up to during the Empire. British prudery about sex, on the other hand? — ‘yet another possible modern imperial parallel, if not legacy’. British drunkeness? Empire. British cosmopolitan tastes in food? Britain’s notorious squeamishness about foreign foods? Empire, empire. And if all this seems contradictory? Well, that’s the British Empire for you.
In that, at least, Sanghera is right. And he’s probably right, too, that you cannot tot up the pros and cons of British rule as if they were figures in a ledger. But if he wants readers to recognise the real issues that lie behind Empireland, issues that he writes about so well; if he wants the unconverted to question themselves about the repatriation of museum objects; if he wants them to see a statue of Robert Clive through the eyes of a British Indian for once, then something more than a hurried and scatter-gun approach that can chuck Brexit, Colston, Covid, Johnson, Gove, Black Lives Matter, topless bathing and bingeing Brits into the same ‘post-imperial mix’ is needed.
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