A Q&A with Sathnam Sanghera
about his essential new book Empireland
In his brilliantly illuminating new book Empireland, Sathnam Sanghera demonstrates how so much of what we consider to be modern Britain is actually rooted in our imperial past, and reminds us it is only by stepping back and seeing where we really come from, that we can begin to understand who we are, and what unites us.
What prompted you to write Empireland?
I realise most people will think the book was inspired by the Black Lives Matters movement. After all, the West has suddenly been gripped by an extraordinary desire to understand how colonialism may have shaped modern structural racism. But my book is only timely by accident. I actually began looking into the question of how imperialism has shaped modern Britain several years ago, when it was a relatively esoteric concern. Making a Channel 4 documentary about the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919 made me realise that British Empire explained a lot about my life. The racially patronising attitudes imperial Brits had towards Sikhs explained the strange way we are both indulged and rejected as a minority in Britain. Enoch Powell’s embracing of racist politics, which overshadowed my upbringing in Wolverhampton, could be explained by his rampant imperialism. The simple fact that I was living in Britain, as a symptom of a multicultural society, was itself due to the fact that a bunch of Brits invaded India several hundred years ago. This got me wondering about all the other ways empire shapes British life, from our politics, to our wealth, our psychology, even the way we travel. Having been taught very little about it at school and university, I was stunned to realise that empire basically explains who we are.
There are plenty of books published about the British Empire, what is different about Empireland?
Well, the main difference is that I am not a historian, and this is not a history book. Rather, it is a book about how history has shaped contemporary Britain. It is a book about now. Also, I did not begin with a bunch of conclusions I wanted to prove: the book describes a journey of education and realisation, whereas most books on empire are begun with a take in mind. Third, I hope it is a balanced look at the subject. One of the most startling discoveries I made as a result of the broadcast of my documentary on Jallianwala Bagh, is that the “debate” about British empire has a gravitational force of its own. It’s impossible to discuss British empire in the 21st Century, or even admit to ignorance or curiosity about it, without getting dragged into a binary consideration of whether it was “good” or “bad”. This is a stupid way of looking at the past: to read history as a series of events that instil pride and shame. I wanted to break away from this attitude and instead look at the effect of this vital part of our history on this country.
Why do you think Empire is such an important subject right now?
Well, as Ashley Jackson has put it, “any study of imperialism embraces a range of controversial topics, including unequal power relations, nationalism, race, cultural confrontations, economics, warfare, and ideology”. Or to put it another way, empire encompasses a bunch of topics which are locums of tension in the culture wars threatening to tear us apart. It extends even to party politics, with former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn announcing in the runup to a General Election that children would be taught about the “historical injustice” and “colonialism” as part of the national curriculum under his party, while Michael Gove announced early into his tenure as Secretary of State for Education that history lessons in schools needed to “celebrate” the legacy of the British empire. Such tensions divide Britain entirely, at times it feels like there is no way of resolving them, but I am optimistic things can change, and I hope Empireland will play a part.
You grew up in a multicultural part of Britain which came into being, as you say, because empire had happened. Yet when you learned history at school it was almost entirely absent. Why do you think that was?
There’s a whole chapter in the book looking at our national amnesia when it comes to British Empire. Why do we struggle to look our history in the eye? When other countries with difficult histories, such as Germany, do not? It’s complex, but having spent nearly two years thinking about it, one explanation is that we have never, as a nation, been invaded or occupied. As a result we have never been forced to interrogate our behaviour, in the way that the Germans, the Japanese, and the French were forced to do so after World War II. Also, empire is a really difficult thing to comprehend – it went on for centuries and was incredibly contradictory and complex. Then there is the possibility that the history is just too painful to digest. It’s much easier, both in terms of morality and narrative simplicity, to see ourselves as the nation that swiftly defeated the racist Nazis, than to think of ourselves as the nation that, over hundreds of years of bewildering history, also helped to invent racism.
What do you think needs to change about the way approach the topic of Empire?
First and foremost, we need to teach it in our schools. It’s the biggest thing that Britain ever did and we barely teach it. Second, we need escape the dichotomy of seeing it as either “good” or “bad”. Our complex history is not a film that we need to give a star rating out of five, like a printer cartridge you’ve bought on Amazon.
What do you hope to achieve with this book?
Well, I hope it informs and entertains. I hope it answers some of the questions that have been raised as a result of the Black Lives Matters protests. Such as: does most of our wealth really come empire? And: was Brexit really inspired by our imperial history? And: should we return all the artefacts we stole from our colonies and put into our museums? But more than anything, I hope my book will demonstrate to people how the British empire is absolutely embedded within us and how there are many more serious and troubling imperial legacies than colonial statues. More important than statues, for example, is the troubling fact that the museums which are so part of our national life refuse to engage honestly and sincerely about how they obtained their imperial artefacts. Then there is the way we fail to acknowledge we are multicultural society because we had a multicultural empire – which makes our national conversations about race tragic and absurd. Then there is the manner in which our imperial history inspires a sense of exceptionalism, which results in dysfunctional politics and disastrous decision-making. Meanwhile, our collective amnesia about the fact that we were, as a nation, wilfully white supremacist and occasionally genocidal, and our failure to understand how this informs modern-day racism, is a catastrophe. I can see why it could be offensive for a black person to walk past a statue of a slave trader in their own city, and I personally find it degrading, as a British Indian, that, when I go to see anyone in government, I often have to encounter a statue of Robert Clive, who was widely loathed during his lifetime, who, according to Samuel Johnson "had acquired his fortune by such crimes that his consciousness of them impelled him to cut his own throat”, and who, when he committed suicide in 1774 was secretly buried in an unmarked grave. But these other legacies are more serious: at their worst, they curtail and destroy lives.
Sathnam Sanghera was born to Punjabi immigrant parents in Wolverhampton in 1976. He entered the education system unable to speak English but, after attending Wolverhampton Grammar School, graduated from Christ's College, Cambridge with a first class degree in English Language and Literature in 1998. He has been shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards twice, for his memoir The Boy With The Topknot and his novel Marriage Material, the former being adapted by BBC Drama in 2017 and named Mind Book of the Year in 2009. He has won numerous prizes for his journalism at The Financial Times and The Times, including Young Journalist of the Year in 2002 and Media Commentator of the Year in 2015. He lives in London.