Essential knowledge for activists

Tony Richardson reviews both 'Empireland' the Baillie Gifford longlisted history book and the channel 4 documentary series it has inspired.


Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera Penguin Books (2021)

Empire state of mind, a programme by Sathnam Sanghera shown on Channel 4.

Both the book and the TV programme are important contributions to a better understanding of the reality of the British Empire.

His ideas emerge from his own personal story, his ‘Personal Decolonisation’, leading to a study of Empire and how it affects racism and politics today.

Sathnam is a Sikh, brought up in Wolverhampton, where his family moved just after local MP Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

Sikhs had been big suppliers of manpower to the British army and now the Indian army.   So they had looked upon themselves as more respectable than other migrants but they were still only able to live in slums.

Sathnam was educated in a former grammar school that in his words had been turned into a minor public school. So he always thought of himself as English and followed all the empire jargon. Throughout the book, he angrily denounces the non-teaching of colonial history, even up to the present times. Empire history was denuded of the massacres. The only teaching about slavery was on how the British whites had got the world to abolish it, not how they were the biggest transporters and slaveowners in the world. The crucial role of released slaves, in fighting for abolition, was never mentioned.

Although not a historian his reference section is massive. He says that there are many histories of empire but he wanted to write one that shows how it affects people’s actions today. Empire is virtually never mentioned when racism arises today. In particular, he relates it to the Brexit debate and shows where the right’s position comes from.

The book is quite heavily related to India. He does also write about the genocide in Tasmania and other such atrocities. But really it is written to relate to present-day Britain.

In talking about statues, he explains how people like Clive came to be hated in their own times. Samuel Johnson said that was why he committed suicide.

Importantly he shows how empire was a constructed ideology, how Lord Meath invented Empire Day just before the First World War and then tried to enforce its celebration in an official holiday. Again, it was not particularly popular, except as another day off.

Currently, there is a campaign concerning a park in East Oxford, to decolonise it. It is centred on the street names around this 1934 Park, which include Clive and other leaders of the opium wars against China. Considering this was an estate built to rent to car-workers it is clear that they would not have chosen those names.

The book is really useful to read for facts about the Empire. It includes a chapter on ‘Emotional Loot’ that deals with the ‘Acquisitions’ and the demands for the return of such artefacts, which is useful for today’s campaign. The argument that the right-wing use, that these are different times and the looting was the standards of the time, in relation to Ethiopia and other places, are demolished. Even Gladstone said they should be returned, as well as much of public opinion. He strongly supports restitution. Anybody who doesn’t have knowledge of this 19th century period should read this chapter; it includes the burning of the emperor’s palace in Peking and other episodes.

Each chapter shows how empire created today, ‘we are here because you were there’ is obvious. He shows how in the “World Beating Politics” chapter the language used today reinforces it. In other words, everything this country does is the best. He has a particular hatred for this Tory government and attacks on them permeate the book even though he says he had voted tory in the past. While he calls for non-conflictual politics, he seems to exempt them from this.

Each chapter shows how empire created today, ‘we are here because you were there’ is obvious.

The Chapter on ‘Dirty Money’ is important to show the vast wealth that came out of colonisation. Again this is helpful to those who are unaware of this part of the story. When slavery was outlawed the slave owners received hefty official compensation but the slaves received nothing. He argues with those who say this was what financed the Industrial Revolution but accepts it laid the framework for the ruling of the country. He compares it to the changes William the Conqueror brought in with the baronial land distribution. A huge amount of the country estates were financed from the finances of slavery at this time. Major cities like Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow, and London were built up and most importantly the City of London developed as the financial centre.

In the chapter on the ‘Origins of Racism’, he deals with massacres in India, including in the uprising of 1857.  He shows the racist way that the British rulers stayed separate from Indians, through employment and social rules that created a world of lesser people. This was all brought back to the UK. Obviously, slavery could be similarly justified by a racist ideology that black people are lesser people.

Here I disagree with him to a degree in that the question that most arises is how this colonialism affects us today.  He says it is positive that it also creates anti-racism, although to be fair to him later in the book he says that you can’t equate slavery with anti-slavery.

In describing the racism in institutions he says:  

the reasons we are institutionally racist as a nation is that our society grew out of the racist institution of British Empire

In the chapter ‘Empire State of Mind’ he quotes Edward Said’s study, Orientalism, and says that his school and university, despite his parents own values, taught him Western civilisation’s superiority. He quotes Hugh Trevor Roper:

Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach…at present there is none, there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa.”

He describes Nehru’s journey from being westernised by education in Britain to revolt and says he feels he is making the same journey. He says a previous article had been wrong through ignorance. Remember he is a reporter for the Times.

He then has a chapter on ‘Selective Amnesia’. He starts from a new company called The East India Company, selling products like tea marmalade etc. Its CEO, who is Indian, says what a long way we have come that an Indian owns this company that brought the world together (Sanghera says it was by force, with an army).  He attacks historians like Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts or Michael Palin who says the British Empire was benign and we should stop apologising. He has a good quote from Robert Saunders that says

”It’s probably only possible to be nostalgic for empire if you forget most of its history.”

His conclusions are that statues are not the problem and that calling for tearing them down only creates counter hostility.  He thinks we need to go for positive changes in the curriculum, street names, museums as well as proper explanations and return of looted artefacts.

This is his weakest section, although he does back Black Lives Matter, and other activities. He obviously realises what a battle Johnsons Tories will make to keep their delusions of grandeur.

We all hold ideas influenced by the British empire, this is the society we were raised in. The question is how we fight these ‘culture wars’.

This is a most valuable book and would be great in schools and the accompanying TV programme shows through personal experiences what the ‘Empire State of Mind’ means. The second part of this is on the 27 November and the first part is available on catch up.

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