Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain
- By Sathnam Sanghera
- 384 pp.
- Reviewed by Elizabeth J. Moore
- May 8, 2023
A clear-eyed moral reckoning from across the Pond.
Countries habitually ignore or distort their own pasts to shape national narratives and serve partisan aims. The United States is certainly no stranger to this phenomenon or its often-grotesque ramifications. Specifically, past failure to deal honestly with slavery and the truth about the Confederacy has had dire real-life consequences in terms of needless human suffering and mismatched problems and solutions. Since so many Americans are invested in a whitewashed version of our history, though, efforts to correct the record or discuss reparations for past human-rights abuses invariably spark vehement blowback.
From this standpoint, the first U.S. edition of Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain (published in the U.K. in 2021) describes a culture war that will seem eerily familiar to the American reader: the pulling down of statues and monuments to notorious racists on one side, and the defensive adherence to a starry-eyed view of history on the other. In Britain’s case, however, the source of discord is its former empire.
These twin contortions on both sides of the Atlantic are more than mere coincidence. The British empire and slavery are inextricably linked, with the 17th century seeing both the dawning of the imperial age and British instigation of the transatlantic slave trade. These, of course, cannot be separated from U.S. history.
Sanghera’s description of Britain’s failure to understand or deal honestly with its imperial history — and the resultant societal warping effect — in fact bears a striking resemblance to Ty Seidule’s deconstruction of Confederate history in Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause. Among other things, both books describe personal quests to break through the societal stonewalling that hinders honest accounts of history, and both propose practical solutions for righting ignorance-fueled wrongs.
But if Britain is not alone in being haunted by its past, how is it unique? The short answer is that its empire was so vast (roughly a quarter of the world’s land mass at its peak) and spanned so many centuries (from the 1600s until after World War II) that it permeated every aspect of British life, from the words adopted into British English to the way Britons eat. But it is the empire’s much darker aspects that concern Sanghera.
First is the sense of “British is best” superiority that grew out of holding dominion over huge swaths of the globe for centuries, and which could not simply be shaken off with post-WWII decolonization. This goes a long way in explaining the self-defeating Brexit decision: Becoming a “colony” of the European Union never sat well with Britons who saw being on top as their rightful place in the world order.
Empire is also the source of pervasive racism in British society. “To be British is to be White” is a mindset that derives from Britons’ longtime “othering” of non-whites in the colonies to justify subjugation, economic exploitation, and plunder of cultural treasures and artifacts. Yet non-white people are an integral part of British history (e.g., there were Black members of the Tudor courts). Britain could not have won two world wars without crucial contributions from its colonized subjects. These same subjects, granted the rights of British citizenship and residency after World War II, filled postwar labor gaps and helped rebuild the country.
This all gets overlooked when the average Briton fails to see “a direct link between Britain’s former multicultural and racially diverse empire and today’s multicultural, racially diverse British population,” writes Sanghera. Such myopia fosters a political narrative that “black and brown people are aliens who arrived without permission, and with no link to Britain, to abuse British hospitality.”
The upshot has been rampant discrimination against non-white Britons in housing, education, employment, and social services. And there was outright tragedy in 2018 when, during the so-called Windrush scandal, elderly British residents from former colonies were detained or even deported for being “illegal immigrants.”
Then there is “empire nostalgia” or “empire amnesia” — the view that empire was some kind of glorious civilizing mission — that turns a blind eye to some particularly ugly atrocities in British imperial history: orgies of violence during uprisings in colonies from India to the Caribbean; genocide (the eradication of the native Tasmanian population); and the pioneering use of concentration camps (South Africa during the Boer Wars).
Not coincidentally, there were plenty of critics of these actions, or of empire generally, even at the time. Yet there is a segment of contemporary British society that demands pride in imperial history as some kind of ideological purity test.
What is the cause of such blindness? Empire may be “the biggest thing Britain ever did,” but imperial history has never been a standard part of its public-school curriculum. The longtime practice of ignoring non-Western thought, history, and literary forms in U.K. schools underlies the portrayal of Britain’s former colonies as beneath notice, rather than as an integral part of British history. Sanghera — who attended “good” British schools and was part of a multiracial cadre of students — describes his own experience with this.
Unsurprisingly, he sees filling this gap as imperative. Far from being a cumbersome extra, it would entail “teaching all the things we have long taught but incorporating an imperial element.” Perhaps, given the commonalities between our two countries’ struggles with historic accountability, there is even room for transatlantic collaboration on such educational initiatives. Meanwhile, Americans can gain insights into our own society’s demons by reading Sanghera’s penetrating account of the ones plaguing his.
Elizabeth J. Moore is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area. She was a longtime senior analyst and instructor who worked in the Defense, State, and Treasury departments, on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s President’s Daily Brief Staff, and at the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency. She holds a master’s degree in international politics from American University.