#Longread review alert! NB a shorter version of this review appeared in the Radio 2 Book Group in February 2021.
Every now and then a book comes along which stops you in your tracks: one which really matters. Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera is one such read. It is currently out in hardback and (soon, doubtless) will appear in paperback. Its cover is adorned by a fat British bulldog crouched at the top of a lofty column. I found myself wondering how author and publisher arrived at both title and cover image. The book could have been called The Empire Still Strikes Back. Its cover could (should?) have been blood red.
Sanghera is a well known author, journalist and broadcaster and so is accustomed to being in the public eye: with this book he has however experienced trolling as never before.
Although some Lockdown trolling can be attributed to isolation and frayed nerves, Sanghera has been trolled for a different reason: he has dared to ask his readers to think – that’s it, just think – about the legacy of Britain’s colonial past.
Empireland questions the often fervently-held but misguided and anachronistic belief that we are a godly nation which has unfailingly brought British ‘values’ (whatever they may be) to inferior countries, always to mutual benefit. We still justify our imperial past with a cry of ‘oh, but we gave them the railways…the civil service…the legal system…’ etc; but this notion of a munificent and altruistic British empire is a long-standing self-deluding lie.
As a colonial nation we brought countries (to which we had no legitimate claim) into the Empire by stealth or by force. We deposed legitimate leaders. We murdered people, often in cold blood, for imperial gain.
We eradicated first peoples (Sanghera describes, chillingly, how a long line of British soldiers walked across Tasmania, shooting its original inhabitants with no more concern than you would a rabbit). We sold others into slavery and took what was not ours to take: people, wealth, produce, property, territory. The word ‘loot’ is an Indian one for a reason. Our museums and our stately homes are still full of this imperial plunder.
Not every plundered object held here could or should be returned to where it came from – but if return is not possible then the story of its theft needs to be given equal weight alongside its origin, its antiquity, its craftsmanship or its value. Institutions such as The National Trust should be celebrated for exploring this issue, not criticised, as has (unbelievably!) been the case in recent months.
I would like to have seen an additional chapter in Empireland which showed how religion and empire co-operated to lethal effect (supplanting the valid belief systems of first peoples with Chistianity, often brutally imposed) but perhaps the author will explore this in a separate work, as it is a huge subject.
BlackLivesMatter opened up discussions about the legacy of slavery worldwide. In the UK it will be remembered for the toppling of statues of slave traders such as Edward Colston in Bristol. Sanghera stops short of describing such actions as futile but does urge far greater positivity and creativity of response. His lively suggestion would be leaving such statues in situ and pelting them with rotten fruit once a year. My own would be to topple them without damage but then to leave them in situ, suitably interpreted, removed from their literal and metaphorical pedestal – so that our children can look down on them and see they were, after all, just men.
In a local museum two dull but worthy Victorians portraits have always hung in a quiet corner. After reading Empireland I looked at them with fresh eyes.These were ruthless merchants, opium barons, the drug royalty of their day, who were in it for the money. They spent no time reflecting on the ethics of their enterprise and merit no respect.
Sanghera points out that Empire was built on action – often bold, reckless and dangerous action – and not on intellect. The legacy of this today is catastrophic.
Reading Empireland coincided with my studying the history of the North West Frontier, where generation after generation of not especially bright but bold and brave boys who joined the army were massacred by the local residents who not unnaturally objected to their alien presence.
These actions are still being written up as heroic by historians today but they were anything but: at best they were inadvisable and illegal, at worst suicidal. 21st century military historians are generally male and they love their subject, which can lead to a dangerous fondness of the past. Sanghera’s book works because he is NOT a historian.
Sanghera points out that we have been conditioned to value such heroic failures as the Massacre at the Khyber Pass in 1842 more than success. A retreat from Kabul without loss of life would not have caused the flicker of an imperial eyelid.
And who reached the South Pole first? Not the ill-equipped and poorly-led Robert Falcon Scott – but the clever Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who listened to indigenous locals and planned accordingly. And yet as Sanghera points out it is Scott’s ‘heroism’ – which led to the horrific and untimely death of his entire party – which is commemorated and celebrated.
We are all damaged by this colonial legacy. The imperial past continues to affect our psychology today. Sanghera shows how we like our politicians to be jovial buffoons. We (and they) still use the phrase ‘too clever by half’ as a criticism of intellect. At Oxford David Cameron was a bright outsider, while Boris Johnson, his inferior academically, was somehow the golden boy. This attitude pervades our politics too and recent catastrophic political decision-making for Britain stems largely from a popular mistrust of clever people and institutions. Bring back the intelligent, dull politicians whom we can trust!
I know Lockdown is hard on everyone, and that comfort-reading novels is entirely understandable – I do it myself (and I’m even writing one…). We are all going to be changed by our experiences over the last year and few of us for the better.
Please, though, consider reading this remarkable book. Especially if the first thought which springs to mind after hearing the word ’empire’ is ‘biscuit’. If enough of us read books such as Empireland, it could just change Britain, and the world, and our children’s futures, for the better.