It’s Time To Talk About Empire

It’s Time To Talk About Empire


New book Empireland is cutting a swath through the intensifying debate around Britain’s colonial history with its reasoned and researched approach to a thorny issue. Author and Times columnist Sathnam Sanghera told us why he wrote it, what he’s learnt along the way and how we can all raise the level of the debate.

Starting with the big one, Sathnam, what’s Empireland all about?
It’s about how Britain is screwed up about its past and deals with it via a combination of strange, selective amnesia and nostalgia. This makes us dysfunctional in our politics as well as in our actions around multiculturalism and in the way we see ourselves.

Where did the idea for the book come from?
Everyone thinks it was inspired by Black Lives Matter, but it is honestly an accident that it now seems so timely. I started thinking about the book a few years ago, when I worked on a documentary for Channel 4 about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre carried out by the British in India in 1919. It was my first proper time confronting imperial history and that’s what gave me the idea of doing something about the legacies of the British empire.

Was there something that kick-started you into writing the book?
One of the things that encouraged me was learning about Dean Mahomed, an Indian guy in early 1800s London who introduced curry here. That blew my mind because I’d always been told brown people were a relatively recent import. Actually, brown people were here as early as the 1600s and that’s because of empire.
The other reason I really wanted to write the book was there just wasn't anything available like it. Every book about empire is really long, and if you don't read books on history (like I don't) they’re pretty inaccessible. I wanted to read a really accessible introduction to the British empire myself and realised I’d have to write it in order to fill the gap. I hope readers who pick it up now will join me in going from knowing very little about the subject to knowing too much about it.

You mentioned the book’s timeliness is an accident, but was it in any way predictable?
It’s totally freaked me out, to be honest. I’d been thinking about this really esoteric subject for years and suddenly it’s on the ten o’clock news every night. The only thing I can compare it to is being a fan of a really obscure rap star who suddenly goes to number one. I was excited but also a little bit scared that maybe I was going to miss the moment because books take a long time to come out and there’s always a chance you’re going to have to rewrite them. As it’s turned out, the timing’s quite good – I think there’s going to be a lot of books on this theme in the next few years.
Why has the public debate around empire and imperialism intensified recently?
I think there are two things happening. Black Lives Matter and the Edward Colston statue story have created a massive interest in how imperialism might have created systemic racism. There’s a young generation of people who want to know more and feel very strongly about it. At the other end of the spectrum, you've got historians like Niall Ferguson and Jeremy Black arguing that empire was a good thing. This idea has been recognised by politicians on the right wing of the Conservative party, which is using it as part of the culture war because they realise it plays really well in focus groups.
In the week we have the highest coronavirus death rate in the world, a minister like Robert Jenrick writes a column about introducing laws to protect statues. He does that because he knows that it will play well because defending the empire is synonymous with being proud to be British. For many years we’ve had the European Union as a subject you could be ‘patriotic’ about and sow division around. Empire might be a complicated subject that a lot of people don’t really understand, but it’s still one you can rally people around and get jingoistic over.

"One of the many reasons why the British empire is such a controversial subject is that millions of brown people in this country come from a heritage of colonised people, so it's incredibly emotional."

How hard was it to write the book?
My memoir, The Boy With The Topknot, was really emotionally difficult because I was dealing with hard things in my family. My novel was technically difficult because I wasn’t a novelist and it's quite hard to make stuff up. Empireland was an intellectual challenge. The empire covered 500 years of history and one-quarter of the planet, and it was a million different things to a billion different people. It's hard to get your head around it because it is just incredibly complicated. Writing the chapter on economics alone took me months. I had the book read by five historians and five subject-matter experts; even after that I was terrified there were going to be mistakes. It’s only now I’m beginning to hope I haven’t made any. I suppose it’s a kind of imposter syndrome, substantiated by the fact it’s generally only white men of a certain age who write about the British empire. There’s a kind of silent view that if you’re brown you’re incapable of being neutral.

Where do you think that view comes from?
One of the many reasons why the British empire is such a controversial subject is that millions of brown people in this country come from a heritage of colonised people, so it's incredibly emotional. Empire is a sort of industrial oven for hot potatoes. It contains all of the contentious issues in the world (race, nationalism, misogyny) and there’s traditionally only been one way of talking about it. On TV, for example, a white man of 50 or 60 gets off a train in India and starts telling the viewer exactly what happened there. For me, writing this book, I was emotional about empire because of my background, but then I had the double challenge of not really knowing anything about the subject.

Why do you think Brits in general struggle to get to grips with empire?
Well, first of all, empire mainly happened outside Britain, so we've never had to confront what we did in the way, say, the French did after World War Two. It’s been very easy to distance ourselves from it. Secondly, as I said before, it’s a really complicated history covering a long time and a large surface area. It's much easier to see ourselves as the clear winner of World War Two, which has a clear beginning, a clear end and a clear morality. With empire, all of those things are unclear. Writing the book, I discovered that a lot of documentation related to colonialism was destroyed in the 20th century; families that made money from India and from slavery went out of their way to conceal the sources of their wealth. Finally, empire is just really painful. I’m British and I want to think the best things about my country. Realising that we were racially violent, that there were sometimes genocidal massacres, that we transported 3m people from Africa across the Atlantic during slavery, and that lots of modern racism comes from empire are really difficult things to confront. It’s a lot easier to think about something else.

Has the book changed the way you look at your own life?
I guess it’s been like therapy. I’ve had therapy for quite a few years and what that’s done for me is helped me identify my patterns of behaviour and my patterns of response, so when I do things now, I can recognise the patterns and hopefully stop the dysfunction. I think that’s what I’ve done now with my understanding of my home nation. I’ve sat with it on a couch for a very long time, so I can now see its faults and also see things it’s really good at. I can spot patterns of behaviour in our politics and our culture that are imperial, and I think I understand them better. This hasn’t me dislike my home any more; it’s just made me appreciate the complexity.

What’s your advice to anyone looking to understand that complexity themselves?
Read my book! There are also writers out there who deal with empire very practically, just presenting you with what happened. William Dalrymple is one of the best on India. His new book on the East India Company, The Anarchy, will give you a real sense of what colonialism was. Some of the historians I probably disagree with – Jan Morris, Niall Ferguson and Jeremy Paxman – can be nostalgic about empire, but they also don’t flinch from describing the racism, the genocide and the massacres, and they’re worth reading.

"The level of ignorance about empire is mind-blowing, so it’s a big task we’re up against."

What’s the early response been like to Empireland?
It’s been very surprising insofar as some of the most positive comments have come from Conservatives like Chris Patten, Ferdinand Mount and Ed Vaizey. I’m hoping they realise their party has now been hijacked by Brexiteers with nostalgic views of empire!
There have also been thousands of racist messages. I expected a certain amount of it because I got it when I did the TV documentary, but there has just been days and days and days of abuse. This makes me realise how much an education in empire is needed. The level of ignorance about empire is mind-blowing, so it’s a big task we’re up against.
What do you hope the book’s own legacy might be?
I'm beginning to hope there might be a positive legacy. I’ve been invited by the V&A museum to talk about it and there are some educators – especially teachers – who are very interested in finding ways of teaching empire. There’s never been a consensus on what to do and I don’t hold out much hope for changes in the national curriculum while culture warriors are in charge, but I do think individual teachers can make a difference in their own right by putting forward another narrative.

On a personal level, what inspires you to read?
To escape! I grew up in a massive family. I was an introvert in a huge noisy family that was always right there – sometimes there wasn't even space for me to sleep – so books have always been about escaping my reality.

Who’s your favourite writer?
At the moment it’s Francis Spufford. I’m just waiting for his new one, Light Perpetual, to arrive. Fiction and non-fiction, every book he writes is different. That’s no way to build a really good writing career – usually you have to do one thing really well – but, having written anything from a memoir to business columns myself, I identify with him. Though I’m nowhere near as talented – he’s a beautiful prose writer with great intellectual curiosity. Start with his last novel, Golden Hill.

What’s the best thing you’ve read about the present moment?
Thinking of the culture wars, it has to be We Need New Stories by Nesrine Malik. She’s a mega brain who has got to the heart of many of our problems.

Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera is available to buy here. Follow Sathnam on Twitter.

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