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Empireland—trying too hard to tell ‘both sides’ of the British Empire

This article is over 2 years, 6 months old
Ruby Hirsch reviews Empireland—How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain

When Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters dumped the statue of slaver Edward Colston into Bristol harbour last summer, it epitomised a momentous reckoning around the legacy of slavery and British Empire. Black histories marginalised for centuries are now finally being heard in the mainstream of British society in the wake of the BLM movement. Sathnam Sanghera’s new book, Empireland, is a welcome contribution to this burgeoning conversation.

Empireland examines the impact empire and imperialism had on modern Britain. And it helps fill the blanks left by the whitewashed and inadequate version of our history provided by the British education system. It includes an impressively detailed and eclectic collection of hidden histories, fascinating anecdotes and brutally honest accounts of the horrors of empire. 

One chapter tells stories of early black migrants to Britain. They include the quirky Dean Mahomed who opened the first curry house in London in 1809 before dubbing himself the “shampoo surgeon”. He set up a shady Indian bathhouse at which—among other injuries and fatalities—a man’s leg was snapped by the masseuse and consequently amputated. But it nonetheless received a Royal Warrant from King George IV. 

Sanghera is clearly shocked at the British Empire’s treatment of its colonial subjects. But throughout the book he insists on giving a counterbalance to every criticism of British imperialism. 

After a damning account of the economic draining of India, he goes on to ask, “But how do we know how many of the dealings were under duress?” And he suggests that much of these profits may have been “legitimate”. After presenting some of the most brutal instances of British racist violence, Sanghera is careful to remind us, “It has been argued that the colonised were also capable of racialised horror.”  

He then proceeds to list examples of how some instances of resistance to colonialism could be also construed as racist. Although to his credit Sanghera generally, eventually arrives at an anti-imperialist conclusion, the laboured “both sides-ism” of Empireland feels tedious and contrived.

Sanghera wants to salvage the positive aspects of “Britishness” while owning up to the crimes of the past. So he lumps together different histories into one overarching picture of a multifaceted Britain. Those to be celebrated—such as the working class Chartist movement, abolitionism and multiculturalism—sit alongside the racism and subjugation of Empire.

What’s missing is the role of class—and that this antagonism between those at the top and bottom of society has always existed in our history. The abolitionist movement, for example, had support among working class people who opposed slavery unlike many British bosses. 

Sanghera ends by urging campaigners to “be positive”. He argues that tearing down statues and the language of “decolonising the curriculum” is too antagonistic and only provokes opposition. But it took the power, militancy and defiance of a mass movement to force these conversations to happen at all. We get nowhere by pandering to the right or diluting our demands. In the words of the great escaped slave and US abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”

Empireland—How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain by Sathnam Sanghera. £18.99 Available from Bookmarks—the socialist bookshop

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