Selective amnesia

Gardner Thompson on imperialism

This is a terrific book. Two recent campaigns – Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter – have revealed how passionately many people feel about slavery and empire and, at the same time, how little most people know about them. At just the right moment, Empireland offers bundles of facts and insights which help to set things right.

Born to Punjabi parents in Wolverhampton in 1976, Sathnam Sanghera is well placed to write about British imperialism and racism in modern Britain. He acknowledges that these subjects are vast in scope – his bibliography covers 48 pages – yet he succeeds in negotiating the minefield with the engaging style to be expected of a journalist and diarist for The Times, offering fair-minded judgements based on imaginative understanding as much as on mere knowledge.

In under 220 pages of text, Sanghera’s range and coverage are exceptional. There are anecdotes aplenty: we learn that Lady Clive, wife of Robert Clive ‘of India’, had a pet ferret which sported a diamond necklace worth £2,500 then; and that Mulligatawny soup – “still available in the Heinz range but consumed by no-one I know” – is a corruption of the Tamil for ‘pepper water’. There is much more of substance, in chapters such as ‘We are here because you were there’ and ‘The origins of our racism’. What about the railways in India? We are reminded that they were commissioned by the British for British imperial purposes, paid for by Indian taxpayers, built by Indian workers… only to be reluctantly bequeathed, along with the country itself, in 1947. The British Empire, spread over so many places and over so many years, was nothing if not complex, and Sanghera urges us not to be simplistic and not to take sides. Any attempt to draw up a balance sheet is “ludicrous”. The Empire is there for us to explore and to learn from.

“Empire is a veritable industrial oven of hot potatoes.” Given the boldness of its scope, Empireland will inevitably attract some criticism. My only concern is that Sanghera does not do enough to separate empire from slavery, too easily and frequently conflated in recent public discourse. Statements such as “slavery was an aspect of the British Empire” need more qualification than they receive. Sanghera does observe in passing that there were two distinct phases of empire: the first to the 1780s, then a second characterised by “a more concerted power grab of India and Africa”. But more is needed. In Africa, for example, British imperialism in the formal sense followed slavery. In Central Africa, for example, David Livingstone was appalled by what he saw of the Arab slave trade in the middle of the nineteenth century and he argued for Europeans to cultivate legitimate trade as the only way of supplanting it. Today’s Africans have no trouble distinguishing, from the trauma of the slave trade, the impact – much regarded as positive – of the three or so generations of British colonial rule which followed.

At one important level this book is a call to action: to implant the British Empire in the school curriculum. Sanghera has a chapter headed ‘Selective amnesia’ – but forgetting implies having first known. He observes that his GCSE History left him with “little more than superficial knowledge of the world wars, the Tudors, and Tollund man”. He adds, “empire, bewilderingly, remains untaught in most schools: its absence in my education, it transpires, is typical”. Generations have indeed been left, in a virtual knowledge vacuum, to adopt any opinion about empire they choose – as admirable and glorious (a view which has in turn nourished a regrettable sense of British ‘exceptionalism’), or as wholly deplorable.

Dispassionate study of the empire would furnish numerous lessons of moral debate about the past, informed by the facts, and awareness of all sides of contemporary opinion and interests. This would be History as a Humanity: a means of teaching us about ourselves. And let us ensure that it includes Britain and Ireland, and Britain and Palestine, enabling our students to understand rather more of the present world and its ‘issues’.

And in an age of ‘identity politics’, it is increasingly important that we should know who we are, where we have come from; what the peoples of Britain and her empire have done to each other in the past and how we have shaped each other since. Sanghera’s conclusion is as persuasive as his text as a whole: “Let’s face it, imperialism is not something that can be erased with a few statues being torn down or a few institutions facing up to their dark pasts; it exists as a legacy in my very being and, more widely, explains nothing less than who we are as a nation”.

by Sathnam Sanghera
Penguin, £18.99

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