A statue of Robert —Clive of India—in Shrewbury Square, Shropshire, his home county Credit: Alamy

What the British Empire did to us

Only by confronting our imperial past can society move on
March 3, 2021

In his new book Empireland, the Times journalist and memoirist Sathnam Sanghera has made a serious attempt to examine the impact of the British Empire on modern-day Britain. Sanghera argues passionately that our identity has been shaped—mainly for the worse—by the Empire and that it is only by confronting this fact that we can move forward as a society. He quotes the economic anthropologist Jason Hickel: “If British people understood colonial history half as well as they understand the details of Henry VIII’s wives, Britain would be a different country.”

Sanghera has a journalist’s instinct for an eye-catching statistic. While the Empire at its height covered a quarter of the world’s land surface and governed nearly a quarter of the world’s population, it was maintained with the help of remarkably few staff—in 1899, only 1,500 officials were employed by the Colonial Office. Sanghera does not shy away from the horrors of the Empire, not least in describing the unprovoked invasion of Tibet in 1903, when one British lieutenant remarked: “I got so sick of the slaughter that I ceased fire, though the General’s order was to make as big a bag as possible.”

He is at pains to debunk the mythology of British exceptionalism. Is Shakespeare really the greatest writer in the world? Did Britain really defeat Hitler in the Second World War, or was it just as much thousands of soldiers borrowed from the Empire? Both of these are unexamined myths, he believes, shaped by a continuing imperial mindset.

While in the popular imagination, immigration to Britain began when the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury docks in 1948 with Caribbean migrants, there were in fact Africans present in the royal court as far back as Henry VII’s reign and the first Indian MP was elected in Britain in 1892.

Poignantly, he reflects that “the narrative that brown people imposed themselves on Britain is so powerful that I absorbed it myself, as a young brown Briton.” It is at those moments when Sanghera uses his own story to illuminate this thorny subject, that the book comes most alive.

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britainby Sathnam Sanghera (Viking, £18.99)