Brief Encounter

Sathnam Sanghera: I want Rishi Sunak to understand my work

The journalist and author on what we still get wrong about the British Empire

May 01, 2024
Illustration: Michael Rea
Illustration: Michael Rea

What is the first news event you can recall?

The marriage of Charles and Diana. I was five, and it’s the only time I recall my mother stopping work to watch television. She really got into it and even bought a celebratory bin from Wolverhampton market to mark the occasion. It had the royal couple pictured on it. She loved that bin.

What is the biggest problem?

Fake news. I don’t mean the made-up stuff we’ve become used to, but the new generation of AI-assisted fake news. Democracy depends on people believing what they see and read. What happens when they don’t anymore? And when ­legitimate images and videos are widely disbelieved?

If you could spend a day in one city or place at one moment in history, what would that be?

It would be wonderful to witness the foundation of the Khalsa, by Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th guru of Sikhism, at Shri Anandpur Sahib on 13th April 1699. A key moment for my religion.

What is your favourite quote?

“The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” Rainer Maria Rilke.

Which of your ancestors or relatives are you most proud of?

Is it pathetic to say my mother? Her journey, starting as a barely educated village girl from the Punjab, to someone whom dozens of children/grandchildren/friends rely upon, has been remarkable. Besides, all I know about my ancestors is that they were Punjabi farmers. My father’s father was a farmer, his father’s father was a farmer, and so on…

What is the last piece of music, play, novel or film that brought you to tears?

D’Angelo covering “Sometimes It Snows in April” by Prince. A song about losing a friend, written by one of the all-time greatest artists, who died himself in the April of 2016.

You have said that you are trying to promote understanding, rather than provoke guilt, with Empireland and Empireworld. Whom would you most like to understand your work?

Rishi Sunak. He recently ­complained, in relation to a question about reparations, that people shouldn’t “unpick history”—seemingly not understanding that “unpicking history” is literally what historians do. Our understanding of every period of history, whether it’s the Stone Age in Britain or the British Raj, is forever changing because of the work that historians do.

How should children be taught about the British Empire today? To your knowledge, are curriculums improving?

They should leave school ­understanding that history is argument, based in fact. And also that “balance” is not actually something that is useful in understanding imperial history; it’s more important to seek out nuance and complexity. As for the National Curriculum, it’s not improving fast enough, but fortunately more and more academies, independent schools and educational centres in Scotland and Wales don’t have to follow it, and teachers are innovating in really interesting and exciting ways.

Which empire—whether territorial, political, commercial or of the mind—will most shape the world in the centuries ahead?

The technological. It has been suggested by academics that the trade monopolies pursued by Big Tech are similar to those that the East India Company pursued—though the monopolies today are not in tea and spices, but in data and the minerals needed to make electronic parts. When it comes to data, tech behemoths press for its unrestricted flow across borders—to the annoyance of states that are home to heaps of unprocessed data, but lack the digital infrastructure to make use of it.

What do you most regret?

Not being sociable enough at university. Not telling certain people what they meant to me, before they died. Not having spent more money on a better removals company the last time that I moved—it’s always worth it! 

Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireworld: How British Imperialism Has Shaped the Globe (Viking, £20) is out now