Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain Book Review

This book has been profoundly influential in my increasing understanding of race, racism and, obviously, imperialism, that I am uniquely grateful to the author, Sathnam Sanghera, for writing it. I implore you all to read it and I hope to detail why you should, below.

After reading the first couple of chapters, I became starkly aware of things I was not aware of before. British Empire has influenced our food, our drink, our sport, our street names, our museums, our garden plants, our cities, our economics, even our language. The book is immediately rife with brilliant, illuminating examples of this but it also sets the tone for how thorough and well-researched the later chapters are. I was aware, early on, in vivid, unambiguous ways that Britain took so much from so many but continue to be ignorant or dishonest about the origins of what we perceive to be ours. Reading Empireland, and understanding Empire, challenges this, and gives us the essential context we need to understand our true place in the world.

'Britain participated to such a degree that, according to the Financial Times, slave-related businesses in the eighteenth century accounted for about the same proportion of GDP as the professional and support services sector does today.'

This book does not attempt to coldly dismiss all of Britain's imperial legacy as bad, for those who are highly sensitive or fragile about their patriotism, but instead serves to highlight facts that are ubiquitously ignored. For instance, I was completely unaware of one event in Britain's history: the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. If one assumes that with Britain's abolition of slavery in 1833, we then respected the countries in our Empire, they will be swiftly and repeatedly corrected for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 was a brutal event where the British gunned down over 1,000 fleeing peaceful protesters. Being a British Sikh, Sathnam writes which such honesty, that he could be forgiven for avoiding, but I think his personal touches make it even more of an impactful read:

'My investigation into it leaves me as depressed about British–Sikh relations as the Saragarhi memorial had made me feel uplifted about them. The massacre and its aftermath illustrate that, as well as being indulged, the Sikhs were seen by some imperial Brits as racially inferior and dispensable.'

This event, even if we focus on our presence in India alone, was not just one of few abhorrent events acted out by the Brits in our apparent dominion. This is seemingly one of many examples of Britain’s ultra-cruel, racially-motivated, dehumanising acts. He gives other accounts of authorities degrading Indian Sikhs in some of the most extreme ways, getting them to lick blood, crawl through sewerage to get down a road, to blast people from cannons so they could not have funeral rights. Anyone who thinks we were peaceful are deluded. We acted with such brazen superiority that it is embarrassing to come to such a conclusion. In fact, anyone who thinks that we are peaceful now are also deluded. The author's account of what it was like for British Sikhs in the 70s show that our racism and our prejudices towards other people, continue to be affected by imperial legacies.


Sanghera doesn't simply catalogue streams of distressing histories but uses this book as an opportunity to provoke reflection and to investigate other impacts of Empire both then and now. In Chapter 3 he looks at Britain's propensity to take by force, detailing the uncomfortable truth about British museums. Indeed,

The mounds of items stolen in such quantities from empire that the Hindi word for ‘spoils of war’–lut–had by the 1850s entered the English language in the form of ‘loot’.

It wasn't all take, take, take, as Sanghera details. But shockingly, Britain also used its empire to send away "‘prostitutes, paupers, and criminals’ to the colonies, threatening them with hanging if they dared to return." Britain also send 28,000 children to Canada between 1870 and 1914 as part of Dr Barnado's emigration program. It becomes clear that these countries were not held with nearly the same regard as Britain saw itself. It needed, if anything, to feel that dominance. As chapter 7 states, when drawing timely comparisons with Brexit:

'In the imperial imagination, there are only two states: dominant and submissive, colonizer and colonized. This dualism lingers. If England is not an imperial power, it must be the only other thing it can be: a colony.’

Chapter 8, entitled Dirty Money, lists some more unavoidable truths relating to our wealth and how we abused others to elevate it. He refers to a study by Stephanie Barczewski who found that 1,100 individual landed estates in Britain were purchased by men who ‘made their money in the empire between 1700 and 1930’. And specifically, with relation to slavery, he refers to a study by Klas Rönnbäck of Gothenburg University who estimated that the triangular slave trade between England, Africa and the Caribbean peaked at 6 per cent of GDP. This exploitation, served Britain's need for power and wealth. It does not take the furthest of leaps to see the seeds of capitalism taking grip, and how the greed (or prosperity, depending on your viewpoint) of capitalism is so intrinsically linked with the abuse of others.


What I found miraculous about this book was how utterly it gripped me. If anything, it seemed to get better; hitting harder, and becoming more relevant as it went on. In Chapter 9, we got to the crux of the matter - empire and its associations with the origins of racism. It explored the racialist attitudes before empire and before "races" were scientifically identified but swiftly led to an exposé of the supposed Enlightenment thinkers who were around at the height of European imperialism:

'Even some leading lights of the Enlightenment were not, in practice, enlightened: David Hume remarked in 1753 that ‘I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to whites’'

Although it is evident that racism and imperialism are entwined, the connection between racism and slavery are conjoined. I love how to-the-point his quote from Catherine Hall and Sonya Rose is; that ‘The story of how race was naturalised, made part of the ordinary, is both linked to and overflows from that of the Empire’ but diving into the heart of Britain's shameful associations with slavery puts the origins of slavery beyond much dispute. In 150 years the British carried as many slaves to the New World as all the other slave-shipping countries combined and between 1660 and 1807 Britain shipped around 3 million Africans to America. Regardless of whether racism or 'race' did or didn't exist at this point (it did), what Sanghera points out is that:

Britain was dehumanizing black people on a super-industrial scale.

And of the origins of white supremacy too...

This is the single most important point to be presented to people who quibble that ‘race’ meant different things to British people in history, or pick out the differences between ‘biological racism’ and ‘cultural differentialism’, and between ‘racism’ and ‘racialism’ in empire: as British empire grew and peaked in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it morphed into nothing less than a wilful, unapologetic exercise in white racial supremacy.

I wish I could paraphrase his points but his writing is so erudite and punctilious that I couldn't do it justice. He is spot on when he writes that:

When your people run the largest empire in human history, rule over tens of millions in India with a force of a mere few thousand civil servants, it is hard to resist the feeling that you’re born to rule.

And again when he wrote:

In short, the British began to see themselves as an imperial race, and, as P. J. Marshall puts it in The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire: ‘for nearly all imperialists, the British race was an exclusively white one. The non-white peoples of the empire were its subjects. They were citizens of the empire in the sense that they had rights, but they were not regarded as full citizens, capable of controlling their own destinies.’

I cannot help but draw parallels to how some people of Britain continue to view 'outsiders' now. The ambivalence towards refugees in need, the animosity of immigrants 'taking our jobs' and the recent Brexit debacle highlights how the inherent superiority harboured by Brits at the height of empire still continue to pervade our society. I regularly write about and expose the prevalence of racism that still exists in our society and Sanghera illustrates this by including a statistic collected by NatCen and the Runnymede Trust in 2017, which found "That racial stereotypes are still widely prevalent; for example, 44 per cent of those surveyed thought that ‘some races are born harder working than others."

Perhaps I haven't relayed the consistent objectivity of Sanghera's writing but, impressively, it is present even in a chapter about our links with slavery:

"Imperialists didn’t set out to do it, it only came about indirectly, as a response to the racism of empire, but just as it is obscene to omit the fact of the slave trade when debating the racism of empire, it is wrong to omit the fact of abolition, our war against the Nazis, the roundabout success we have made of multiculturalism and so on when discussing empire’s racist legacy."

And that's the point, isn't it? We cannot polarise the argument in the way social media dictates. There were positives amongst it all. But we cannot, and should not, ignore or be oblivious of the profound negatives.


The book continues to talk about how this seemingly innate sense of elitism and right to power manifests itself in modern society - not just as a hangover from imperial rule but from propaganda in our schools, media and politics. Personally, I feel that a quick snipe about Rees-Mogg can always be appreciated: "Wood analyses the impact the ‘propaganda’ had on him and may have had on contemporaries who went into politics, pointing out that Jacob Rees-Mogg ‘triples down on sickly imperial nostalgia in his recent book". More profound and helpful than that though was the insight drawn from Edward Said:

The purpose of such cultural disparagement was to marginalize empire’s subjects–‘regulating and confining the non-European to a secondary racial, cultural, ontological status’. And this, I realize, is the gaze through which my education encouraged me to view the non-Western world.

We now slowly reach Sanghera's conclusions and his summary of what the imperial legacies are, which include British exceptionalism, fear of intelligence, jingoism, and heroic failure. Not that they are mutually exclusive, in my opinion. Fear of intelligence comes from sustained media jingoism as well as our fragile egos. This can be seen, for example, by staunch right-wing nationalists, who, when threatened with arguments of reasoning or compassions, often retaliate with violence and intimidation.

The pressure to disguise intelligence starts early: talking about exam rituals the anthropologist Kate Fox observes that ‘modesty is important: even if you are feeling reasonably calm and confident, it is not done to say so–you must pretend to be full of anxiety and self-doubt, convinced that you are going to fail’; ‘if you have clearly swotted like mad, you can admit this only in a self-deprecatory context’; ‘those who do well must always appear surprised by their success.’

He continues with a few recent, political examples:

Michael Gove famously stated when campaigning for Brexit that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’... during the coronavirus crisis a BBC Newsnight correspondent reported a ‘senior Tory’ calling opposition leader Keir Starmer a ‘smartypants’, as if, as Twitter wag @TobyonTV put it, ‘having someone smart in a position of responsibility is less preferable to someone who has been notoriously pantless’.

In reference to why jingoism was an imperial legacy, Sanghera writes:

'Colonialism was central to the Daily Express and the Daily Mail, the former declaring that its policy was ‘patriotism’ and its party ‘the British empire’, the latter defining itself as ‘independent and Imperial’ in its politics'

He continues:

Kennedy Jones, the business partner of the Daily Mail owner, once remarked that imperialism ‘was the policy on which we worked for the whole of my journalistic career–One Flag, One Empire, One Home. We are a single family … I have always found the British public deeply interested in Imperial affairs. There is a personal bond, a domestic tie.’

It could be argued, as it often is, that there is much to be proud of, but the legacies of empire are often a recipe for dangerous concoction of amnesia and nostalgia. In his penultimate chapter Sanghera deconstructs this selective amnesia, which comes as such a relief because it is this mindset that prevents recognition and, ultimately, change.

YouGov poll from 2014 in which 59 per cent of respondents deemed the British empire to be ‘something to be proud of’, only 19 per cent claimed to be ‘ashamed’ of its misdeeds, and more than a third claimed ‘they would like it if Britain still had an empire.’

Two years later, in January 2016, a YouGov poll found that 44 per cent of Britons thought their country’s ‘history of colonialism’ was something to be proud of, and 43 per cent deemed the British empire to be a ‘good thing’.

I love the quote by Robert Saunders that: ‘It is probably only possible to be nostalgic for empire if you forget most of its history.’ Coupled with Sanghera's observation that "If you don’t celebrate the empire you’re ‘anti-British’.", it becomes clear why talking about and challenging Britain's role in empire becomes difficult.

In truth, there is simply not enough education about it all. And if we are to start making a change, surely this is where we should begin.

As the economic anthropologist Jason Hickel put it in a tweet: ‘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.’

But this is sadly not the case. The Guardian found that only up to 11 per cent of GCSE students are studying modules that refer to black people’s contribution to Britain and that there are no modules in the GCSE syllabus for the most popular exam board, Edexcel, that mention black people in Britain.

But it can be done. There are precedents. Although Germany were resistant to it at first, they soon faced the truth about Nazism and now advise other countries in how to reconcile the past.

As the former British Museum Director Neil MacGregor once put it: ‘What is very remarkable about German history as a whole is that the Germans use their history to think about the future, where the British tend to use their history to comfort themselves.’
In 1860 John Bright observed that ‘the English people … are very slow and very careless about everything that does not immediately affect them. They cannot be excited to any effort of India except under the pressure of some great calamity, and when that calamity is removed they fall back into their usual state of apathy.’

What we need, as I have said in many article, is empathy. This starts in our schools and in our books. Sanghera recommends 'The single best book' he's ever read on slavery - The Trader, The Owner, The Slave by James Walvin, so is one I will definitely like to read myself. This is certainly some accolade considering the phenomenal amount of references made throughout his own book. I have found that in my antiracism journey, reading personal accounts, autobiographies, art, music and novels have all increased my empathy in a way that sometimes a non-fiction novel cannot manage. As a brief nod to the book, he spotlights Olaudah Equiano's autobiography (another book that I need to read) The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, 'in which he wrote about the horrors of slavery, was reprinted nine times in his lifetime and helped the cause to gain traction, leading to the British Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished the trade.'

'And as Alice Procter observes in The Whole Picture, no paintings of black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cugoano and ‘the other members of the London-based Sons of Africa group, formerly enslaved Black men who were campaigning to end slavery well before Wilberforce got involved’, have ever been identified.'


The final chapter attempts to wrap up the complexity of empire, and, as ever, Sanghera manages to do so clearly.

The way we fail to acknowledge we are a multicultural society because we had a multicultural empire makes our national conversations about race tragic and absurd.

Our collective amnesia about the fact that we were, as a nation, wilfully white supremacist and occasionally genocidal, and our failure to understand how this informs modern-day racism, are catastrophic.

And while I’m glad empire gave us our multiculturalism, our internationalism, a certain tradition of anti-racism, and laid the foundations of the welfare state, and while I delight in the fact that our language, art and cuisine reflect our complex history, our imperial legacies and the ways we fail to see them are a burden.

At a time of division and anxiety, when we are living through some of the greatest upheavals in modern history, we can progress only if we confront them.

The historian William Dalrymple has described as a ‘real problem’ the fact that ‘in Britain, study of the empire is still largely absent from the history curriculum … Now, more than ever, we badly need to understand what is common knowledge elsewhere: that for much of history we were an aggressively racist and expansionist force responsible for violence, injustice and war crimes on every continent.’

Depressingly, despite what seems like an achievable pathway out of this mess, through education, it is also pointed that 'The government rejected calls to add more black, Asian and ethnic minority history to the English national curriculum.' He recommends that rather than alienating people by talking about decolonizing the curriculum, we should be talking about widening it.

Either way, it is clear that teachers, like myself, must try their best to challenge the status quo for the good of progress. This would be so much easier with government reform, because teachers are under so much pressure already to include so much in their curricula, but things can still be done. We can still build in more non-European people into our schemes of work, we can still organise antiracism lunchtime groups, we can still celebrate other cultures and histories with international celebration days, and we can still raise awareness in assemblies, form time and PSHE.

As I hope I have expressed, this book has proved invaluable. It was thorough, yet accessible. Honest and yet wasn't preachy. Sanghera's knowledge allows him to write with such ease, that it is difficult not to be impressed with it. Because we can challenge Britain's racism, and its sense of exceptionalism, through education, everyone should begin here.

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