Sathnam Sanghera was about 75 percent into writing Empireland: How Imeprialism Shaped Modern Britain when Edward Colston’s statue was unceremoniously dumped into Bristol Harbour. It was, for an author writing a book about colonialism and empire, a bit of a shock.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve been writing and thinking about this for the last three years.’ Suddenly, it was on the BBC News every day,” the journalist and author tells VICE. “When I started, it was quite an esoteric subject.”
Empireland is the product of four years of intense reading (“I've basically got a whole room full of imperial books”) that begins with Sanghera cheerfully professing to know a little less than nothing about empire, and embarking on a journey of learning – one that transforms into profound self-knowledge as he begins to understand his own Sikh roots and how his family came to be in the UK.
Like most people raised and educated in the UK, Sanghera was taught little about British imperial history – it was only until his final term at Cambridge that he read his first brown author. But the British empire didn’t just reshape the world – it also fundamentally altered the island nation it sprang from, and not always for the better. In a time of Conservative jingoism, his book is a necessary rebuttal to the rhetoric that posits that the empire was always good and gracious.
It’s also, in many places, a gruesome read – with tales of Brits boiling the heads of Xhosa people, tying Indian mutineers to cannons and blasting them to pieces, forcing captured Jamaican rebels to hang each other and embarking on a campaign of mass murder in Tasmania that later became the internationally agreed-upon definition of genocide.
If you flinch, that’s the point. After decades of misty-eyed nonsense about the British empire, it’s refreshing to read something that looks at our complicated history this squarely and assesses how it continues to play on our national psyche.
I spoke to Sanghera about culture wars, imperialism and, obviously, statues.
VICE: I get the sense that you started writing the book and things started to move quite quickly. Did what happened with Colston change the way you approached the book?
Sathnam Sanghera: I thought about adding a chapter on statues. I could have done very easily, but decided not to, because like I say in the book, statues are a very small part of our national life. It's much more important to talk about racism and multiculturalism.
Why do you think Colston captured the imagination so much?
I think there’s two things happening – I think your generation are really woke about colonialism, Black Lives Matter and systemic racism. But the counter view has been around for a long time amongst the older generation that the empire was good, started by [Scottish historian] Niall Ferguson and them lot. That’s been persistent for quite a long time.
But now you've got this new thing in the right-wing sector of the Conservative Party, where they've realised they can sow division around statues and empire, and it plays really well in focus groups. So you have someone like Robert Jenrick writing a column saying we need to introduce laws to protect statues in the week we had the highest death rate from coronavirus in the world. They've worked out that this is the thing that can replace the EU. They won the Brexit vote by basically sowing division around the EU and rallying patriotism – Britain versus the EU. Now, it's British history versus woke people like you and me.
So what can “woke people” like you and me do about the fact that empire has become a political football? It feels like sometimes you’re just screaming into a bit of a void.
I'm sure you've had the same response as me: vicious white supremacy. I've been trolled for a whole week – thousands of messages – since I did a bit of radio. For the first time ever, it started to get to me a bit. I've also been really surprised in that the first load of positive reviews have come from conservatives. [Former Hong Kong governer and Conservative chairman] Chris Patten gave me a rave review, and I expected him to kill me. But then I realised, the same conservatives – the One Nation Tories – have lost their party to these culture warriors, so they care almost more than anyone else. What we need to do is get those allies, because there's actually a huge area in the middle where we will agree. Oddly, I feel quite encouraged. You shouldn’t make the mistake that the complete strangers messaging you and me are Britain. They’re not.
Where do you think that knee jerk reaction comes from? In Germany, people had to literally live through the Nazis – and similarly with slavery in the US, it happened on US soil. Do you think it's because what empire did was so removed from Britain itself that people just never really had to face up to it?
Absolutely. I've got an epigraph at the start of the book from Salman Rushdie, saying most of the history happened abroad, so people aren't aware of it. British empire history is so vast, complicated and morally ambiguous. Compared to World War II, which has a neat beginning and end, and clear morality, empire’s a head-fuck. It's much easier to see yourself as the country that won World War II.
Why do you think people have such a fond memory of empire when they don't actually know very much about it?
That’s why – because they don't know much about it. When you have amnesia, you have the perfect conditions for nostalgia.
How can people start reckoning with that history? The reaction that I get to some of my Empires of Dirt videos is: well, this happened years ago, it's got nothing to do with me, so why are you trying to make me feel bad about it?
But some of this stuff wasn't that long ago. We were still brutally killing Kenyans in the 50s – we have to compensate these people. Empire didn't end that long ago, and those attitudes that came up [through it] still persist. I mean, that survey that found that 44 percent of people believe some races are born more hardworking than others – that was in 2017.
All we can do is try to encourage people to read. Not just stuff you've written or I've written, but people like William Dalrymple, who is just a very good historian. Even Niall Ferguson – he doesn't flinch at describing the massacres, the racism and white supremacy. It's just that people heard about his argument and they've turned it into the argument that the British empire was always good. He didn't say that. He says, “Look, it was terrible. But it wasn't as bad as other empires and actually had some good things about it.” But because people don't read, it's become empire was “good”, which is absurd. No serious historian says that.
Do you think people on the other side rush to condemn empire when maybe we should also be celebrating some aspects of it, in the way that Ferguson suggests?
I am celebrating some aspects in my book, in that I'm focusing on the legacies. We have a certain tradition of anti-racism, which some left-wing historians really have a go at me for, because they say, “Oh, it's only indirectly. Britain only abolished the slave trade after having had a slave trade, so you can't congratulate them.” But I think abolition did create a tradition of anti-racism in this country, which became a model for the suffragettes and other campaigns of social justice. We are so internationalist – that’s a really good thing as well. Then there’s our food and our culture. There are definitely positive things – problem is, there’s also really dark things.
I was shocked at some of the examples of violence in the book. I didn't know about Indian people getting literally shot out of cannons or Muslims being force-fed pork.
One big point I want people to get from the book is, people will say, “Oh, we shouldn't use modern ethics to measure the past”. Lots of these things were really controversial at the time. You have Gladstone railing against the jingoism of empire. You have Queen Victoria complaining about what Lord Kitchener was doing with human remains. You have Churchill – bloody Churchill – saying the Jallianwala Bagh massacre [when British troops fired on civilians in Amritsar] was monstrous. People forget [that], at the time, this was really controversial.
How did you feel reading about all this violence? I found it quite tough.
It was really hard, man, because I see myself as British as I am Asian. I don't want to believe my country did this shit – the way they talked about Sikhs as well, it’s like, wow, they thought we were thick and subhuman, except when we died for them, then they briefly thought we were a martial race. It's depressing. But after the whole process, I was left with a feeling of belonging, in that I now understand, in a deep way, why I'm here. I wish I'd been taught that I have as much right to be here as any Englishman. You know, I am English. The way we don't understand why we have multiculturalism is a profound problem in our country.
When you read about Indians getting shot out of cannons for their part in the uprising, who did you identify with that in that situation?
I definitely have sympathy with the brown people. But you probably noticed, in our conversation, I keep saying “we”. I didn't realise I was doing it until I made a documentary with Channel 4, and loads people wrote in, saying, “It's amazing the way you say ‘we’.” It comes naturally, because I am British. But it's complicated, because I look at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, [where] loads of Sikhs were amongst the victims, but some of those firing the guns were Sikh. The mutiny – there were thousands of Indians murdered, but the Sikhs took the side of the British, you know? And so there’s ambiguity. Lots of people are saying the book is balanced, which I've dreamed of them saying, but if it is, it’s probably because of that – because the Sikhs have quite a complicated relationship with the British.
A lot of people in my generation look at colonialism and are like, everything was terrible, we should feel guilty and try to compensate people. It's a much harder conversation to have about how some were also, in certain ways, complicit in the oppression of their own people. You talk about Nathaniel Wells, who was born into slavery but owned slaves and was mixed race; you have the Sikhs who took part in the military...
I just think the number one thing we need to do is to move away from the extreme responses – the idea that it's good or bad. The only intellectually rigorous thing to say is that it was really intense and complicated. Once you do that, you can start having conversations. But if people are going around saying everything was evil, everything was good – I haven't got much time for that.
But surely if you're saying we should have reparations, that has to involve some element of saying it was bad?
I'm not saying we shouldn't say it was bad. I'm just saying you shouldn't say it was all bad… I've got time for someone who says it was mostly awful, but to say it was all bad always is extreme. And yeah, how do you have a conversation about reparations? I think we're not having a conversation. America's having the conversation. Over here, we haven't even learned to talk about empire yet.
Have you had many Indians responding to Empireland?
I've got a feeling that loads of Indians are reading it. It's quite exciting. I'm getting a lot of messages. I'm just sensing a massive desire for people to understand our colonial history and our personal history, because we don't – it's so badly understood.
What did you understand about it when you were growing up?
Almost nothing, to be honest. That’s partly because my family background was quite difficult. My dad and my sister had schizophrenia. I had an opportunity to get out of Wolverhampton, so I was focused on getting the hell out. I did very well – I left and became an English gent, I suppose. I joined the Times and the FT. But then, as you get older, you become more interested in who you are. It’s a journey that a lot of imperial people of colour have as well.
I really identify with Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Punjab, and the way he was turned into an English gent and became a pet of Queen Victoria, but then later in life started reading up and reconverted to Sikhism. I think a lot of us are going through that experience. Before I started, I was very skeptical of the idea of decolonising your mind. But I think that's what I've been doing. I think that's what lots of readers are doing as well – they really want to know how they've been shaped by colonialism in invisible ways.
Do you think this amnesia started out as an accident and now it's just become engrained?
I can't explain it. If you spend any time in India, that's how they see Britain – as a former imperial power. It’s absolutely the way Americans see us, which is why they're very comfortable with having British baddies in their films. But we don't. If Martians came and landed here, the first thing you should tell them is that we had an empire, because that's the biggest thing that happened to us, and arguably to the world. And yet, it's not the first thing that comes up here. It's fucked up. One of the most mental things is that Tony Blair story about Hong Kong – he didn't know the history. Every single person in China is taught about it. Similarly, in India, everyone's taught about Jallianwala Bagh. Yet here, even amongst British Sikhs, knowledge is quite low. What the fuck is going on, man? It's deranged. If Britain was a patient, you'd put it in a psychiatric ward.
How do you talk to people who refuse to engage with that argument?
There’s a certain group, probably about 30 percent of people, you can't talk to, because they are so stuck in the balance sheet view – left and right. You can't, because they don't want to learn. They have their facts in their head, and they have their opinion. But there's a middle ground of people who just know they don't know enough and are open to thinking about things in a different way.
I've been surprised by a number of Times readers who are quite open-minded. I think it's the centrists, basically. So it's those Tories who have written nice reviews about the book. And then there's the former Blairites – centrist dads, right? It’s people like me. And I think they were the majority. The problem is, the nutters are in charge at the moment. It’s a right-wing sect who are just determined to play culture wars when it comes to empire.
Do you think they actually buy into the idea that empire was unquestionably good? Or is it just a convenient smokescreen?
I think they totally buy into it. And it's based on very little education. They have to buy into it because it's part of who they are – they need to be proud of empire, because it explains their heritage and explains who they are. This is why the conversations are so angry. And on the other side, you've got loads of descendants of the colonised, for whom it's the opposite. Colonialism is source of utter shame, and humiliation. And they’re never going to move either.
But surely one of them is more in the right than others? The people who are descendants of the colonised actually do have quite a good reason to see empire in this black-and-white way.
I just think we've got to get away from that balance sheet view. It's got us nowhere – it's been the dominant way of looking at empire for 20 years. And it's just making more and more division. So I'm just for Team Complexity. The moment you accept that, then you can talk. When you’re banding around the word “shame” and so on, I think it gets people's backs up. so you can’t have a conversation.
How would you change the conversation, beyond making people realise things are a lot more ambiguous than they seem?
I actually think there's a load of books by historians, which – although their conclusions are controversial – you could use for teaching. Jan Morris is the ultimate example. Her conclusions for me are way too imperially nostalgic, but she also doesn't flinch at describing the massacres, the genocide. You could easily put her books on a curriculum. You could put William Dalrymple's books on the curriculum – no one will argue with his credentials; the guy is the best historian in India there is. And then you can leave it to people to decide for themselves. [laughs] Easier said than done.
Do you think it begins and ends with education, or is that not going to be enough?
We need more. The one big issue now is politics. If we've got the Conservative Party that wants to start culture wars, we're fucked. I tried to make that point in every interview I give, because I don't think people realise they've been played. These are early days in this culture war – it's only just begun in the last few months. We need to look at the people who get excited about this. The people I've been trolled by, the white supremacists – thousands of them this week – these are the people that our government are pandering to. This is not who we are.
Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain is out now on Viking.