“It was painful to realise how my education had colonised me”: Sathnam Sanghera on the legacy of imperialism in Britain
Sathnam Sanghera speaks to Ellie Cawthorne about his book Empireland, which uncovers the pervasive and often overlooked legacy of imperialism in modern Britain
Your new book explores how modern Britain is still shaped by its imperial history. Where can we still see the influence of empire today?
It’s absolutely everywhere. There are millions of expressions of it. You can feel it in our language – the phrase “juggernaut” comes from Sanksrit; “bungalow”, “shawl” and “sandals” are all words of Indian origin; while “zombie” comes from west Africa and “toboggan” is Native American.
A lot of our businesses emerged from the colonial era. Liberty of London began by selling silks and cashmere shawls from the east. The company that became Shell Oil started off importing oriental seashells. Wembley Stadium was originally known as the Empire Stadium, and the roads around it, some of which still exist, were named by arch-imperialist Rudyard Kipling. Robert Baden-Powell wanted to call the Scouts the Imperial Scouts, and the first ever book for Girl Guides was called How Girls Can Help to Build Up the Empire. Then there’s cricket, of course. I could go on forever.
These are all quite small examples, but of course there are much bigger things too. Britain’s multiculturalism, our politics, the way we see ourselves, our psychology, our economy, the origin of lots of our wealth. My book is an attempt to measure that influence.
On the podcast: Sathnam Sanghera discusses where we can see the legacy of imperialism in Britain today – from politics and education to museums and multiculturalism
You argue that Britons – yourself included – aren’t taught enough about this major aspect of our history. What view of empire were you given growing up?
I was never really told about it, and I don’t think I’m unusual. When Tony Blair handed back Hong Kong to the Chinese, he later remarked that he hadn’t known much about the history of the situation, which seems incredible. But I think that’s quite typical. Even when I studied things at school which potentially had an imperial angle, we didn’t explore it.
We had Remembrance Day services every year, but it never occurred to anyone to tell our diverse student base that millions of brown soldiers from across the empire fought in both world wars. We studied Ireland’s Great Famine, but no one thought it might be illuminating to compare it to the famines in India. I find it extraordinary that I supposedly had a very good education and yet was taught nothing about a subject that was not only one of the biggest things to ever happen to Britain, but one of the biggest things that ever happened to the world. And this is still the case – there was a survey in The Guardian recently which found that just nine per cent of GCSE students at the moment are studying modules about empire.
It was painful to face up to things I hadn’t been taught and to realise that in some ways my education had in fact colonised me. One of the most shocking things for me to realise was the ways in which British generalisations about Sikhs have shaped the way we view ourselves. Not that you’d be able to tell it from my physique, but Sikhs see themselves as a martial race. Yet a large part of that self-identity actually goes back to British imperialism. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British decided that some races were loyal and some weren’t. Because the Sikhs had fought with them, it was decided that we were a martial race. Imperialists even produced handbooks pointing out how we, and other chosen ethnic groups, had the perfect physiques to be fighters. We’ve absorbed those racist generalisations to such a degree that it’s still how we see ourselves now.
Sathnam Sanghera is the author of Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain (Viking, 2021)
How would you characterise attitudes to empire in Britain today?
A combination of nostalgia and selective amnesia. You can see the nostalgia through things like tourism companies offering “Tea & Tiffin colonial tours” of India and Africa. I think the ultimate illustration of it is the popular image of the Indian railways. You can barely put the TV on at 6pm and not see a middle-aged white presenter telling us that the railways were a great gift that the British gave the Indians. But the real story is very different. The British built those railways for their own military and commercial purposes. I actually pitched the idea of a documentary about this to a TV producer recently, but he replied that he didn’t think it would work, because viewers don’t want to see their prejudices challenged. And I think that’s indicative of the way the British see empire. They see their history as something to be comforted by rather than something we need to face up to as a way of heading into the future.
A 2014 YouGov survey found that 59 per cent of Britons thought that the empire was “something to be proud of”. For some, to be proud of British imperialism is to be patriotic, and vice versa. Any suggestion in public life that empire was not all great is seen as unpatriotic. That attitude to history isn’t something you see in Germany, for example, where they can talk about the Holocaust and still be deemed patriotic. But over here, it’s seen as a betrayal to dwell on any of the negativity.
At the same time, there’s profound amnesia. Think of the way we talk about Winston Churchill. He’s quite rightly seen as a war hero, but we forget that he was also an imperialist. And imperial troops’ contribution to the world wars is forgotten to such a degree that even though plenty of Sikhs fought in the First World War, someone like Laurence Fox can go viral for complaining about the inclusion of a Sikh in the recent film 1917.
Why do you think debates around empire have been so incendiary in recent years?
Empire encompasses a whole raft of other controversial subjects – nationalism, race, power, even misogyny. But essentially on one side you’ve got this idea that British empire was synonymous with nationalism and patriotism. On the other side is the idea that empire was evil. It’s impossible to tally these opposing views. The way we approach empire as a balance sheet to weigh up is very problematic.
The idea that you can look at 500 years of history and come to a conclusion of whether empire was simply “good” or “bad” is historically illiterate. You can’t just give the British empire a five-star rating like it’s a kettle on Amazon. It’s much more complicated. But very few people are saying that. Instead people tend to take extreme positions, and it’s very hard to find anything resembling nuance.
A common argument is that we aren’t responsible for the crimes of our fathers, and so we should “let sleeping dogs lie”. How would you respond to that?
We’re at a point in our history where Britain is trying to work out where it is and where it wants to be. And I don’t think you can work out what you want to be unless you understand your past. We’re still living with so many legacies of empire, and I think our lack of understanding about their origins makes us dysfunctional as a society.
One of those legacies you discuss is Britain’s attitude to race and multiculturalism. How have these been shaped by empire?
The fundamental reason we are a multicultural society today is because we had an empire. That’s a very basic point, but one that I think we nonetheless struggle to comprehend as a society. The reason that I, as a person of colour, am in this country is because Britons went over to India a few centuries ago.
I’d also argue that we have a very particular brand of racism in Britain which can be best explained by the white supremacy of empire in the 19th century. The ways that imperialists of that time saw race were echoed in the specific ways that racism developed in postwar Britain. Take racial violence and the fear of racial mixing, both social and sexual, for example. Both of these were present throughout the empire in the 19th century, and strong parallels can be seen in the ways that racism was expressed in Britain in the sixties and seventies.
And then you have the colour bar. This was seen throughout the empire in the 19th century – brown people and white people did not mix socially in India or Africa. But that colour bar was also a feature of my life growing up in Wolverhampton. As late as the 1980s, there were colour bars in nightclubs, pubs and working men’s clubs. And even today, in parts of my home town, there are certain bars you wouldn’t go into if you’re not the right colour. Finally, you’ve got the wild stereotypes that emerged out of the racial generalisations of the 19th century. Even now, surveys suggest that a large portion of British people believe that certain races were born to work harder than others. Those attitudes go straight back to empire.
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How has empire affected ideas about immigration?
I think we’re in denial about the immigrant blood in our veins in this country, and how far back it goes. There’s an idea that brown and black people only came to Britain on the Windrush and after. But actually their presence here goes way back. Queen Elizabeth I was complaining about there being too many black people in London in Tudor times.
In the course of researching this book I discovered all these amazing characters who set up home here who I was never taught about at school. A guy called Sake Dean Mahomed, for example, who left India in the late 18th century, lived in London and opened Britain’s first curry house. He became a sort of massage therapist to the king and popularised the word “shampoo”. There were hundreds of lascars (Indian seamen) who stayed, servants who helped British imperialists, former slaves, actors, nurses and sportsmen.
We’re also in denial about how and why people came. I grew up with the idea that ethnic minorities arrived here almost uninvited, with no link to Britain, but actually most of them were invited, and their imperial connections gave them citizen status. The 1948 Nationality Act made citizens of empire citizens of Britain. I don’t think they’re seen that way even now, which is what led to the Windrush scandal. The fact that British citizens could be deported encapsulates our lack of understanding about the imperial connections between our interracial communities.
The way we talk about race and immigration in this country is still really odd. Take the phrase “second-generation immigrant”. What does that mean? I’m a so-called “second-generation immigrant” but I was born here, so in what way am I an “immigrant”? The fact that I am still talked about that way and continue to get messages telling me to “go back home” just shows you how in denial we are about how and why interracial communities came and resided in Britain.
Where do you see imperialism’s influence on British politics?
Obviously there are events in postwar politics that played out in imperial ways – the Falklands War, Gibraltar, the handing back of Hong Kong, arguably the war in Iraq. But I think it’s wider than that. Take our politicians’ obsession with being “world beating” during the coronavirus pandemic, for example – I think that goes back to an imperial psychology. Why do we get involved in so many international skirmishes when we’re just a tiny country? It harks back to an era where we were massively influential in the world.
I guess my most controversial argument is that Brexit was inspired by imperial nostalgia. I’m so bored of the Brexit debate, but I don’t think there’s any getting over the imperial connections. In our imperial mindset you can either be the empire or you’re a colony – as we see in the Brexiteer rhetoric about us being a “colony of the EU” and the obsession with “global Britain”. We once ran this massive thing, and ever since we’ve struggled with the idea that we lost it and might have to take rules from someone else. I think that’s been very psychologically difficult for Britain.
- Read more: When did the UK join the EU?
One of your chapters examines colonial looting. Do you think museums should return stolen artefacts?
In the book, I focus on looting in two particular imperial expeditions – the invasion of Tibet and the 1868 British incursion into what is now Ethiopia. Both resulted in the looting of vast quantities of items, many of which are still on display in British museums. Looting was not just permitted; collecting artefacts was very much part of the imperial agenda. The East India Company even had a museum in their offices in London in order to collect at the same time as they invaded.
There’s a misconception that the controversy around stolen artefacts has just been cooked up by woke activists, but even at the time there was outrage about looting. Senior people in government complained about it, and the press were up in arms.
There’s an argument that if we started giving things back, the British Museum would be empty. But that is just not going to happen. According to recent research, the British Museum only has 1 per cent of its collection on display. The rest is in storage. I think giving things back would result in incredible scholarship, and it could mend relations at a time when Britain really needs good relationships with the international community. And it’s not just about material value. For a lot of nations who want their items back, it’s about identity. These artefacts are emotional – bodies, religious and spiritual items, objects taken from graves.
- The big question: should museums return their treasures?
How do you think that we should address our imperial history?
The first thing we need to do is abandon this balance sheet idea of history. It’s corrosive. Secondly, we need to educate. There are some people who just think this topic is so poisonous that there’s no hope of us ever coming to a consensus on what to teach. But I think other countries provide an example. New Zealand has recently totally revised its history curriculum and seems to be having quite a healthy debate about its past. President Macron is getting French museums to repatriate certain items. And Germany provides a great example of how to confront difficult history – police trainees are made to study Nazi history, for example. Germany has a very proactive relationship with the past, and I think there’s inspiration to be found in what they do.
If you could convey one thing to your readers about empire, what would it be?
I hope that people read this book and realise that the subject of empire doesn’t need to be a culture war – we don’t have to be at each other’s throats. There is such a thing as nuance, and history is argument, you don’t always have to win. I would hate for anyone to read my book and agree with every single thing I’ve said. Equally, it’d be weird if anyone disagreed with every single thing in it. Both left and right can learn things from people they disagree with, and the discussion around empire doesn’t need to be the poisonous thing it is at the moment.
At the moment the focus of debate is on statues. The conversations sparked by statues being pulled down have been amazing, but they’re still only statues. I don’t know about you, but I don’t generally notice them all that much. There are much more profound legacies of empire, like our language, our psychology, our racism. Those are much bigger conversations that I don’t think we’ve even begun to have yet.
Watch: Sathnam Sanghera travels across the country exploring the effects of the British Empire on modern Britain in two-part series Empire State of Mind, available to stream on All4
This article was first published in the March 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine