Empireland

I’ve just finished “Empireland”, Sathnam Sanghera’s book about the way Britain’s imperial past has influenced how we think and act.  It’s an important read, I think – not too long, written in a bright and unfussy style.  It’s not a history of the British Empire – there is a bucket of those, and I remember reading Jan Morris’s Pax Britannia trilogy many years ago.  At the time it was thought to be a radical enough assessment, but Sanghera thinks Morris let the old beast off pretty easy.  She was actually more critical than Niall Ferguson, whose story – astonishingly less than twenty years old – was reviewed as “unfolding the Empire story with all its glories and miseries”.  I remember reading that and thinking it was a poor historical compensation to be rated as better than the Belgians.  Sanghera’s own book is actually about the effect of imperialism on Britain and the British, and is all the more important coming at a time when culture warriors of both sides are using the memory of Empire as fuel for their fires.

This blog is not a review of the book (it’s good – buy it and read it) as much as an account of how it made me feel, and the thoughts it brought to mind in a 76 year old retired white bloke.  I was born in 1945, long after the days of swagger, but nevertheless a time when the view of Empire was pretty uncritical.  The main discussion of slavery was about how gallant protestors led by Wilberforce had led to its abolition, and how the Royal Navy had enforced the ban on slave trading.  The previous 200 years of profitable human trafficking was hardly mentioned.  Ruling India, it seemed, was in order to end cruel religious practices and to build fine railways; the fortunes made, the oppression and racism, the massacres, famines and uprisings were left unexamined.  Throughout the world, it seemed, local people had reason to be grateful for the stability and justice delivered by the local district commissioner, by Biggles, or Sanders of the River.  Even in the 1950s, when no-one defended the Opium Wars, other imperial adventures were ignored or defended.  Curious names of roads in nearby suburbs – like Ulundi Rd near my school – commemorated colonial battles.  And I remember thinking, as a schoolboy, on the basis of press reports, how awful were Mau Mau insurgents. Why, they drank special drinks as they took oaths of loyalty, the villains.  Just like the Tolpuddle Martyrs, I later thought.

Sanghera’s book could not ignore the effect of imperialism on the local populations, of course.  I think I knew as much of that as the average Brit anyway.  My own reflection was on the effect of empire on the colonial power, and its population.  He gives examples of homecoming colonials transferring their bullying and sadism to their behaviour in Britain.  There’s evidence of that, sure, but by 1963 there were few nabobs coming back from the colonies, and the memsahibs were living in reduced circumstances in a room in Hastings.  Yet the smell of empire lingered in a different way.  Not from plundered wealth.  As far as I know, no-one in my family took part in or benefitted from slavery or the colonies.  What little family history I know shows poor working class people, miners and mill girls, certainly not as exploited as enslaved West Indian plantation workers or Indian weavers, but that’s a pretty low bar. 

Sanghera quotes his old school song, which made me reflect on mine from a grammar school in Greenwich.  It wasn’t all militarism – there is a bit about how Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare worked locally, and the work of the astronomers at the Observatory.  “We were born in days of passion, we were reared in days of pride, that gave the seas to England and continents beside”. There’s much of the same in the verses that follow – like the National Anthem, it goes on a bit – and when we are asked what we can give to England, the answer is “ourselves we give to England”.  The school’s houses might have been named for Nelson, Rodney, Wolfe and Drake, but nevertheless, dissonance with the world we were facing was stark.  I went to school in the 50s and 60s, an age ago, but this stuff was around alongside the Beatles first LP. The school had to ban CND badges. You may say that the song and the houses are just slightly interesting historical stuff, and you’d be right. The past is indeed a foreign country. But it infected and coloured how we saw the world and our role in it.  There was no sense that our role might be helping fellow citizens, working to end world poverty or boosting our nation’s feeble economic performance. In the knowledge that the Empire was dead, we were left, as Dean Acheson might have said, without a role.

A couple of random thoughts. I referred above to a historian who said that, of all the European powers, the British Empire was probably the best one to be a subject of.  Certainly the German reign in South West Africa (modern Namibia) was disgraced by genocide – but then so was the British rule in Tasmania.  The Belgian rule in the Congo was particularly barbaric, as was revealed by Adam Hochschild in his book King Leopold’s Ghost.  I’m even less of an expert on Italian rule, or Dutch or French.  But let’s go beyond the argument that “if we hadn’t done it, someone else would” – which was probably true of Canada and India, for example, but maybe not South Africa. What would have happened if there had been no imperial presence – would it have been so much better for (eg) Indian farmers or African traders to be paying rents and obeying laws of local rulers ?  We know that they would not have been model social democracies[1], and that there have been massacres and oppression in post-colonial countries, but is there a particular level or infamy and insult in being ruled by foreigners ?

My other unfocussed thought, as I hinted above, is to ask, as to what extent the European working class – the weaver in Holland, the miner in Wales, the peasant in France – benefitted from imperial adventures ?  I would guess the answer is ‘hardly at all’; and I don’t think the ones dragged, Kiplingesque, into the armed forces were an exception[2].  The stately homes built with Indian plunder must have been pleasant for the homecoming nabobs, but had little benefit for my ancestors.  I come back to a point I’ve made in other blogs – that one cannot be ashamed of an act one did not commit (or, unprotesting, benefit from), nor proud of an achievement you took no part in.  Much of the nonsensical defences of the empire you read at present, especially in response to Satnam Sanghera’s book, is just that – defensive – when there’s no need for most people to be defensive.  Africans, and Caribbean people, India and native Australasians were treated badly by the same rulers who put children in factories, oversaw the Irish Famine and the Peterloo Massacre.  Maybe – unlike the colonies – over here we haven’t been able to expel them from their positions of power yet.

Establishing the truth about our empire is an important part of the job of creating a more just, informed society, but not the whole job.  Every respectable historian and reader of goodwill knows it was a history of racism, dominance and plunder – in the words of Orwell (who should know) ‘an evil thing – just as every right wing nationalist and sentimentalist will deny it, or look the other way, or have some version of “what about the railways?”.  I’m not convinced that restitution or compensation is the issue either.  This isn’t to deny that well organised overseas aid programmes are important or that the return of important artefacts from our museums should be done as soon as a safe home is found for them.  A common understanding of our history, and acknowledgement of the shameful nature of much of it, and a knowledge of its clear link to current racism are important in order inform purposeful equal opportunity work in our society, to an adult conversation about the changes needed in (eg) the legal system, or the national curriculum, or migration policy. As with most things, the question is “what do we do now ?”. Mr Sanghera’s book will help provide a starting point, as our actions need to be set in a common understanding of decency and truth, of our shared responsibilities and strengths, that must illuminate our lives. But that depends on morality as much as history, and is not limited to race.

Controversial bit follows.  How to build the consensus that will support the new, decent society ?  Wits often point out the right way not to.  I’m reminded of Bill Maher’s analysis of the earnestness of many current films: “if you’re wondering who is the bad guy in this movie, the answer is, it’s you”.  I don’t think we make progress, or win people over, with some of the current guilt-trip stuff. The “white privilege” narrative is likely to be counter-productive – not because it makes people uncomfortable but because it’s not true.  An example.  I have not been subject to an unjustified stop in my car by police, which I know happens because I have worked with black colleagues who have.  But it isn’t that I enjoyed a privilege (dictionary – “a special right or advantage”) by not being harassed: I’ve been treated how everyone should be treated.  Just as my Lanarkshire mill girl great grandma wasn’t responsible for the Amritsar Massacre, today’s white homeless people aren’t benefitting from institutional racism – a bizarre claim revealed in this Spectator article.  Sweeping nonsense like that enables real problems and guilt to be avoided, and prevents any alliance for progress.  It’s important to get all decent people onside in building a better society, and we won’t get them onboard by telling them that they are the problem.   

None of which takes away from Mr Sanghera’s book – in fact, it’s a plus that he can create dialogues in the head of the reader, asking how to move forward.  I couldn’t see any factual errors (was there a bit about driving on the right ? Oh, well), and he was scrupulous on areas that interest me, such as the extent to which the wealth earned by slavers and imperialists benefitted the UK economy.  And there are lots of “ooh, I didn’t know that” moments.  As I said at the beginning, buy it and read it.


[1]  A visit to the British Museum exhibition on the Aztecs would cure anyone of the idea that native cultures were inherently more moral than imperial ones.

[2] An admission here for Mr Sanghera. I have an ancestor who was decorated for his gallantry in the Sikh Wars: he was a 14 year old drummer boy who stayed at his post in the heat of battle, and whose medals were donated to the Royal Artillery Museum.