When everything is empire
- January 17, 2024
- Pratinav Anil
- Themes: Books, Empire, History
A superficial reckoning with the history of the British Empire is blind to the realities of class and inequality.
Empireworld: How British Imperialism Has Shaped the Globe, Sathnam Sanghera, Penguin, £20
Is rightly convinced that empire was a bit of a terror.
But in his zeal to make it fit his Procrustean bed,
He’s overreached himself and lost his head.
Forgive the clerihew, but such a dispiritingly bad book demands a coping mechanism. Sathnam Sanghera’s previous one, Empireland, to which this is a sequel, was an absurdly inflated account of the pernicious legacies of empire in Britain. Everything vile about this sceptred isle, it seemed, owed to empire: prudery but also prurience, culinary cosmopolitanism but also an insular palette, Boris and Brexit. That was Empireland. Conquest of one realm has now prompted a desire for world domination. Now, with colonial folie de grandeur, Sanghera gives us Empireworld.
From the outset, things don’t work as planned. The introduction opens in a posh hotel in Delhi, where Sanghera finds India’s upper classes not only not whingeing about empire, but happily cosplaying colonials. He works himself into a rage, muttering that the benighted natives haven’t ‘got the memo that empire ended at all’, before reminding himself that it would be preposterous to expect complete decolonisation. For that would entail disowning cricket, which in India ‘is only marginally less popular than breathing’.
Sanghera’s conceit is that the world was a tabula rasa before the beastly Brits put in an appearance. This enables him to disregard, for instance, the long history of caste prejudice in upholding a general preference for lighter skin tones – India’s lower orders toiled and tanned in the fields whereas the high-borns were shielded from the sun – and to pin the blame for colourism solely on colonialism. More perversely, he scolds the Raj for the Partition of India, when his ire should have been directed at the Hindus and Muslims who pushed for it; ironically, the Brits were the only party entirely opposed to Partition until the very end.
Likewise, he foams at the mouth over colonial censorship, forgetting that British India boasted the freest press east of Suez; as the historian Nile Green has argued, there’s a reason why Calcutta was the capital of the Asian republic of letters. Sanghera also accuses the brutish Brits of imposing English on unwilling natives. Yet the fact remains that, barring a brief Utilitarian blip in the 1830s, Anglicisation was actively discouraged in India. If anything, the Brits fetishised tradition.
Sanghera, evidently, isn’t encumbered by facts. That’s just how he rolls, proceeding sans substantiation from one sweeping condemnation to the next. The effect is that of being cornered in a pub by a conspiracy theorist convinced that he alone can give you the ‘real’ truth, not the brainwashing sort of thing they teach you at university.
Empireworld comes with the scholarly accoutrements of footnotes and bibliography, creaking with nearly 200 pages of superficial engagement with weighty monographs and journal articles, but it’s more of a breezy memoir than an argumentative essay. It is also as tedious as it is tendentious. We learn – twice – that he jazzes up his masala omelettes with ghee. His earnest prose bears all the hallmarks of a UCAS personal statement: ‘meanwhile, through reading Blood Legacy, I’d learned that…’; ‘after reading revelatory books and essays by academics, I’ve a more precise answer’; ‘turning our national monologue into a dialogue would expose us to these fascinating complexities’. It’s a style partially offset by the blokey tic of connecting paragraphs with ‘let’s face it’ and ‘trust me’. Economy of expression isn’t a strong suit – we have a whole page devoted to reconstructing ‘a viral meme on Instagram’.
The opening chapter finds Sanghera poolside in Barbados, sipping piña coladas and partaking in his first pedicure. It’s a ritzy hotel – ‘£1,000 a night even off-season’ – but our sanctimonious hero feels a sense of unease: ‘It didn’t feel right.’ His thoughts drift to slavery. This was a place where ‘Africans were gibbeted, castrated, branded with hot irons, dismembered, and locked in dungeons’. It’s time they see some slave plantations, he tells his ‘long-suffering girlfriend’, who is exasperated but ‘concedes’ the wisdom of his suggestion. Once there, he’s struck by the incuriosity of his compatriots, who appear ‘more interested in cream tea’ than ‘colonial history’. How does he know? Sanghera has a portal into their minds.
His thoughts about the predicament of slaves are soon cut short by childhood memories. What follows is a particularly distasteful analogy between the slave plantations of Jamaica and the canal colonies of the Punjab, insisting on a shared history of oppression. Farmers in his former homeland were not only free and prosperous, but were rewarded with land for their military service to the Raj. This points to a broader weakness in Empireworld: Sanghera’s obsession with race has blinded him to the realities of class. Symptomatic is his treatment of Barbadian history. That policing swallowed half of government revenue in the 1850s is taken as evidence that Bridgetown’s white rulers didn’t ‘care’ for ‘black people’. Well, I have news for Sanghera. Britain’s white rulers didn’t care for the white proles back home either. Around the same time, Britain, too, was spending half its budget on the military. A mere 12 per cent of total public spending went to welfare – ‘civil government’, as it was then called. The simple fact is that the Victorians weren’t socialists. Rather, they were cheapskates, at home and abroad.
Where is our Attenborough of empire in chapter two? ‘Somewhere so hot, in fact, that my glasses have steamed up and I’ve had to take them off… Somewhere so hot that a session of Bikram yoga would actually provide an opportunity to cool off.’ Kenya? Malaysia? No, Sanghera is at Kew Gardens. It’s hardly news that plants were taken and improved upon at Kew before being exported around the world for mass production, but Sanghera feigns disbelief: ‘I had no idea that rubber can be a naturally occurring material. Learning that PlayStations grow on trees would have been only marginally more surprising.’
He learns that some of the botanists who worked there held some rather reprehensible views. ‘I struggle to tally the twee, middle-class vibe of the Gardens’ with ‘the racism of influential botanists’. It’s a pity the Kew café staff deprived him of the disapproving stare he was evidently courting. Once again, he’s struck by the podsnappery of the other visitors. We then get this zinger: ‘the West rarely appreciates the fact that many foods it relies upon – from millet to okra and watermelon – are actually African’. Oh. That’s odd, because I thought okra was native to Berkshire.
In chapter three we meet ‘Indians in an African country speaking French!’ Where might this unlikely species be found? Mauritius, though it’s a bit of a secret. For ‘most European visitors to Mauritius are probably not even entirely sure whether the island is Indian or African’, Sanghera observes, before disabusing us of our ignorance: ‘it’s an African country’. He reads an ‘incredibly dense report’ that concludes that there is no racism on the island. He smells a rat. ‘I resist the urge to lie on the beach and repeatedly leave my hotel.’
Luckily, the deus ex machina of a ‘one-time champion weightlifter’ appears to ‘alert’ him to his misperceptions. ‘Make no mistake’, the island does ‘have racial problems’. And, of course, imperial ‘divide and rule’ is to blame for pitting the oppressed Creoles against their South Asian oppressors, filling in for their colonial masters since their departure. Yet the South Asians, too, are victims, because it was apparently the ‘economic policies of empire’ that prompted them to become indentured labourers overseas. Again, Sanghera misses the elephant in the room. It was not so much colonial oppression that occasioned indenture but rather the caste system, which kept the Untouchables ground down in grotesque poverty. Sanghera innocently writes that in crossing the seas, the coolies countenanced ‘the loss of social respectability’, without pausing to question whether Untouchables enjoyed any social respectability to begin with. As it was, crossing the seas was a taboo only for those who had some standing in society.
Chapter four skewers the hollowness of humanitarian aid, laying into, in particular, white saviourism. However, the link between empire and Save the Children’s racism in the 1950s, or for that matter Oxfam’s sexual exploitation of Haitians more recently, appears rather tenuous. Sanghera only betrays his own prejudices when he accuses British charities of adopting such ‘colonial habits’ as ‘draining local talent through the offer of higher salaries and better perks’. Elsewhere, he’s on record championing the free movement of people, though now he clearly sees natives as national property, tied to their homelands like serfs of old.
A fairly convincing gloss on the limits of the rule of law in the colonies is the topic of chapter five, though he overeggs it by banging on about ‘white supremacy’ in India. While such a notion helps us make sense of, say, antebellum Alabama, where there were roughly an equal number of blacks and whites, one half of society battening on the other half, it is utterly meaningless in a land where whites were outnumbered 750 to one. Indian peasants, in the main, were oppressed by Indian landlords. If posh Brits could get away with murder, so, too, could Indian princes. Ultimately, it wasn’t brown lives per se that were worthless, it was the lives of the poor.
In the penultimate chapter, Sanghera is back at his alma mater, upbraiding his Cambridge lit profs for spending too much time on Chaucer, and none at all on W.E.B. Du Bois, a known quantity to Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington but according to Sanghera ‘a man not well known outside academic circles’. He expresses surprise that a black man could write so eloquently on race ‘more than a century before Black Lives Matter’. Du Bois was a writer of considerable sophistication, writing on such themes as double consciousness and international communism, but Sanghera’s only takeaway is the existence of a ‘colour line’, that is, the existence of racism. From The Souls of Black Folk, a book about black culture in the American South, Sanghera somehow draws the following conclusion: ‘it’s no more possible to talk about the British empire without mentioning racism than it’s possible to listen to Taylor Swift without being made to think about relationships’.
The final chapter finds him in Lagos. The naysayers – the Financial Times; FCDO; friends – warn him against travelling to Nigeria, but our intrepid hero isn’t having any of it. Once there, in the heart of darkness, ‘I mainly hop between secure compounds’ in a ‘permanent cloud of the insect spray’. Has he misplaced his pith helmet, one wonders? Here, again, he sees the ghost of empire, the Nigerian bourgeoisie living above society in golden ghettoes, their ‘cleaners, nannies, and drivers’ tucked away out of sight. Only that much the same scenes are to be witnessed in Latin America – decolonised in the 1820s – and the Balkans; and, in less dramatic fashion, even in Britain. What Sanghera has seen, in fact, is not empire but rather inequality in action.
Sanghera thinks that ‘Britain is not ready to acknowledge’ its imperial past. ‘Do I really want to be the person who tells defensive Britons this news?’ he gloomily wonders. Yes, his conscience answers, because he alone – an intellectual powerhouse among pygmies – can rise to the task. He says historians, bless them, are either too thick or too caught up in the ‘culture wars’ to understand that empire ‘both instilled chaos and spread democracy’.
One can’t help being amused by such posturing. Polls show that a mere 32 per cent of Britons are ‘proud’ of empire; the rest are either ‘ashamed’ or indifferent. Sanghera might fancy himself as something of a radical, but the prosaic truth is that he’s preaching to the converted.