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Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain

19th February 2024

Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera, How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain.

How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain

I was hunting around for something to take with me on a trip to India, something that would inform and help me reflect on the experiences in the country that I would be having, and a text that would offer wider and different perspectives.

This book looks at what being part of the British Empire meant for individuals and organisations, politically, socially and economically and is clearly well researched, full of interesting detail and depressing reality. It is a huge subject to tackle and kudos to the author for taking on the task; there certainly is a need for greater awareness. I for one went to what was considered a good school and the only part of Empire taught to us were the Boer Wars and the relief of Ladysmith, which always raised a titter. That was it. Nothing about India, Tasmania, Australia… There is surely a clear need for formal and balanced teaching of empire in school.

The author hails from Wolverhampton and comes from Sikh heritage in the Punjab and therefore is well placed to  bridge the two countries. He also includes other countries that came under British rule in this well written book. He moves between times, events and countries with a masterful fluidity and skilled writing that makes the whole subject approachable. He teases out events and conflicts to underline the point he makes, and outlines an incredible level of barbarism across the board, on every side. He also examines the nature of slavery across several countries and debates how redress could be made.

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One of the subjects with which he is invariably accosted is the subject of the British building of the railway system in India, framed in positive terms of British endeavour. He points out that they weren’t built out of goodness of heart but essentially built for trade, to move troops around and transport many of the country’s riches back to Great Britain. The British brought all the engines from UK when they could have been built locally and just took stock and equipment back to Europe when the items were needed there during WW1, leaving people stranded without a fully functioning rail system.

We travelled through Southern India and it is interesting to understand how our guides approached the joint history of the two countries. In Chennai there was no beating about the bush when describing the actions of General Lord Cornwallis, who took the sons of Tipu Sultan (who was an enemy of the East India Company) in order to force him into submission. In the Fort in Chennai there is a statue of Cornwallis, which is housed indoors because its presence has enraged locals. He was a very ‘successful’ man, we were told, when exploiting the local assets for British gain. Another guide, in Madurai, was very positive about the British involvement in his country but may have adapted his narrative given our nationality.

Sanghera tells the colourful story of Sake Dean Mahomen, who married a white woman, lived for a while in Ireland and then relocated with his family to London. This was the turn of the 19th Century. There he opened London’s first curry house, which attracted people who had been living in India and did very well until it all failed. Not to be thwarted, he moved to Brighton and opened a bathing emporium with a distinctive Indian slant. It was his Indian heritage, he had now came to understand, that was his unique selling point. George IV at this point was building the Marine Pavilion, so it all resonated well with a country.

This is not remotely a dry read but a thoughtful look at Empire with the human experience at the heart. He details, for example, the new fashion accoutrement – the moustache – and how British officers copied the Indians to gain a more manly image.

This is an informative overview of a period in history that needs to be revisited and better understood. He also makes links between the deeply ingrained experience of Britain during the centuries of rule that have rattled down the generations. and how unconscious assimilation, combined with ignorance of the reality, now – in part – inform our current political trajectory. Key, he feels, is to look to the future rather than looking to the past, which seems an endemic trait in British society and seems to be proving in many ways unhelpful.

..if we don’t confront the reality of what happened in British empire, we will never be able to work out who we are or who we want to be..”

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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Cath the author on Twitter X @sathnam

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