No End of Empire
Britain’s empire legacy has left behind a complex tangle of traces, and you can still be wrong-footed as a guilty liberal.
I was recently reprimanded by an Indian festival organiser after I carefully used ‘Kolkata’ instead of ‘Calcutta’. I’d assumed the anglicised version was simply outdated, as India has been free from colonial rule for more than half a century. In some indignation she requested I retain ‘Calcutta’ – some institutions, such as The Calcutta High Court, continue with their colonial era names.
In ‘Empireland’ by Sathnam Sanghera we see how the stained legacy of empire still affects the way the English think, no matter how hard we trying to expunge it. We’re only now realising just how deeply ingrained the concept of empire is in the UK. I grew up in Greenwich, itself largely founded upon the wealth of the slave trade. From the sugar profits of Tate & Lyle to the collections of the Tate Gallery is a small jump that nobody wanted to make.
For each supposed good triumphed by our school’s history books – the British-built Indian railway system, for example – we uncover an inverse side, that the railways were built to expedite looting from the provinces. We glide over the rewritten histories and blatant violence, the mindset that equated uneducated locals with animals, the Christians happy to enforce their views with an iron hand because it was God’s right. When families from the East India Company arrived in India they planted flowers from Surrey that would never grow and passed out in crinolines unsuited to the harsh sun.
While one can’t spend one’s entire life guilt-riddled over the events of four centuries, they need to be fully acknowledged and properly understood. As late as 1903 the invasion of Tibet caused wholesale looting that enriched the British Museum no end, just fifty years before I was born. The looted stuff still turns up on the Antiques Roadshow, its owners happy to admit that the stolen items were ‘stumbled across’ by grandparents.
White Britons colonised nations all over the world – followed by the Dutch, French, Belgians and Spanish – and the attitude that you could simply take what you wanted because the people who owned it were ‘civilised’ to a different standard has remained prevalent until very recently.
Sathnam Sanghera’s book is a part-memoir; his childhood experiences inform his understanding and bring the story into the present. Thanks to the legacy of colonialism our fantasies of finding a new place in the global power structure appear grotesque in the light of Brexit, a humiliating squabble run by dim, venal entrepreneurs seeking to line their own pockets in the same way as the colonialists.
There’s plenty here to outrage imperialists, yet Sanghera works hard to maintain a fair balance lest the overwhelming evidence of casual cruelty leaves the reader furious and helpless. He remains a reasonable voice by simply learning the facts for himself. Criticism of the estimable Jan Morris, whose ‘Heaven’s Command’ trilogy makes colonialism into a breathless adventure, is understandable but the criticism does not take away from Morris’s achievement, which stands to one side of the argument.
Complicating matters is that imperial control was made possible by the open approval of local leaders. To this day we remain awkward apologists, unwilling or unable to face up to our own history because colonialism made our lives more comfortable and we could tell ourselves we were civilising the world.
The benefits were often barely noticed; by 1810 London had its first curry house (in Marylebone naturally). The thousands of products and services that poured into the nation were taken to be British by osmosis, an entitlement deserved by the world’s civilisers. The effects were everywhere; peppered through my family’s language, present in our culture at every level.
Sanghera’s book is non-academic, and this approach stands him in good stead. It’s a corrective for the times, asking the right questions and striking a balance that no reasonable reader could dispute (but probably will). When the casual slaughter of people from another nation is described as ‘making as big a bag as possible’ for the generals, it’s time to restate the obvious.