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Empireland: How Imperialism has Shaped Modern Britain
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Are the British haunted by the legacy of empire? After the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and statuecide of last year it’s certainly the case that the long imperial experience, its heroes and cruelties, is being vigorously debated, even to the point of exhaustion, in the nation’s media and academia. But do the normal British really notice? Don’t they saunter unthinkingly past the statues, enjoy the curry and flick past excited headlines with little interest?
Shaped, I would say yes; but haunted, no. In this excellent book, the Times writer Sathnam Sanghera tries to understand why the modern British display such amnesia about their forebears' vast, world-changing project. In part it’s because there is so much we would rather not remember clearly. Sanghera, who has written a much lauded book about his own family, argues that families tend to have secrets for a reason: "It is hard to function if you walk around with full knowledge of every terrible thing that has ever happened. It is important to forget for your own mental health, and . . . the same might be true for nations."
It is true. An unvarnished narrative of British cruelty, greed and arrogance, us at our worst overseas, is not what we need in hard times. So the empire is out of fashion and “what about the railways?” is no longer an adequate response to stories of looting or massacre.
The furious attempts by commentators and politicians of left and right to embark on a kind of Fight Club profit-and-loss mathematics of imperialism makes nothing easier. Sanghera again: "It is puerile to reduce imperial history to a matter of 'good' and 'bad': trying to weigh up the positive and negative in this way is like defending the morality of kicking a random old man in the shins one afternoon because you helped an old lady across the road in the morning."
The British Empire was such a big thing - big in size, big in world history. So inevitably our culture, politics and attitudes are still twisted by its gravitational pull. One way of thinking about this is to try to imagine what we would be like minus any imperial history at all. That counterfactual Britain, presumably a kind of Greater Sweden, would be much less diverse in its population, with duller museums, fewer grand city centres (Glasgow, Liverpool and Bristol would look completely different), fewer stately, nabob-financed country homes, a leaner, less influential City - and perhaps no monarchy at all.
The counterfactual British republic would perhaps have a stronger industrial base (see City, above), which would have had to keep modernising fast throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Without so many Christian African migrants, or Muslims and Hindus, it would be even more secular. And without the importation of colonial labour its citizens would have had to be harder working. We would be less guilty about our past, but this herbivorous British republic would be less interesting to live in. The food, certainly, would be worse.
Britain without an empire history would not be Britain without problems. For the radical left it has become too easy to blame everything on colonialism. In fact Scandinavian countries with no important imperial history still contain a racism in their politics. And our relationship with the EU would still be difficult. Any undefeated democracy with a strong parliamentary tradition, joining late, would have had problems with Brussels.
However, alternative history is a slightly mad approach and not one that Sanghera chooses here. He is a good guide to the complexities of this issue, less because of his background - a successful and accomplished commentator, who comes from a Sikh family in Wolverhampton and could speak no English at the age of five - than because of his instincts, which are balanced and largely optimistic.
So, while the worst horrors of the Indian massacres, the Irish famine and the slave trade are revisited unflinchingly (there are pages here that are difficult to read), he insists that you can't apply modern ethics to the past. He criticises the bitter binary quality of debate around empire, which requires screaming on both sides. And he is largely positive about Britain and its future.
Although this is a book based on secondary sources, most readers will learn a lot, from the imperial origin of moustaches to the shameful invasion of Tibet, and Queen Elizabeth I complaining in 1596 about England being swamped by black immigration: "There are of late divers black moores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are already here to manie . . ." Repeatedly the book emphasises that in virtually every period of imperial expansion, alongside the enthusiasts, there were just as many opponents in Britain.
Among the gripping stories is that of Sake Dean Mahomed, proprietor in 1810 of the first curry house in Britain (the Hindoostane Coffee House, in Marylebone, London), and purveyor of shampoo baths to royalty. Sanghera has a good newspaper writer’s eye for a vivid sentence. Lamenting British museums’ laggardly attitude to recognising looted artefacts’ great value to the cultures from which they were taken, he asks: “Imagine how the British would feel if the French had won the Napoleonic Wars, occupied Britain and transferred Stonehenge to Lille.”
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