Empireworld by Sathnam Sanghera review – the charge sheet against rule Britannia

In 1891, as the British empire continued to expand, Rudyard Kipling put his pen in service to it with The English Flag. “And what should they know of England who only England know?” asked the poet, lamenting those of his compatriots who, having never stepped outside of England, were ignorant of the sacrifices made abroad in their name, and who, though patriotic, never embraced what he saw as the civilising mission of their empire

In Empireworld, Sathnam Sanghera investigates the discomfiting legacy of empire across the globe (along with Britain’s often wilful amnesia in this area). It’s a sequel to Empireland (2021), which looked inward at legacies of empire in Britain – from the mass migration that enabled the NHS to thrive to the popularity of Indian restaurants.

Sanghera, who was born in Wolverhampton in 1976 to Indian migrants, writes with the sensitivity and earnestness of someone with skin in the game. The racial abuse he received after the publication of Empireland became, he writes, “as commonplace as my morning bowl of porridge”.

His new, ambitious book seeks to examine the British empire’s evolving imprint on people and places for as long as it has had an influence. Prudently, before laying bare the charge sheet of imperial deficits, Sanghera punctuates his new text with reminders of things that brought credit, even if they are contested today. They include the English language, seen as a unifier for populations with myriad local languages, and the Westminster model of democracy about which he argues that “the longer a country was administered by the British, the more likely it was to have sustained democracy” after independence. (Richard Turnbull, the governor of Tanganyika from 1958-61, on the other hand, once remarked that empire would “leave behind it only two monuments: one was the game of Association Football, the other was the expression ‘Fuck off’”.)

Sanghera travels widely, to India, Barbados, Mauritius and Nigeria, to gather testimonies. Barbados once proudly embraced its nickname Little England and its own statue of Lord Nelson in its own Trafalgar Square, but in 2021 it became a republic and recently the prime minister, Mia Mottley, stated Barbados was owed reparations of £3.9tn by enslaving nations.

Given a tour of a colonial manor house, Sanghera is surprised that slavery is barely mentioned. Later, the guide complains that: “The [white] people who do come here, they are marvelling at the accomplishments of their ancestors.” The guide is emblematic of a pragmatic population working hard to suppress its anger.

When Sanghera reaches Mauritius – where, after abolition, slavery was replaced with the mass indentureship (“semi-slavery” according to Mahatma Gandhi) of Indian migrants – he notes that the empire’s legacy is expressed in competing hierarchies of suffering, fuelled by the remembrance of British administrators favouring one group over another. This divisive approach was reproduced in colonial Nigeria and India, when the British filled regimental ranks with groups such as the Hausa and Sikhs, who were considered admiringly to be “martial races” by Britain.

Sanghera’s travels are mostly too brief for him to dive deeper into his subject. His nervous trip to Lagos in Nigeria is more rewarding to read about because his fear (filling out a “proof of life” document, to be used in the event of being kidnapped) illustrates the threat of violence and disparities of wealth bequeathed partly by colonialism. In response to the pervasive insecurity, he writes, “many households have set themselves up as discrete, self-sufficient entities in the absence of a properly functioning state”.

Captain Cook depicted taking possession of New South Wales in 1770. Illustration: Print Collector/Getty Images

The charge sheet against imperialism grows with every page, even as Sanghera seeks to present more nuanced reflections. He argues, for instance, that without quinine the imperial project would not have been viable. Quinine “didn’t prevent [white] people from getting very ill [with malaria] but it often saved them from death”. The chapter Useful Plants focuses on Kew Gardens’ evolution from 1841 onwards as an incubator for “economic botany”, developing, for example, species of cinchona that would more effectively yield quinine. Visitors strolling through its gardens today might not be aware of its ambiguous legacy illustrated here by Sanghera: “It was also through plants that [British colonists]… triggered ecological and climate disaster, inspired far-reaching conservation measures, established… one-crop economies which changed the shape of the planet… It’s wild!”

Sanghera’s voice is present throughout the book as a generalist, distilling the work of specialists, but a tendency towards equivocation and qualifying comments may leave some readers pondering the strength of his beliefs.

He does spell out that what he calls “blindfolded British justice” distinguished between the white ruling class and the colonised so that British transgressions were often met with impunity. He cites the 1890s case of Private John Rigby, who was fined 100 rupees for kicking to death a punkhawallah after claiming the servant had fallen asleep at his post. But Sanghera’s damning assessment that “the British empire played a leading role in spreading racism across the planet” still comes with the peculiar caveat: “but it also inspired a massive international movement in anti-racism”.

The racism that underpinned slavery is undeniable, and though the passage of time dampens emotional responses to it, Sanghera supports the claim made by epigeneticists that “black people in the modern age can suffer psychologically… from the effects of slavery many decades after its abolition”. The late psychiatrist Frederick Hickling concurred. His scholarship traces present day concerns about absent black fathers to the slave system of barracking men and women separately and only bringing them together to copulate, to enlarge the enslaved population.

Hickling is one of several scholars to whose authority Sanghera defers, with the consequence that his own analysis is squeezed out by the cornucopia of information and references packed into Empireworld, which often reads like a literature review.

Nonetheless, the book is assiduously researched and Sanghera is brave because even though his aim is “not to incite white guilt but rather to promote understanding”, he knows that this work will not endear him to bigoted empire nostalgists.

Britain’s genius for propaganda has previously been used to cast its imperial identity as heroic rather than villainous. This has been replicated in the US, where the battle over the curation of history – in particular over alleged fears of the negative impact on children exposed to any text that contains traumatic events – has seen many rightwing commentators talk up the benefits of slavery to the enslaved. Such egregious arguments have not yet found favour in Britain, but they highlight the lure of revisionism.

Modern writing about imperialism has prised the stopper from the genie’s bottle, releasing malodorous truths. Empireworld makes it more difficult for revisionists whose hearts swell when reciting The English Flag to return the genie to that bottle.

Empireworld: How British Imperialism Has Shaped the Globe by Sathnam Sanghera is published by Viking (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

The Guardian