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22 January 2024

Empire’s final reckoning

Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireworld captures the complexity of British imperialism’s legacy – but can its injustices yet be undone?

By Quinn Slobodian

Just over 20 years ago, perfectly timed to cheerlead the US invasion of Iraq, Niall Ferguson published a book celebrating British imperialism called Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. The book fired the starting gun for the latest round of the culture war over empire, one that shows no sign of abating, even if it reached a provisional climax during the spread of the Black Lives Matter movement and the dunking of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol Harbour in June 2020.

Now, Sathnam Sanghera has published a book with a similar title to Ferguson’s, but one which he hopes will undo the very terms of recent debate. He seeks to substitute what he calls the balance-sheet model of empire with the language of “nuance”, “contradiction” and “complexity”.

Empire was never either/or, it was both/and, he insists. “Sometimes,” he writes, “it instilled both chaos and democracy in the same place at the same time.” He is certainly right. Yet, as he confesses himself, Sanghera has trouble escaping the framework he condemns – a problem deepened by his failure to take the attempts to undo the empire as seriously as he does the fact of the empire itself.

Empireworld is the follow-up to Sanghera’s bestselling Empireland (2021). The charm of the earlier book was that it captured the moment that many British readers presumably were experiencing themselves, becoming sensitised slowly to the reality of a legacy of empire in their own country that, as Sanghera attests, is simply not part of the standard education. 

Empireland’s narrative approach was to show how bizarre this mass ignorance was, considering how often Sanghera was almost literally stumbling over things in his familiar surroundings that had fingerprints and return addresses of distant places on them, from everyday language to place names to food. His tone had the zeal of the convert who wants to grab passers-by and point out to them: look, look, empire everywhere!

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If Sanghera was a self-described archival neophyte in the first book, it is harder to hold this pose in the sequel now that, as he mentions, he has been appointed to the Royal Historical Society. He occasionally tries to return to the gee-whizz school of prose by expressing slightly exaggerated surprise at all of his zany discoveries (did you know that rubber occurred naturally?), but for the most part he is seeking communion with what are now his fellow historians. He offers rich and thoughtful engagements with bodies of scholarly work grafted on to travelogues based on his reporting trips to Nigeria, Mauritius, Barbados, New Delhi and beyond, where, as a stock feature, he makes self-deprecating remarks about his own status as a tourist in places that are inevitably bloodstained by centuries of exploitation and occupation. 

His choice of topics in Empireworld illustrates his message of complexity well. Exemplary is the discussion of indentured labour in the 19th century, where he shows how, although the conditions of employment and work were often just short of enslavement, over time the effects were very different in terms of upward mobility for the affected populations. Mauritius was home to both Indian indentured labourers and Creole slaves – and today, as he observes, there are many more Bollywood offerings than African films shown on Air Mauritius’s in-flight entertainment. The descendants of indentured labourers and descendants of white settlers dominate the former colony economically.

Sanghera’s own status as a Sikh man born and raised in England – a biography he draws on frequently – has equipped him to navigate questions of the sometimes tense relationship between racial minorities and the ways in which they have been economically pitted against one another. The chapter on the law and homosexuality returns to his parents’ native India and also into the thick of some of the most innovative – but also dense – scholarship on empire.

The reason for the knottiness is, as Sanghera shows, that empire cannot be reduced to one story, or one locale – even a place as large and iconic as the Indian subcontinent, which often stands in for the British empire tout court. Attempts at imperial law creation were not either uniform or patchwork – they were both. There were attempts at codification but these were practised differently depending on the place or personnel, and were often modified as a response to the resistance and demands of colonised populations themselves. Here he stands with legal historians but also the former chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng, who wrote his own rebuttal to Niall Ferguson, Ghosts of Empire, in 2011.

This is history a historian can recognise: a field that demands close study and resists easy generalisation or pat judgments. It explains Sanghera’s terminal vexation with the balance-sheet model of empire, which he compares to football fandom or rating a phone case purchased on Amazon.

Of course, the balance-sheet model of empire itself has a history. While one could go back to critics of empire such as Adam Smith (1723-90), or debates over the East India Company’s misrule enriching individual capitalists from the public purse, or JA Hobson’s critiques of financial imperialism, perhaps its most important moment in the 20th century is when the British prime minister Harold Macmillan requested in 1957 “something like a profit-and-loss account for each of our colonial possessions”. 

At that point the question was not a retroactive assessment of the costs and benefits of the empire as it would be for economic historians in the 1980s, but rather the use of the balance sheet as a forward-planning tool. Should the empire be kept or not? 

The question was also not what the effect was on the colonised people, but what the burden was on the coloniser. Famously, the answer was that the costs were greater than the benefits, a conclusion that helped guide the devolution of power mostly peacefully but sometimes violently to independent nation states in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Turning the accounts around to look at it from the point of view of the colonised, it is clear that the balance sheet is not only a means of trivialisation or simplification; it can also be a powerful tool of condemnation and claims-making. Sanghera distances himself from the work of people such as Shashi Tharoor, who he says views empire solely in terms of its crimes, but he offers no shortage of nauseating details himself: from the branding of Africans kidnapped and bound for Barbados in the late 17th century with the acronym “RACE” (for the Royal African Company of England), to the declaration in 1634 of John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, that the indigenous people “are neere all dead of small Poxe, so as the Lord hathe cleared our title to what we possess”. He also details the ongoing campaign for reparations – of $33trn – by the Caricom group of Caribbean nations. Here, accounting inevitably becomes part of determining the effects of empire. “Have I not participated in a micro-form of balance-sheet thinking myself,” Sanghera asks at one point, and perhaps there is a reason. The ledger tells a damning tale.

Think also of the database of compensation to slave owners hosted by the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery and used by Kris Manjapra as inspiration for his illuminating recent book Black Ghost of Empire. In it, Manjapra shows that it was only in 2015 that descendants of former slave owners stopped receiving compensation for their lost human “property”. He also explains how the derivation of emancipation is from the Latin for “to let free from his hand”. It implied freedom granted by the enslaver to the enslaved – and almost always involved compensation. He distinguishes this from the many acts of liberation when enslaved people seized freedom for themselves. Even then, payback often came later. Consider Haiti, which, as an independent nation in the 19th century, was forced to pay today’s equivalent of billions of dollars in reparations to its own former coloniser. 

With rare exceptions, Sanghera’s targets among historians are those on the right who seek to justify or whitewash empire’s faults, as Ferguson did in his 2003 book and Nigel Biggar does in his own recent bestseller, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning. However, for a book about empire, it is odd that Sanghera’s only real discussion of decolonisation as such is to dismiss it rather glibly by wondering with faux exasperation whether real decolonisation would mean Indians have to start driving on the opposite side of the road. “If you’ve ever thought Indian traffic couldn’t get any more chaotic, just imagine what it would be like if this rule changed in the name of decolonisation.” Ha ha?

One could argue that the only real way to escape the balance-sheet model of empire is to institute an entirely new way of measuring value. At its most dramatic moments, this is what decolonisation set out to do. In 1961, Frantz Fanon ended The Wretched of the Earth by saying that formerly colonised populations should not send back to the coloniser “a reflection, however ideal, of their society and their thought” but instead create a new way of thinking and a new kind of a person. The epigraph to a new book by the indigenous-theory scholar David Temin, Remapping Sovereignty, comes from the indigenous economist and activist Winona LaDuke: “Who has the right to make the Earth anew and how is it made so?” Temin uses the example of the Native American protests at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016-17 as a version of decolonisation that is about recalibrating the relationship of people to land and place. Rather than reducing the struggle to one over ownership and property, it rejects these categories as received.

Sanghera’s book admirably marches us into the weeds of peer-reviewed scholarly work. His book is 246 pages of text with 176 pages of notes and bibliography. But amid all the “complexity” and “contradiction”, one feels the absence of what Robin DG Kelley has called the “freedom dreams” of moments of decolonisation. The balance sheet is rejected, but we are not given a glimpse of the world that could exist beyond it.

Instead, Sanghera’s conclusion takes a stark turn back to the autobiographical mode with which he began his career (his first book was the memoir The Boy with the Topknot). In Empireworld’s final chapter, he is overwhelmed with emotion when a performer dressed as him appears on the field of the opening ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. This sparks a rumination on the meaning of the Commonwealth as a category that could yet contain some emotional and psychic power. But this skews too close to the subjective. In the account books of empire, Sanghera was one of the lucky ones. The catalogue of atrocities and legacies he has compiled across two impressive books leaves too strong a feeling of grimness for a single shining example of meritocracy to erase it. Perhaps the next book will end with someone other than himself. Call it “empire undone”.

Empireworld: How British Imperialism Has Shaped the Globe
Sathnam Sanghera
Viking, 464pp, £20

Purchasing a book may earn the NS a commission from Bookshop.org, who support independent bookshops

[See also: The talons of empire]

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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars

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