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Empireland: a Culture War Worth Fighting.

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Empireland

“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.”
― Sathnam Sanghera, Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain

Empireland observes that much of British history happened elsewhere, in the Empire. This is one of the reasons why the land’s imperialism is not always at the forefront of everyday historical memory. Many people in the country (including this writer, who like millions is partly of Irish descent) will not consider Ireland as much of an “elsewhere” as the Island, and its brutal colonisation, are not far away. There was also the Hundred Years War (1337- 1453) when the English Plantagenets claimed to the Throne of France. A memorable incident from that conflict is commemorated by a copy of Rodin’s statue The Burghers of Calais, which stands in Victoria Gardens next to the Palace of Westminster.

But Sanghera’s point is well-made: if this Blogger is old enough to recall Commonwealth Days when we paraded around with flags at Junior school by already traffic-heavy the North Circular the Empire itself is a historical fact with little, if any, emotional weight. That is one reason why “Despite a recent surge of interest in British colonial history […] the effect of British empire upon this country is poorly understood.” It is not entirely true, at least for somebody who did ‘O’ Level modern history, (GCSE Modern World History) in which the forces which led to decolonialisation figured large. But it is no doubt often the case.

With emotional and historical depth Empireland argues for widening, not “decolonialising” how the British Empire is taught. The author illustrates through his own experience as somebody from a Sikh background not just how the prejudices of some people in this country affected his biography but the way in which the history of the British Raj shaped Britain today. This was a story of callous exploitation, racial hierarchies, kept together by vicious military campaigns.

There were the ‘nabobs’, familiar to many readers of 19th century novels and those aware of the Impeachment of Warren Hastings,  de facto Governor-General of Bengal in 1772–1785. Sanghera looks at the literary trace of those who amassed vast fortunes from their activities to fund lavish lifestyles back in Britain in the form of stately homes, art collections, places and objects the subject of recent battles the ‘anti-woke’ brigade and inside the National Trust. There was equally, in just about recognisable modern times (this is striking even if you know the outline) the stand-out Younghusband expedition to Tibet (1903 -4) when Buddhist monasteries were pillaged, the booty ending up in private hands and the British Museum and Bodleian. Looting, the mark of the wars of the ancient and medieval world, was carried into the twentieth century.

The subjects covered are vast, from the Transatlantic slave trade to the later ‘Scramble for Africa’, and explored in a thought-provoking away. Home and Away looks at the life of ‘expats’ in colonial society, with some portrayed as just as prejudiced and sordid (including sexual exploitation) as one imagines, if they have been thought of.

The British Empire did not have ‘progressives’ as famous as the centre left republican Prime Minister Jules Ferry who  justified French colonialism as a “mission civilisatrice’. But there were parallels and not only from those who bought into Rudyard Kipling’s view of the world and the White Man’s Burden. The Fabian Society had members who believed that, “British Empire is a potentially progressive force in the world.” and that, “The empire should be fruitfully utilised for greater and noble purpose: the establishment of a socialist “Common­wealth”. In the course of disputes over the Boer War Bernard Shaw argued that, “Fabian socialism and Imperialism were both based on the supreme duties of the Community, with State Organisation, Efficient Government, Industrial Civil Service, Regulation of all Private Enterprise in the common interest, and dissolution of Frontiers through international industrial organisation. ” – even if he did not agree with “every act of Imperial government.” They also discussed the potential difference between “higher” and “lower” civilisations. In general terms they “approved and justified” the division of the world between imperial powers. (Fabian Socialism and British Politics. 1884 – 1918. A.M, Briar, 1962)

Empireland advances the view that “as British empire grew and peaked in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it morphed into nothing less than a wilful, unapologetic exercise in white racial supremacy.”Yet for most of the population systematic views about racial superiority are, unlike prejudices, have not been widely shared on this archipelago  for some time, if they ever were.T his, infused with a keen sense of the class as well as racial, ethnic, difference, makes you realise why many people in Britain, the vast majority of whom have no direct personal or family connection with colonial society, neither feel hot nor cold about Empire.

Empireland helps us jolt out of this into awareness of the living legacy of British Imperialism. It is a brilliant thought-provoking book. Read it.

Gardner Thompson makes the point in Chartist Magazine (Selective amnesia)

“At one important level this book is a call to action: to implant the British Empire in the school curriculum. Sanghera has a chapter headed ‘Selective amnesia’ – but forgetting implies having first known. He observes that his GCSE History left him with “little more than superficial knowledge of the world wars, the Tudors, and Tollund man”. He adds, “empire, bewilderingly, remains untaught in most schools: its absence in my education, it transpires, is typical”. Generations have indeed been left, in a virtual knowledge vacuum, to adopt any opinion about empire they choose – as admirable and glorious (a view which has in turn nourished a regrettable sense of British ‘exceptionalism’), or as wholly deplorable.”

Written by Andrew Coates

October 28, 2021 at 1:55 pm

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