Review: Lingering Ghosts of British EmpireHistorians in the News
tags: colonialism, British history, British Empire
EMPIRELAND: HOW IMPERIALISM HAS SHAPED MODERN BRITAIN
By Sathnam Sanghera
For anti-colonial thinkers of the last century, decolonization was not a mere transfer of power. It was about reparation, including repair of the self. “Decolonization is the veritable creation of new men,” wrote Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. As Jean-Paul Sartre made clear in a preface to the book, decolonization was equally required of former colonizers: “Let’s take a good look at ourselves, if we have the courage, and let’s see what has become of us.” But the “new humanism” envisioned by these thinkers could not flourish, as first the Cold War, and then the so-called War on Terror, hindered the emancipation of decolonizing nations, renewing the commitment to the ideas of Western civilizational superiority that had long upheld Western empire.
In recent years, however, calls to reckon with the West’s imperial past have regained a sense of urgency. The United States, Britain, and other nations in Europe are now the scene of insistent questioning of the public glorification of slavers and imperial “heroes,” the provenance of museum collections, and the inequalities dating from the colonial era that are shaping the impact of the climate crisis.
But as the British journalist Sathnam Sanghera drives home in his new book, Empireland, widespread ignorance about the past has made coming to terms with it exceedingly difficult. Sanghera sardonically proposes an “Empire Day 2.0”—an update to the pro-empire holiday that was part of the British calendar from 1902 to 1958—to promote awareness about an imperial past that continues to elude British consciousness, despite the innumerable quotidian ways in which it infuses the country’s language, economics, food, state institutions, demography (including Sanghera’s very existence as a Sikh Briton), and more. Confronting this past is crucial to contending constructively with the United Kingdom’s public history, racism, relations with Europe, pandemic management, and more.
Sanghera describes his own journey in making sense of the imperial past, which began in 2019 when he visited Punjab—where his family is from—while making a documentary for the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar, where British forces killed hundreds of Indians gathered in a city park. Visiting the Jallianwala Bagh memorial, Sanghera learns the true extent of the brutality and injustice of the 1919 massacre and its place in a longer history of British violence toward and racial humiliation of Punjabis—a past entirely left out of his high school history curriculum. What he knew of the British Empire had, if anything, left him feeling vaguely proud as a Sikh—a community he’d long believed had done well under it. The Koh-i-Noor diamond, which had once belonged to the Sikh king, was now among the crown jewels as a symbol of “great British-Sikh relations,” he’d thought, but the scales fall when he learns that the diamond had been seized by the East India Company and that its return has been demanded ever since. Sanghera reflects on his miseducation as he discovers the reality of British rule in Punjab and realizes how colonial racial notions haunt even the psyche of formerly colonized people—including those now living in the metropole.
Sanghera offers his book as an audit on British historical education, revealing the carelessness with which British children are taught their country’s history. Even the world wars are whitewashed, with history lessons ignoring the enormous contributions of Black and brown people to the British war efforts. For Sanghera, this exclusion from episodes central to “our national story” was his education’s “most serious and painful omission.” At a reunion for his grade school, Wolverhampton Grammar, he finds himself newly conscious of the “imperial tone” of Britain’s public schools and how they celebrate empire while avoiding teaching about it. “Education,” he concludes, “can be a tool of colonialism.”