What can I tell you about the British Empire?
Well…..it was big and erm….well, I don’t really know the details or I didn’t until I picked up Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera.
Now, as someone who studied history up to A-Level, I can tell you about both world wars, Abyssinia, Manchuria, the Holocaust, American foreign policy from 1901 onwards, American domestic history from 1950 onwards and British history from 1948 until 1989 but there is a big gaping hole when it comes to Empire, which to be honest has always struck me as, well, rather odd.
Anyway, after reading We are all birds of Uganda, which detailed the impact of empire there, I decided it was time to try and fill in some more of the gaps.
Now, I’d heard Sathnam Sanghera, rather eloquently discuss this book and Empire on 5Live earlier this year. He and the host Nihal Arthanayake then suffered a huge social media pile on that lasted days.
The comments were so depressingly predictable and racist.
This is where we are in the UK, looking at our history and criticising any part of it is somehow seen as unpatriotic, which to be quite frank, is bull shit.
How are we meant to understand how we got to where we are, without being able to look at our history with a critical eye? How are we meant to learn from the past without being able to have a discussion about the darker chapters of our history? Why is it unpatriotic to criticise Empire and history?
I mean, I’m capable of criticising my own actions, it doesn’t mean I hate myself.
Colonialism has become so polarised in this country that we’re at a point where all nuance has disappeared from the conversation – everyone just keeps shouting at each other on sodding twitter.
What Sanghera looks at here is the legacy of imperialism and how it still shapes the UK, the good and the bad. On the one hand, it has made us more multicultural and internationalist, however it has also left us with a sense of exceptionalism and is responsible for racism in this country.
The aforementioned twitter pile on is a case in point, the comments were all along the lines of “if you don’t like it, go back to where you came from” (that would be Wolverhampton in Sanghera’s case) and “you should be grateful you’re here, how dare you criticise our history”.
The narrative around immigration that’s pushed by politicians, Brexit and the like, ignores our history and a simple fact that Sanghera states “we’re here because you were there”.
“The idea that black and brown people are aliens who arrived without permission, and with no link to Britain, to abuse British hospitality is the defining political narrative of my lifetime.
“I’d go further and say that imperial history is routinely omitted in every racial controversy Britain ever suffers: governments not acknowledging centuries of slavery, exploitation, state racism, cultural connections and economic ties when facing up to everything from the murder of Stephen Lawrence to the Windrush scandal”. Sathnam Sanghera
The problem we have is that we don’t want to look at what actually happened, the brutality involved with colonising a quarter of the world’s land surface.
Think about it, we didn’t sail up and say, “Good Afternoon, we’ll take charge from here, nothing to worry about, it’s a pleasure to meet and govern you”, it was violent, there were massacres, there was pillaging (artefacts that are still in British museums), we benefitted from the slave trade and we must recognise that instead actively ignoring the facts.
“The problems begin when you begin to miss it, when you fail to remember what actually happened – when these empires of the mind become a toxic cocktail of nostalgia and amnesia”. Sathnam Sanghera
This book was fascinating, I kept messaging my husband with facts I’d learnt, it was a constant stream of “did you know…..”.
It is an interesting debate, it made me question why we aren’t taught about our past, properly. It is a part of history we should know about; we need to learn to accept it and see how it has shaped modern Britain – good and bad.
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