Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain: Sathnam Sanghera

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BBC Newshour, 16 September 2022

A best-selling british author’s American nonfiction debut: In this brilliantly illuminating work exploring the realities and legacies of empire, Sathnam Sanghera demonstrates how so much of what we consider to be modern Britain is actually rooted in its imperial past.

In prose that is once clear-eyed and full or acerbic wit, Sathnam Sanghera shows how the past is everywhere in the United Kingdom, drawing as well critical links to similarities in the United States and in othercountries throughout the world. Empire (British or otherwise) informs nearly everything, from common thought processes to the routines that shape everyday life, from the foundation of the National Health Service to the nature of racism in the U.K., from the British distrust of intellectuals in public life to the exceptionalism that permeated the campaign for Brexit and the government’s early response to the Covid crisis. And all of this while empire itself is a subject that is shockingly obscured from view. Revelatory and lucid, Empireland suggests that cultivating a new, more honest relationship to the past is essential for moving forward.

About the Author:

SATHNAM SANGHERA is the best-selling author of Empireland, Marriage Material, and his memoir, The Boy with the Topknot. A graduate from Christ’s College, Cambridge, columnist and writer at The Times, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Sanghera lives in North London.

Sathnam Sanghera was born to Punjabi parents in the West Midlands in 1976. He entered the education system unable to speak English but, after attending Wolverhampton Grammar School, graduated from Christ’s College, Cambridge with a first class degree in English Language and Literature. Before becoming a writer he (among other things) worked at a burger chain, a hospital laundry, a market research firm, a sewing factory and a literacy project in New York.

Between 1998 and 2006 he was at The Financial Times, where he worked (variously) as a news reporter in the UK and the US, specialised in writing about the media industries, worked across the paper as Chief Feature Writer, and wrote an award-winning weekly business column. Sathnam joined The Times as a columnist and feature writer in 2007 and is a regular contributor on national radio and TV, having appeared on programmes including Have I Got News For You and BBC Front Row Late and presented a range of documentaries, including The Massacre That Shook The Empire on Channel 4, which was shortlisted for best Factual TV show at the 2019 Asian Media Awards.

Sathnam’s first book, The Boy With The Topknot: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton, was shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Biography Award, the 2009 PEN/Ackerley Prize and named 2009 Mind Book of the Year. It was adapted for BBC2 by Kudos/Parti Productions, featured Bafta-nominated and EEACTA-winning performances, won a Mipcom Diversify TV Excellence Award, was named Best TV Programme at the 2018 Asian Media Awards and Best Single Drama at the RTS Midlands Awards, and was described by The Radio Times as a “smash hit”.

His novel, Marriage Material, has been shortlisted for a 2014 South Bank Sky Arts Award and a 2013 Costa Book Award, been longlisted for the 2014 Desmond Elliot Prize, picked by The Sunday Times, The Observer and Metro as one of the novels of 2013, and cited as one of the Guardian Readers’ Books of the Year in 2014. It is being adapted for the stage at the Birmingham Rep by award-winning playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti.

He has won numerous prizes for his journalism, including the accolade of Young Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards in 2002, Article of the Year in the 2005 Management Today Writing Awards, Newspaper Feature of the Year in the 2005 Workworld Media Awards, HR Journalist of the Year in the 2006 and 2009 Watson Wyatt Awards for Excellence, Media Commentator of the Year in the 2015 Comment Awards and the Edgar Wallace Trophy for Writing of the Highest Quality in the 2017 London Press Club Awards.

He was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters for services to journalism by The University of Wolverhampton in September 2009 and a President’s Medal by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2010. In 2016 he was elected a Fellow of The Royal Society of Literature, was bestowed with the Pride of Pothohar Award in 2018 for his contribution to the Sikh community, while in 2013 writer Jonathan Coe named him one of “The Men of Next 25 years” in GQ Magazine saying that “whether he’s writing autobiography or fiction, Sathnam is busy carving out his own literary niche – in the multicultural British Midlands – which he explores with incredible grace, generosity and humour”.

He has written an introduction to a Vintage Classics edition of The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett. The Boy With The Topknot, was originally published by Penguin in hardback as If You Don’t Know Me By Now. Marriage Material is published in the USA by Europa Editions. He has been a judge for The Wellcome Book Prize and The Costa Book Awards, was formerly a trustee for mental health charity Rethink and chair of media charity Creative Access, and is a patron for Writing West Midlands. He lives in London and his third book, EmpireLand: How Modern Britain is Shaped by its Imperial Past will be published by Viking Books in 2021.

  • Publisher‏ : ‎ Pantheon (February 28, 2023)
  • Language‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover‏ : ‎ 384 pages
  • ISBN-10‏ : ‎ 0593316673
  • ISBN-13‏ : ‎ 978-0593316672

Top reviews from the United States


4.0 out of 5 stars Delusions of Grandeur – STILL

In the endless catalogue of British imperial atrocities, the unprovoked invasion of Tibet in 1903 was a minor but fairly typical episode. Tibetans, explained the expedition’s cultural expert, were savages, “more like hideous gnomes than human beings”. Thousands of them were massacred defending their homeland, “knocked over like skittles” by the invaders’ state-of-the-art machine guns. “I got so sick of the slaughter that I ceased fire,” wrote a British lieutenant, “though the General’s order was to make as big a bag as possible.” As big a bag as possible – killing inferior people was a kind of blood sport.

And then the looting started. More than 400 mule-loads of precious manuscripts, jewels, religious treasures and artworks were plundered from Tibetan monasteries to enrich the British Museum and the Bodleian Library. Countless others were stolen by marauding troops. Sitting at home watching the BBC antiques show Flog It one quiet afternoon in the early 21st century, Sathnam Sanghera saw the delighted descendant of one of those soldiers make another killing – £140,000 for selling off the artifacts his grandfather had “come across” in the Himalayas.

In his illuminating new book Sathnam Sanghera demonstrates how so much of what we consider to be modern Britain is actually rooted in our imperial past. In prose that is, at once, both clear-eyed and full of acerbic wit, Sanghera shows how our past is everywhere: from how we live to how we think, from the foundation of the NHS to the nature of our racism, from our distrust of intellectuals in public life to the exceptionalism that imbued the campaign for Brexit and the government’s early response to the Covid crisis. And yet empire is a subject, weirdly hidden from view.

The British Empire ran for centuries and covered vast swathes of the world. It is, as Sanghera reveals, fundamental to understanding Britain. However, even among those who celebrate the empire there seems to be a desire not to look at it too closely – not to include the subject in our school history books, not to emphasize it too much in our favorite museums.

At a time of great division, when we are arguing about what it means to be British, Sanghera’s book urges us to address this bewildering contradiction. For, it is only by stepping back and seeing where we really come from, that we can begin to understand who we are, and what unites us.
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Dr. Johnson.

Reviewed in the United States on April 15, 2021

Sanghera has presented an unglossed history of the British Empire and how it has shaped current British views of race and nationality. Some readers will think that un British, which is far from accurate. The author is devoted to Britain and wants its internal ethnic conflicts understood in historical context. It’s a harsh history for Britain to accept that three centuries of prosperity were bought at the expense of others. Sanghera works through this methodically and with dignity. There is emotion but buttressed with facts. The period for denial of the facts, for what the author calls “selective amnesia” has passed, and this book can guide the nation past that era with renewed dignity.

Similar ethnic divisions exist in many or most large countries, but Britain came to its diversity through a distinct route. There was the underlying sense of exceptionalism that all imperial or economic powers possess. Therefore, they possessed a belief that a good doctrine was being spread while exploiting nations whose cultures were
neither understood nor respected. It is hoped that through a recognition of the past the present diverse Britain will accept that it has become a microcosm of its former empire, thereby appreciate and achieve the possibilities the diversity presents.

There are darker ways to read this story. I believe that the author’s intentions are constructive and it be read as such.
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Richard M. Eason

5.0 out of 5 stars Empire and Oppression: A Sine Qua Non
Reviewed in the United States on June 25, 2022 A powerful and needed story. This book turns over the stones of the British Empire to reveal what lies beneath. It is not a pretty picture. Like in the American South, where I now live, so much was built on the backs of people of color. A reckoning is long overdue.

James Mowry

5.0 out of 5 stars An Engaging Account of the Historical Amnesia about the British Empire
Reviewed in the United States on October 25, 2021 The author, who is of Sikh heritage but was born in Britain, examines the consequences of the British Empire on modern Britain. His account is balanced, not polemic, but despite his wit and enlightened outlook, traces of anger and exasperation still come through by the end of the book. Certainly the history of the Empire isn’t taught well in Britain, and to most American readers it is probably even more obscure. This book doesn’t avoid the most horrific incidents of massacre and genocide. As for the current controversies, such as removal of statues, Sanghera makes the perfectly reasonable point that taking down a statue of an imperialist does no more to change history than taking down Nazi symbols in Germany after the war changed the history of World War II.

Is there a book that tries to do the same thing for our American divide on politics, race, and history? Or is our own country past hope?

Z. Y.

5.0 out of 5 stars Must read
Reviewed in the United States on March 25, 2021 Fabulous read, great perspective, and a lot hit close to home in my own experience as an American of Pakistani descent.

D. C. M. Bell

Reviewed in the United States on April 17, 2021

This is a must read and a beautifully modulated antidote to some of the myths about our past which deserve to be buried once and for all – gently but very firmly. The author is neither dogmatic nor strident, but builds his case for a new evaluation of our past on evidence and often telling facts. Bravo.

William L. Scurrah

5.0 out of 5 stars This is a good book to start with if you’re interested in the history of the British empire.
Reviewed in the United States on April 3, 2022

Very well written, the author invites us to accompany him on his journey to discover the complex truths of the British empire. Both a personal and a scholarly investigation. Very good book to begin your own journey, and along the way you will learn some things about the American empire, as well.

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Debbie Young

5.0 out of 5 stars So glad I read this book
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 9, 2021

I bought this book after reading an article about it by the author in The Times and thought it would be a constructive way to help me consider current thinking about racism in modern Britain, rather than just about our imperial history. I am one of the lucky few who studied imperialism at school (I took a module in nationalism and neonationalism as former colonies regained their freedom as part of my history course for the International Baccalaureat), which was a helpful starting point, but this book took me back to the beginning of Empire and on a journey through to the present day, and gave me a broader perspective on both the past and the way forward.

I was also keen to read it as I have always lived in pretty WASPish regions, currently in a small Cotswold village whose village school has been criticised by OFSTED for not being more multicultural – challenging when the local community is by nature monocultural because there simply are no immigrants or British citizens of foreign descent. My Scottish husband is about as close as it comes to an ethnic minority in this very English village.

The book is very well researched and presented and can be read as a series of essays on different sub-themes. It is very well researched (nearly 50 pages of bibliography for just over 200 pages of narrative), and provides ample recommendations for further reading for those who want to explore further. The author, British born and bred, and the descendant of immigrants, is a likeable and dignified narrator who presents in my view a balanced and fair approach to the issues he discusses.

It includes many challenging and difficult details to read, such as some horrific acts of cruelty, but these are cited sparingly and must be addressed as part of the overall picture.

I am very glad I read this book and now feel better equipped to deal with national and global conversations about racism and the legacy of colonialism and empire, and I will also be able to put better into context museum displays and public statuary that relate to this part of our history, which need to be given a much higher profile as part of our society, its culture and its history, for us properly to process the past and move on in a more unified, egalitarian and peaceful future. I really hope it reaches the very wide audience it deserves.

Thank you, Sathnam Sanghera, for opening my eyes.
It’s a very timely publication especially with the current BLM movement and the conversation of whether various statues should remain in place. He gives a potted history of the empire: its origins, its modus operandi, its excesses and its consequences. Due to the relatively slim volume, about 200 pages, it can only be anecdotes but the author goes to great lengths to point out when differing opinions exist, which is quite often when it comes to the British empire. He then suggests how and why the legacy of the empire shapes our collective ( British) thought processes in both national politics and personal behaviour towards those from former colonies and I think he gets it pretty spot on. I would strongly recommend Shashi Tharoor’s excellent ‘Inglorious Empire’ for those wanting to find out a bit more about the British in India.

I recommend this book for all (white and non-white)) British persons for an insight into their pasts, their current thinking and hopefully a better future. I agree with the author that the single best way forward is to make teaching of the empire along with all its excesses mandatory in schools. Then, and only then, will a new generation be aware of our past, be able to understand our present and hopefully conduct our future with fairness and compassion. What to do with certain statues will fall into place quite naturally.

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