The Ghosts of the British Empire

Born Imperial

The lingering ghosts of the British Empire.


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.”

It may surprise some that a Briton today needs to prove the imperial roots of things like Britain’s racial diversity and racism. But Sanghera shows that such knowledge has been deliberately excised from British society, compelling an adult Sikh Briton to set sail to find the walls of the Truman Show world that has shaped his existence. “The idea that black and brown people are aliens who arrived without permission, and with no link to Britain, to abuse British hospitality” has been, Sanghera writes, “the defining political narrative” of his lifetime, even as he endured routine “Paki-bashing” in 1970s and ’80s Wolverhampton, once the constituency of perhaps the most notoriously racist politician in recent British history: Enoch Powell, whose dreams of becoming viceroy of India were shattered with the country’s independence in 1947.

Empireland is not a lecturing or hectoring book but rather a generously shared journey of discovery. Sanghera is a journalist in the Orwellian mold, inviting readers to witness his experiment on himself as an example of the conclusions that a decent, acerbically witty, public-school-educated Brit might arrive at after wading through the evidence of what Britain owes to empire. (Orwell himself appears frequently in the book, as a critic of empire in its heyday.)

A chapter on colonial migration to Britain is followed by an account of the massive scale of white migration out of Britain—a net exporter of people through the 1980s. Sanghera contrasts Britons’ “sense of…entitlement” to move freely about the world and resist assimilation with their resentment toward immigrants to Britain. Using the first-person here (“our tendency as travelers,” “our racism”), he gallantly implicates himself in such habits and mentalities—an assertion of belonging, at whatever cost, that demonstrates what it is to take responsibility for the culture and deeds of one’s nation, however marginal one’s ties to them.

Sanghera grew up wanting “to be more British” than the rest of his family. He is explicit about his love of country, rejecting Paul Gilroy’s description of British national identity as “brittle and empty” and proclaiming his pride in its achievements. He validates those moved by Boris Johnson’s 2016 speech glorifying “British soft power,” while at the same time compelling reflection on what it means to “be British.” For Fanon, decolonization depended on moving “from national consciousness to political and social consciousness,” from rediscovering national culture to creating it by collectively constructing a new future. Sanghera calls for something similar in urging Britons to face up to uncomfortable facts in order “to navigate a path forward” and “work out…who we want to be.”

Expressions of patriotism are perhaps also a necessary safeguard against the accusations of “anti-Britishness” inevitably lobbed at those proffering critical views of Britain’s past. By reminding his readers of the long tradition of British dissent about empire—Victorian outrage at the looting of Tibet, for instance—Sanghera is able to frame the return of that loot as perfectly British and also dashes cold water on the argument that we can’t judge colonial activities by today’s very different standards. For good measure, he facetiously throws in a long footnote that fulfills the obligatory demand that nonwhite Britons express gratitude for all that Britain has given them.

Observing how his education had made him view his Indian heritage through patronizing Western eyes, Sanghera recalls the story of Duleep Singh, the abducted Sikh boy king who was exiled to England and coercively Anglicized after the British conquered Punjab. Singh later reeducated himself and tried, belatedly, to revive the Sikh Empire. Sanghera recognizes that he is similarly “making an effort to decolonize myself”—present tense.

It is difficult to “review” such a personal journey, one that seems to continue the inventory of the self that Sanghera began with The Boy With the Topknot, his earlier memoir about growing up Sikh in Wolverhampton. Empireland, after all, is not intended for professional historians like me but rather for those who don’t already know that the horror story of the Black Hole of Calcutta—the story of the crowded dungeon where dozens of British prisoners suffocated to death that long served to justify the British conquest of Bengal in 1757—is unreliable. Indeed, while scholars will find Sanghera’s pattern here somewhat nerve-wracking—first taking seriously the inaccurate claims typically invoked to deny the realities or the importance of colonialism, then showing how they don’t stand up to scrutiny—he is speaking to a lay audience that has absorbed pieties and fictions about the empire from everywhere rather than facts from today’s actual historical experts.

But Empireland does offer a case study in the transformative effects of a self-guided tour of scholarship on the empire. Sanghera dives headfirst into an ocean of dissertations, journal articles, and books from academic presses, citing a roll call of major scholars in the field, albeit with some notable omissions. The historian Kim Wagner guides him in Amritsar and the art historian Alice Procter in museums, but it’s unclear whether anyone has similarly guided his reading. And so, though Sanghera learns about everything from the origins of Britain’s ownership of Manhattan to the genocide of Tasmanians, he arrives at some odd conclusions about the literature itself, such as that “very little about British empire…is certain or knowable”—a claim belied by the rest of his book.

It’s not that our knowledge about the British Empire is uncertain, but that a grasp of historiography is essential to navigating writing about it. Much of the existing literature was “born imperial”—written by the empire’s scholar-administrators and boosters—as I demonstrated in my book Time’s Monster. It was scholarship invested in supporting imperial aims, often verging on propaganda, to assuage continual doubt about the enterprise—explaining devastating violence in India, for instance, as part of a plan of eventual uplift. Moreover, its lasting influence has depended on the destruction of compromising official records, as Sanghera himself recognizes.

In recent years, historians have gone to great lengths to revise this faulty, contrived view of the British Empire. It matters who writes history and which sources and methods they use. Yet despite a wealth of alternative sources, Sanghera often quotes, frustratingly, from works that he knows have been debunked (e.g., Jan Morris’s glorifying Pax Britannica trilogy from the 1960s and ’70s). He takes at face value a claim about the “Sikh hatred for Muslims” in the Indian Uprising of 1857 in Lawrence James’s Raj, a 1998 pro-empire narrative that was based on British sources.

Scientists have disproved “race science,” but when pseudoscientific racial misconceptions persist, we don’t say the science is uncertain. Likewise, historical knowledge about the British Empire isn’t uncertain because of a 2003 popular book written by a historian of finance who didn’t consult the vast literature on the regions and peoples that lived under it and who explicitly sought to offer “lessons for…the United States as it stands on the brink of a new era of imperial power.” Sanghera stresses that history is argument, but there are more and less accurate arguments. To suggest that making historical claims “is almost always a matter of opinion” devalues the careful scholarship that allowed Sanghera to assemble his book’s own quite clear conclusions.

The portrait of an unfathomable literature does, however, play effectively to Britain’s “anti-intellectual” culture, allowing Sanghera to make his case on the very same commonsense grounds on which the Conservative MPs of the so-called “Common Sense Group” oppose any reckoning with the empire. He offers his assessments as those that any reasonable person (that very English legal standard) encountering an imposing literature might reach.

Autodidacticism has always been important to anti-colonialism, given the complicity of educational institutions in empire. Fanon and Gandhi engaged in intense study and self-examination, as did the Punjabi revolutionary Bhagat Singh, who read copiously right up to his execution in 1931. Sanghera shows that rigorous independent reading (presumably enabled by institutional access to scholarly literature) produces a fairly solid understanding of imperial history, apart from a few stumbles arising from the undue deference he gives to less reliable works.

Avoiding such stumbles would require a guided tour. When Sanghera concludes‚ citing P.J. Marshall’s 1976 book East Indian Fortunes as well as remarks by a researcher at the Adam Smith Institute (a neoliberal think tank), that scholarly opinion is “divided” on whether empire mattered in Britain’s industrial revolution, one wishes that a mentor had been there to nudge him toward more recent scholarly works, such as Maxine Berg’s Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain or my own Empire of Guns (on Sanghera’s home region, the Black Country)—or toward the crucial genre of the scholarly book review. Among serious scholars, there’s meaningful disagreement about the diverse ways that empire mattered in the industrial revolution, but not whether it did.

Without such a guide, Sanghera is liable to make too much of a fact like “some of the tax revenue” collected by the colonial government “went to Indian schools,” counting it against the claim that the British drained Indian wealth. But this meager instance of public expenditure was often the result of Indian movements pressing an otherwise uninterested colonial government. Once we consider that indigenous governments might have done more (Baroda, one of the “princely states” that the British ruled indirectly through local potentates, spent much more on education), it’s difficult to chalk up such expenditures as a net gain for Indians—especially if colonial education aimed to make them docile subjects. It is difficult to overestimate the value of mentorship in the study of history: Sanghera’s account of the profound costs of an impoverished historical education appears in the United States at a time of the systematic gutting of social science and humanistic learning.

Still, even unguided, Sanghera arrives at the sturdy conclusion that Britain derived substantial material benefits from its empire (assembling an especially excellent rebuttal to imperial apologists’ desperate gesturing at “India’s railways”). Time and again, he demonstrates the clarity that comes with acquiring more than “a superficial understanding of imperial history.” It is reassuring, as a scholar, to learn both that the literature is sound on the whole and that our role as teachers is important.

At times, the determined neutrality of Empireland allows Sanghera to clinch the reasonable-person argument: Whether you believe that Britain’s relations with its colonies were good or bad, it’s clear that “brown people are here because” Britain had colonies. But often, this studied neutrality results in contradiction. Despite chronicling Victorian dissent about colonialism, Sanghera, in a fit of fairness of mind, defends the canard that “You can’t apply modern ethics to the past.” Despite his astute skepticism of the balance-sheet approach to empire, he nevertheless attempts to “weigh up” its legacies. After proclaiming that reading history as “a series of events that instill pride and shame [is] inane,” he ends by affirming his pride in the empire as “the biggest thing that ever happened to us [and] the world.” Attachment to the idea of descending from something that mattered on a massive scale is perhaps understandable, but by this logic, Germans might also express pride in that big thing that happened to them, whatever the destruction it caused. It might be better to simply see history (like the Germans, actually) as a means of understanding our humanity.

A zeal for “balance” also leads Sanghera to hasty reproach of some advocates for change. He rebukes an activist’s suggestion that the presence in the Tory cabinet of several prominent British Asians whose families emigrated from East Africa may be rooted in the role of British Asians as “subcolonial agents,” describing it as an attempt to ascribe individuals’ political views to “ethnicity.” But this is an argument about their history, not their ethnicity, akin to Sanghera’s own explication of the historical roots of white Britons’ racism. The peppering of criticism of campaigners for change recalls Orwell’s efforts to disarm readers against his call for socialism by assuring them of his shared distaste for vegetarians, pacifists, feminists—the “woke army” of his time. Certainly, the culture war around the subject of empire has made it difficult to express curiosity or admit ignorance and thus engage in the learning essential to getting past that past. But it’s only comparable to “children fighting in a playground,” as Sanghera calls it, if we mean a situation in which one kid bravely speaking the truth is being bullied and silenced by another kid many times his size (in terms of institutional power and resources) who insists that he is actually very small and has never been that powerful. Sadly, steering this middle path hasn’t protected Sanghera from torrents of abuse, including death threats.

For many anti-colonial thinkers, autodidacticism strengthened the bonds of community with others seeking change. Upon reading Tolstoy, Gandhi began a dialogue with the author; he also read the Bhagavad Gita in the company of London’s Theosophists. If distance from today’s activists was somehow necessary to Sanghera’s book, a sense of connection with the anti-colonial past might have been all the more empowering. But apart from the very late mention of the unlearning that Duleep Singh and Jawaharlal Nehru subjected themselves to, Sanghera doesn’t invoke those who made and won the argument about empire—including the role of education in sustaining it—in the past century (forcing him to often reinvent the wheel). While he knows that imperialists like Lord Salisbury acknowledged that the empire enriched Britain, apart from a brief mention of Dadabhai Naoroji, Sanghera omits the long line of brown and Black thinkers who have made this same argument. He explores the relevance of colonial-era white supremacist notions to Britain today without a sense of the intervening anti-racist struggle that renders this a question today. He is delighted when Black Lives Matter suddenly makes his “esoteric” study of the British Empire “mainstream,” but colonialism isn’t esoteric; masses of people have been thinking about and struggling against it while he was fed public school pabulum. BLM didn’t come out of nowhere.

Without awareness of this anti-colonial tradition, Sanghera at times underestimates the suffering that empire caused. He believes Sikhs took Britain’s side in the ghadar of 1857, but Punjab only appeared loyal because of the devastation of recent conquest and preemptive British counterinsurgency action. Punjabis in California later named their movement to free India the Ghadar Party in homage to the rebels of 1857. Sanghera’s obliging concession that he has “had a better life” in Britain than he would have had in India forgets the historical tie between India’s relative poverty (if that is the measure of a good life) and Britain’s prosperity. He perceives Punjabi migration as a kind of upward mobility facilitated by colonialism, but much of it was a desperate effort to escape colonial policies that caused hunger and landlessness. Many Punjabis arrived in Britain after the traumatic mass displacement caused by the British partition of Punjab in 1947.

It’s tragic that adults today must undergo the same process of psychological and cultural recovery that Gandhi and Nehru did ages ago. The historical record is clear; it’s just that most people have been assiduously kept ignorant of it, and the current British government wants things to stay that way. Still, I share Sanghera’s inspiring optimism about the changes afoot in British education and in museums around the world, thanks to courageous efforts like his and those of movements like Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall. “Sikh” means student; it is a faith based on trust in teachers (gurus) and in community, on collective service and learning. And so, in fraternity, I wish Sathnam chardi kala on his ongoing journey.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy