A black and white photograph of Sathnam Sanghera with his arms crossed, standing in front of a statue of a lion.

‘This book was like putting Britain on the therapy couch’: Sathnam Sanghera on Empireland

Journalist Sathnam Sanghera’s new book tackles Britain’s troublesome past, and how it informs our fragile present.

Sathnam Sanghera is not a historian. Although, maybe he is. His first book, the memoir The Boy with the Topknot, was a history of his family. His second book, the novel Marriage Material, was, he says, a history of the South Asian experience in the UK. And now, with Empireland – a close look at the legacy of British imperialism – he’s written what one might more typically describe as a history book. 

But Sanghera is not, he emphasises when we speak, a historian. Part of that, he tells me, is because he sees himself "as just someone who's read about history”, and the other part is a deeper feeling of imposter syndrome.

"I think it's partly because all the historians I've grown up with have been white men and if you're not one of those…,” he trails off. "It really accentuates the imposter syndrome I feel all the time anyway but I've been reminding myself: Jeremy Paxman wrote a history book, he's not a historian. Boris Johnson wrote a history book, he's not a historian. Jacob Rees-Mogg wrote a history book, he's not a historian. Why do I feel like this? I think it's because I'm brown and there aren't many brown historians, are there?” 

He’s right; I can think of only a handful of Black and brown historians who have written books that have reached the mainstream. And even fewer have done so by writing about the British Empire, a subject which one could generously describe as a minefield.

Britain began to establish colonies overseas in the 16th century, and the expansion sped up in the 18th century. At its height, the British empire covered approximately a quarter of the world. Empireland looks at how the events and attitudes of that period affect our everyday lives now. From racism to a British sense of exceptionalism and an amnesia about our past, Sanghera weaves an informative and nuanced narrative about the legacy of imperialism.

Given the complications of the topic, it’s no surprise to hear from Sanghera, a journalist for The Times, that Empireland has been “percolating” for around four or five years, although its current format came “quite late into the whole process”. 

"At one point, it was going to be a book about Dean Mahomed,” says Sanghera, referring to a notable 18th Century Indian immigrant to the UK (Mahomed opened one of the first Indian restaurants and introduced shampoo baths – a kind of therapeutic massage), he writes about in Empireland. "Then it was going to be a screenplay and then I thought I'd pick some figures throughout the history of empire and tell the story of empire through those figures.” 

"When I started, empire was quite an esoteric subject"

Eventually, Sanghera decided on the current format, a mix of history, personal story and commentary on Britain today. The timing for the latter could not have been more perfect. In 2020 the British Black Lives Matter protests, set in motion by the police killing of George Floyd in the US, caused us to examine our role in slavery after protestors toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. Brexit, still ongoing, has also seen us probing the racism in this country. It’s all resulted in empire becoming a hot topic. “There's been a massive interest in this subject in the last year, and when I started, it was quite an esoteric subject,” Sanghera says.

But, as much as it’s an increasingly popular subject, these discussions around Empire lack nuance. 

"Poisonous subject"

Here’s what some people think about empire: it was a good thing, bringing innovations in transport (the railways), medicine and more to a variety of countries.

And here’s what other people think about empire: it was a bad thing, resulting in the loss of lands, and perpetuating cruelties including slavery.

There is no in between, something Sanghera addresses towards the beginning of Empireland (“It’s impossible to discuss British empire in the twenty-first century, or even admit to ignorance or curiosity about it,” he writes, without getting dragged into a "balance sheet view of history”). 

"I've written about so many controversial things in my life but nothing comes close to empire,” Sanghera tells me, fully prepared for the vitriol that will come his way – from all sides – following the release of this book.

“I think with most books, you finish a book and you expect to get to the top of the mountain and have a few people congratulate you,” he says. "But with this because of the subject matter, I just know there's going to be people there, waiting to stab me to death because it's such a poisonous subject.” 

Black and white photograph of Sathnam Saghera, with his hands behind his back, in front of a statue of Sir Robert Clive in Whitehall.
Sanghera says he didn't want Empireland to be an angry book. Image: Stuart Simpson

The metaphorical stabbing has already begun. Sanghera’s Twitter mentions are full of people telling him to go home, in less than polite language, if he hates Britain that much. Of course, the irony is that Sanghera loves Britain a lot more than those criticising him; he says he put a Union Jack in his Twitter bio because he’s "fed up of my national flag being hijacked by people" like them. To these people, he says: "Because I'm actually prouder of modern Britain than you are because I like the multiculturalism, you want it to change, you want it to go back to 1878. You actually are not patriotic, you hate this country, I actually love this country.”

What the Twitter abuse indicates is just how much emotion the subject of empire results in, and not just for those on the “empire was good” side.

I discuss with Sanghera how, as a descendent of the subjects of empire, my feelings about the topic are complicated, but fall pretty squarely in the “empire was bad” camp. I know therefore, I am a part of the problem too; my inability to talk about empire to anyone on the “opposite side” without feeling my throat constricting, without an angry heat taking over my body, is an issue.

Sanghera tells me bluntly that we're "fucked up about empire”, and given my own feelings I find it difficult to disagree. There are plenty of examples – in Empireland and beyond – of the cruelties of empire, acts of brutality that make me physically recoil. How, I ask Sanghera, do I stop being angry and in pain?

“There's a very easy answer to that and it's what I've done and that is knowledge,” he says. "You've got to educate yourself, however painful it is.” 

"Angry books sell really well… but I wanted to be more nuanced”

As hard as Empireland was to read at times, Sanghera’s book is remarkable in its calmness, even when describing the atrocities of empire. When I tell him I’m surprised at how it wasn’t as angry as I thought it would be, he reveals that "that was the thing I argued with most with my editor, she wanted to make it more angry than I did”.

"I didn't want an angry book,” he continues. "Angry books sell really well… but I wanted to be more nuanced.”

Empireland takes some of the sting out of its subject matter; I found myself nodding as Sanghera argued that empire was responsible for our culture of antiracism (he says he knows "some left wing historians would really, really disagree with that"), even though Britain was part of the slave trade for a long time before it adopted an abolitionist stance. And empire is the main reason Britain is so multicultural today: without it, I, the granddaughter of Pakistani immigrants, wouldn’t be here today, without it Sanghera, the descendant of Indian immigrants, wouldn’t be here today.

But, but, but… I still haven’t quite let go of my anger. “I’m just one of the people trying to take the heat out of the conversation a bit but I would understand why you're angry, that's a valid response,” Sanghera generously says to me. It occurs to me that our conversation has become less me interviewing him, and more him counselling me. But I’m not the only one Sathnam will counsel with Empireland.

"I just feel like writing this book was like putting Britain on the therapy couch; and there's many years of therapy ahead,” says Sanghera. 

Empire state of mind

That therapy is badly needed even, or especially, in the highest echelons of power. When Sanghera was writing the book, he couldn’t have imagined that we’d have so perfect an example of someone with imperial amnesia as Boris Johnson. The rhetoric around the coronavirus pandemic, in particular, from some quarters smacks of an attitude born of empire.

“When it comes to coronavirus and the obsession with world beating, I don't know how anyone can say that's about anything except empire nostalgia,” says Sanghera.

So how do we combat the amnesia that results in some people painting empire with a rose-tinted brush, and the anger that overwhelms people like me, unable to get past empire’s bad, enough to be able to have the conversations that will result in a better understanding of our past, and by turn our present and future? 

Black and white photograph of Sathnam Saghera, leaning against a statue of a lion.
Sanghera is at the start of his journey when it comes to understanding empire. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

Expanding out history curriculums could be part of the answer (Sanghera and I lament the fact our history lessons at school covered the Second World War without mentioning the role of soldiers from outside the UK in the British Army, and that we never learnt about empire at all). It won’t be easy though, and Sanghera doesn’t have the whole answer: "I don't know how you start it but you've got to start it at some point, with baby steps, you know what I mean?”

“Empire,” writes Sanghera towards the end of Empireland, “is a really difficult thing to comprehend.” Having completed the book, does he now think he understands empire fully, I ask.

“No,” he says bluntly. "I don't think you could say that. I think I'm at the start of my journey.”

And with Empireland, we’re at the start of ours. 

Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

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