A photograph of the new book Stolen History by Sathnam Sanghera. The book cover is bright red with an illustration of an English bulldog standing on top of a map of the world. The book is in front of a light blue background and atop a darker blue surface.

Stolen History by Sathnam Sanghera

Read an exclusive extract from the new children's book by Sathnam Sanghera, bestselling author of Empireland, that provides an accessible and engaging introduction to the British Empire.

Sathnam Sanghera

Chapter 1

What on earth was the British Empire?

Let’s start with the basics. What is an ‘empire’? You’ve probably heard the word before, perhaps in connection with the Roman Empire, or the song by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys ‘Empire State of Mind’, or the Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back. Or maybe, even, with the British Empire, which is the one we’re interested in here.

An empire is a group of countries that are ruled by a single other country or power. There are other words that are useful to know, as they come up a lot when discussing empires. You’ll see these words appear many times throughout the book, so I’ve taken it upon myself to create a short dictionary for you to come back to whenever you need it:

• Imperialism: this is the practice of creating an empire (for instance, you might see the phrase ‘Britain’s imperial past’, which means when Britain had an empire).

• Colonialism: if one country takes control of another, it colonizes it. If one nation of people takes over another nation of people, the people who are conquering are colonizers and the people who are conquered are colonized. The taken-over place is now a colony, and the people who came in to do the ‘taking over’ are colonists or colonialists.

The words mean quite similar things. If this seems like it’s already getting complicated, don’t worry. There’s no getting away from the fact that the British Empire can be a fiendishly tricky subject. More complicated than algebra and the poems of William Shakespeare and the plot of Lord of the Rings and the storyline of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild combined. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn about it. Britain’s colonial past is important to understand.

So why would a country want to have an empire? There are three BIG reasons: power, money and glory.

The more land and resources that you control (such as another country’s food and valuable materials), the stronger, more famous and wealthier you are and the more adventures you have. Unsurprisingly lots of rulers through history have been keen to have one. One of the most famous empires was the Roman Empire, which began in 27 BC and continued for around 500 years. During this time, the Romans colonized large parts of Europe and beyond, including Britain. (In fact, the Romans weren’t the only ones who colonized Britain – the Vikings, the Saxons and the Normans all had a go at it too.)

It’s generally accepted that Britain’s empire began back in the 1600s during the reign of Elizabeth I, when seafaring adventurers ‘discovered’ lands rich in highly prized goods1. It existed for about 500 years and around the same time many other European countries, such as France, the Netherlands (also known as Holland), Portugal, Spain and Italy, had their own empires too. Britain’s empire, though, was the biggest there has ever been. It was seven times the size of the mighty Roman Empire.

At its peak, around a century ago, the British Empire covered 13.71 million square miles, and included India (sometimes also referred to as ‘the subcontinent’), many countries in Africa, Canada and Australia, and numerous Caribbean islands. That is a quarter of all the land in the world. Or to put it another, even more mindboggling way, if all Britain’s empire in the early 1900s was put together, it would cover almost the entire surface of the moon! Because it spanned so many different countries and time zones across the globe, it was said that, at its height, you could travel through Britain’s empire without seeing the sun set.

British imperialism went through many different phases. At one time it was acceptable for white men to marry the brown women they met in the empire. But then, at another, interracial relationships were frowned upon. At one stage British imperialists worked hard to stamp out the evils of the slave trade wherever they encountered it. But then there was a long period between the late-seventeenth and early-nineteenth centuries when the British Empire profited from the evils of the Atlantic slave trade. This involved taking Black men, women and children who had been kidnapped in Africa and shipping them across the Atlantic Ocean to force them to work, for free, on farms across the Caribbean, North America and elsewhere.

Around 3 million Africans suffered this fate during the British Empire, with many of them dying on the journey due to terrible conditions on the ships. The sugar and other crops produced by the enslaved made some British people very rich, but eventually, Britain accepted the trade was evil, outlawed it and took a leading role in abolishing it around the world.

So how was such a collection of countries controlled? Well, think of your school. If it’s like most schools, it probably has a number of classes of a similar size that are normally calm and well-behaved (OK, that part might not be true, but stick with me here!). The class teachers probably follow the national curriculum that has been set by the government to plan their lessons. And, at the top of it all, in charge of everything, there is a wise, kind and efficient head teacher. Well, Britain’s empire was absolutely nothing like that at all!

Now imagine instead that each class at the school is a completely different size: some tiny, some huge. Imagine that it takes many months to get messages between the head teacher and classrooms. Imagine that some classes are fairly peaceful, while some are out of control and violent. Imagine there are no school rules and no national curriculum and that, although there is a head teacher, they rarely get involved. Instead it is up to each class teacher to set the rules and lessons for their class, and so all the classes do different things in a different way. Some of these teachers know what they are doing but others don’t. Some are nice and want to help the children, but others are cruel. Some of them are so lazy and mean that they make their pupils do all their work for them, while punishing them and taking all the payment and credit. THAT’S how the empire was run.

Sounds pretty chaotic, doesn’t it? And it often was. But for centuries it survived and thrived. It made Britain the most powerful nation on Earth, and gave us lots of things that remain part of our lives today.

Most importantly empire is largely responsible for making Britain the multicultural country it is today. Many British people of African, Caribbean, South Asian and South-East Asian heritage are here because Britain colonized these parts of the world. They probably include some of your friends, as well as famous people such as Marcus Rashford MBE. (By the way, do you know what ‘MBE’ stands for? Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire!) They might well include you.

Marcus Rashford and sugar are undeniably brilliant additions to Britain (although your dentist may disagree with the second), but the British Empire remains a hugely controversial subject. People have been arguing for centuries about whether it was a good or bad thing (spoiler alert – it’s not as simple as that), but pretty much every other aspect of it is argued over too. If you can possibly imagine it, people argue over it more intensely than you’ve ever argued with your friends about Pokémon card swaps, Superman v Spiderman, who is the best YouTuber, who is best at dancing/cartwheels, or who has the best trainers.

Given that the British Empire involved the enslavement of millions and the deaths of millions of others through famine, war and disease, it’s no surprise that tempers can rise when the topic arises. Lots of conversations about the British Empire involve at least one person getting very upset or shouting, and another person getting very defensive. There are, however, some things people do agree on – or, rather, can talk about without getting too furious. For instance, it is generally accepted that its great power came to an end in the twentieth century, when India declared its independence from Britain in 1947, and when Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese in 1997. People also cannot deny that empire has shaped Britain in all sorts of ways – not only in the little things that fill our everyday lives, but in the way British people see themselves and how they see the rest of the world. Often we don’t realize the impact the empire continues to have on our lives, and how many things that we say, do, see and believe stem from this history.

1 The people who already lived in these parts of the world (who are called ‘indigenous’) would quite rightly object to this word, given they’d been aware of their own homelands before the British imperialists turned up. Imagine how annoyed you’d be if a random person came round to your house and then went around declaring to everyone that they’d somehow ‘discovered’ it. You were aware of it first! It didn’t need discovering!

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