From the age of about 11 until a few years ago, English author Sathnam Sanghera says he experienced “very little racism”. Then he began to write critically and, for many British people, uncomfortably, about the legacy and effect of British empire. Not just what empire did for Britain, but what it did to the people and places colonised for imperial glory. He jabbed his fingers into the nation’s ribs, probing for answers. It made Sanghera, the Wolverhampton son of Punjabi immigrants, a target in the vicious culture wars that, like crashing cymbals, are a jarring soundtrack to much post-Brexit British discourse.
He looks and sounds exhausted by it all when we meet in a cafe in the north London enclave of Highgate. The fashion among newspaper journalists is to feign insouciance at outside pressure, while those who identify as writers are usually more honest in projecting vulnerability. As we sip coffee, Sanghera, who is both, seems to be on a writer day. He is open about the impact of the brickbats.
“Now it’s, like, every f**king day,” he says of the racial tension that has become “ingrained” in his daily life since he plucked Britain’s imperial nerve. “Now people write me [racist] letters. It’s different to being called a ‘Paki’ on the street. It’s different to being scared of violence. But you’ll be having a nice day and then you get a letter or email or a social media thing, and it can wreck it.”
Cambridge-educated, Sanghera (47) is a former Financial Times reporter who is now a columnist at the Times. He won acclaim 15 years ago for The Boy with the Topknot, a tender memoir about growing up in a poor Sikh family in the midlands. He followed it up with a sharp and witty novel, Marriage Material.
In 2021, he changed gear with the release of the meticulous Empireland. The book cut a swathe through imperial nostalgia to give an unflinching account of how Britain’s past as conqueror of a quarter of the globe shaped its homeland, for good and ill. He has followed that up with the publication in recent weeks of Empireworld, which looks at how Britain left its mark abroad.
“There are lots of people out there who want to quote you out of context, review you in bad faith, destroy your arguments, ridicule you,” he says. “And it’s weird. That’s a weird experience.”
Other non-white writers who have recently re-examined with unsentimental eyes the history of British empire, such as David Olusoga, have also had opprobrium. Sanghera calls it an “organised campaign of intimidation” fuelled by populist politicians, some of whom sit in the Tory government.
“It’s about politics, isn’t it? It’s also partly about race. Because if you acknowledge that brown people were subjugated by empire, you’ve got to do something about it.”
I didn’t know about the Ulster plantations, for example. I would say of the British empire that one of the beginnings of it was Ireland
Yet despite all the spittle showered on Sanghera since Empireland (which was also hugely successful), he has chosen to wade back into the same crucible with Empireworld. Is he simply stubborn? On a mission?
“It’s been really hard. The hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally. A large part of me didn’t want to do it. I think it’s just this phase of publication [that he finds difficult], the paranoia. But I’ll carry on because I know I’ve got an audience. I know I’m changing people’s minds.”
As a result of all the vitriol he has shipped, Sanghera was beyond scrupulous in his research for Empireworld. About 175 of its 425 pages are notes and a bibliography. Every fact is backed up, each screed of an assertion linked to its source.
Sanghera also delves deeper by travelling to some of the nations most affected by their entanglement with Britain’s imperial legacy, such as Barbados, Mauritius, Nigeria and, his parents’ homeland, India. He doesn’t visit Ireland in the book, but nor does he completely ignore the scars of British imperialism on Irish life. Rather, he simply flicks at it.
““Irish history is the only piece of empire that we studied at school – we did a whole year of it for GCSEs,” he says. “The Troubles, Bloody Sunday, but we didn’t go much further. I didn’t know about the Ulster plantations, for example. I would say of the British empire that one of the beginnings of it was Ireland.
“But I feel like, to some degree, we’ve worked out that imperial relationship [with Ireland] a bit. What we did in Ireland, it was absolutely terrible. But I think there are bigger crises in our relationships with [other] former imperial territories.”
He rejects the “good or bad” binary narratives that often prevail in assessments of the British empire. It’s more complex than that, he concludes. “British empire was ultimately a mass of contradictions.”
Trying to fully “decolonise the planet of British empire [would] be more difficult than getting the ghee out of a breakfast-time masala omelette” of the kind that he eats in India. “It would also involve putting the ghee back in.”
He highlights British influence globally over language, dress, place names (there are at least 35 places called York in the world, and at least 18 called Birmingham), architecture, canals, legal systems, civil services, and whether cars drive on the left or the right in a country.
But Sanghera also deals with the racism, the plundering, the massacres and outrages, the bloody history and the enduring, debilitating effects of imperialism on those whom the British conquered. Most controversially, he highlights the British empire’s central role in propagating slavery and indentured servitude, especially in the Caribbean, and how this has blighted nations since. Britons “have amnesia about slavery”. They prefer to think of it as a US issue, he says, yet nobody shipped more slaves across the Atlantic than Britain’s royal family via the Royal African Company.
Sanghera seeks to challenge the misty-eyed, Rudyard Kipling version of empire preferred by some in Britain to the harsher view of it abroad. He takes aim at “the enormous gap between what British people think empire did to the world and what the world knows empire did to the world”.
He confronts the history of British slavery in the Caribbean while on his first post-pandemic holiday with his girlfriend in Barbados. In colonial times, the British razed the island’s landscape and those of other nearby territories to set up sugar plantations built on slave labour. Sanghera suggests Britain should pay reparations for this historic crime, echoing a campaign by modern Caribbean governments that is supported by Denis O’Brien, the Irish businessman long operating in the region.
“In Britain, if you mention reparations, people go mad. It is seen as this utterly insane thing,” says Sanghera. “But we’ll be forced, as we build post-Brexit trading relationships, to engage with countries on a more realistic level. I reckon in the next 10 years we’ll have to pay something.”
Sikhs were victims and also beneficiaries of [racist views in the empire]. We were indulged as this kind of master race, loyal to the British
He cites the high rates of diabetes in the Caribbean as a direct result of British slavery. He links this health epidemic to the area’s history as a region producing sugar for Britain’s sweet teeth.
“We turned the Caribbean into industrial sugar plantations with the enslaved. On top of that, we still go there and poach their health workers. On top of that, we didn’t give them money [when Britain left] to set up proper health systems. A lot of that is clearly our fault – and we should do something.”
He writes about how some “good imperialists” tried to implement fair legal systems in colonial territories, but how in practice there was often one law for the British and another for the natives.
Sanghera recounts a graphic incident in Burma, now Myanmar, in 1899. An elderly woman was gang-raped by up to 30 members of the West Kent regiment of soldiers. Four colonial police officers came upon the scene. One eyewitness even noticed a soldier withdrawing from the woman, still erect. Yet he was found not guilty in a colonial court, as were his colleagues.
He also writes of how the Royal Irish Constabulary, the empire’s police force in pre-independence Ireland, was used as the model for other colonial police forces across the British empire. Many Irish people also served in senior positions across the empire, helping to seed and nurture its authority.
“That must be uncomfortable to think about [for an Irish person],” Sanghera says, as we sit in the cafe in Highgate. He acknowledges facing the same quandary when he considers that Sikhs were partly responsible for implementing the regime in India.
“Sikhs were victims and also beneficiaries of [racist views in the empire]. We were indulged as this kind of master race, loyal to the British. But at the same time we weren’t allowed drive the trains because we weren’t quite as good as the white people. We couldn’t be trusted, and on occasion we were blown to pieces.”
No more than ghee can be taken out of a masala omelette, Sanghera’s perspective on empire and race cannot be disentangled from his family’s immigrant history. His Punjabi father came to Britain without being able to read or write, and he still can’t. His seamstress mother provided for Sanghera and his three siblings by working in a factory, as his father was unable to work due to his affliction by schizophrenia.
The author was the first in his family to go to any sort of university, earning a literature degree at Cambridge. Yet even though he was born in Wolverhampton, he didn’t speak English at all until he was about five or six years old.
“I came from a house without books to be a writer. That’s quite a weird journey,” he says. Yet it was also “hugely liberating” when he went to Cambridge, because his parents put no pressure on him.
“My parents just thought – he’s doing well, so we’re not going to nag him. They thought I was just being good, even when I wasn’t. They associated education with being a good boy. I was left alone.”
This writer son of an illiterate immigrant, who belatedly learned English as his second language, is now at the intellectual forefront of Britain’s internal grappling with the ghosts of its imperial past. He says he is driven by the realisation that the empire tried to cover up many of the acts committed in its name. Sanghera refers to the “pall of smoke” over Delhi as the British burned records in advance of Indian independence.
I’m proud of the Britain they seem to be fearful of and seem to hate
“That’s what I realised writing Empireworld – how systematic the deleting of information was. That is one of the reasons why it’s taken Britain so long to face up to this. At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, the British state systematically concealed what happened.”
Will he brave the blowback and write about empire again, thrusting the issue back into his fellow Brits’ reluctant faces?
“I’ve got to the stage now where I realise I’ve got to stop. I need to rediscover my creativity, my joy. I used to write novels and do other stuff. I want to write without feeling that there’s a group of people incentivised to destroy me.”
Despite all the abuse, Sanghera remains optimistic that Britain’s culture wars will soon be over. His study of empire also hasn’t dimmed his pride in being British.
“I’m proud of being British in the way that I see Britain, modern and multicultural. I’m not proud of the fantasy that Brexiteers and right-wing politicians are trying to create. I’m proud of the Britain they seem to be fearful of and seem to hate.
“They go on about their pride, yet I’m thinking: actually, you don’t seem to be proud of modern Britain. You hate it.”
Empireworld: How British Imperialism Has Shaped the Globe is published by Viking