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Empireworld by Sathnam Sanghera: An important antidote to Britain’s allergy regarding its past

The author uses humour and vast research - plus too many notes - to shed light on how the British empire is viewed abroad, and what British authorities should do now

Empireworld: How British Imperialism Has Shaped the Globe
Empireworld: How British Imperialism Has Shaped the Globe
Author: Sathnam Sanghera
ISBN-13: 978-0241600412
Publisher: Viking
Guideline Price: £20

It is the last line of Sathnam Sanghera’s 449-page book that sums up his argument:, “Britain cannot hope to have a productive future in the world without acknowledging what it did to the world in the first place.”

Empireworld is Sanghera’s latest attempt to discuss the legacies of the British empire and show how that history shapes the world today. He is well placed to chronicle the twists and turns of British imperialism; the award-winning journalist was born to Punjabi immigrant parents in Wolverhampton and he has written extensively about how the British empire influences the past and the present. His previous work, the bestselling Empireland, examined how the UK was shaped by its imperial past. He argued that such an analysis is essential to understanding modern Britain. Empireland was named a book of the year at the 2022 National Book Awards and spawned a Channel 4 series.

With the media attention and national profile came horrible abuse. Sanghera was subjected to vile racist tweets and letters. He was routinely told he needed to be “more respectful to British imperial history”. Thankfully, it did not deter him, and he has now produced another well-researched analysis of the UK’s colonial past.

Empireworld looks at how the British empire is viewed across the globe and considers the impact on 2.6 billion people who live in former British colonies. Sanghera travels the world and visits a list of countries to hear the stories of empire. It is a roll call of Britain’s imperial legacy as he takes in places such as Nigeria, India, Mauritius and Barbados.

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Ireland gets a number of mentions but they are brief and and not in any real depth. There is a reference to the Famine and the plantation of Ulster and an observation on the nature of colonial policing. He notes that the make-up of Britain’s police forces in countries such as India often had a “distinctly Irish flavour”. I would like to have read more about Sanghera’s take on Anglo-Irish history and Britain’s role in Ireland.

The author writes well with humour and style and he has a journalist’s eye for detail and colour. He has researched well and details his narrative with the support of “expert imperial historians”.

Empireworld is part travel book, part memoir, part history book. It works best when he uses examples and humour to illustrate his point. He likes to play what he calls “a game” as he journeys back from New Delhi to his London home and notes down “every imperial legacy we happen across”. This is where he cleverly uses modern-day observations to illustrate the past.

Such is the gargantuan arsenal of facts and information that he has amassed in writing this book that the bibliography, end notes and index notes take up a staggering 200 pages. The use of this vault of knowledge sometimes gets in the way of the story. Sanghera loves his academic reference points, which are obviously a strength but can at times be a little distracting. He adds starred notes to many pages so the reader is sent to the bottom of the page to find out more information about a particular event or place. On a number of occasions the starred note is almost as long as the original text.

Sanghera likes them a lot – there are 24 of them in the opening 50 pages. But if the anecdote or reference is deemed important to his book, why not incorporate some of them into the body of the text? Why send the reader up and down the page? This style of storytelling began to irritate me and got in the way of the narrative. That is a minor criticism of style but not the substance..

Sanghera is a nuanced writer and although this book at times seems a little uneven and occasionally tangential, it is nonetheless an important examination of Britain’s colonial past.

He concludes by saying that the UK establishment – members of the royal family and politicians – need to acknowledge the role of the British empire. He argues that the British remain “allergic to confronting their history”. He writes that it is no longer an option to self-indulgently consider whether the empire was “good” or “bad”. Sanghera suggests that such a question in simple terms is “as inane and pointless as asking whether the world’s weather has been good or bad over the past 350 years”.

In the public conversation about Britain’s imperial past, many voices across the world need to be heard. Sanghera’s arguments are loud and clear and this book is an important contribution to that debate.

Stephen Walker is the author of John Hume: The Persuader (Gill, 2023)