‘Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain’ review: Building wealth and an identity on colonial plunder and loot

Some years ago, on a visit to Athens, I got into a conversation with a staffer at the Acropolis Museum. Thanks to my ignorance, I asked her where I could see the Parthenon Marbles. The affable woman turned terse. “If you want to see them, take a plane to London,” she said and turned away. It later struck me that her advice would hold good for some of the most prized cultural relics from Asia and Africa. Most were stolen, and can be found today in British museums.

Colonial plunder may have happened in the past, but in the absence of restitution, it remains an active element of the present. The British Museum and the Louvre in Paris, to mention just two institutions, continue to earn millions of tourist dollars and cultural capital from stolen treasures. In August 1999, “the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission suggested $777 trillion as a suitable sum for reparations paid as compensation for lives lost during the African slave trade and the gold, diamonds and other resources stolen from the continent during colonisation,” notes Sathnam Sanghera in his new book, Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain.

Multi-layered history

But Empireland is much more than an accounting of the losses and gains accrued from Empire. Sanghera blends memoir, journalism and history to construct a multi-layered narrative that slowly builds toward an existential but also political question: if you take away Empire, and everything connected to it, what would be left of the elements that could be said to constitute British national identity? What is British identity minus Empire?

Let’s try some of the answers. What about the quintessential English institution, the country home? It turns out that nearly one-third of British country homes and gardens were built on wealth earned from slavery or colonial loot. “If you accumulated significant amounts of money, country houses were the favoured asset through which to launder colonial booty,” notes Sanghera.

What about Britain’s role in abolishing slavery, something Brits take pride in? Well, the compensation paid to slave owners for giving up profits from slavery (while no compensation was paid to the slaves) was practically the seed money for some of the biggest fortunes in British finance and industry. From Lloyds, Barclays and RBS, among the banks, to Alfred Waterhouse (founder of what would become PricewaterhouseCoopers), William Welch Deloitte (grandson of a West Indies planter), the British railways, and The Times newspaper, it is difficult to find a British institution untainted by slavery money.

But Empire — mounted on the ideological axle of white supremacy — has not only shaped the British economy, it has also shaped the British mindset and worldview, suggests Sanghera, and these continue to find expression in British exceptionalism and racism, whose most recent, and spectacular, manifestation was the fiasco of Brexit.

Painful legacy

Starting with anecdotes of racial discrimination while growing up in a working class nighbourhood in Wolverhampton, Sanghera draws out the continuities between British attitudes toward native ‘servants’ during the Raj and the resentment triggered by the reappearance of erstwhile colonial subjects on British soil, now recast as neighbours and immigrants demanding rights on a par with their former masters.

Post-colonial nation-states perforce have had to reckon with their histories as colonies. From language and culture to art, architecture, philosophy and political thought, it is impossible to escape the colonial legacy. What is not so obvious is that erstwhile imperial powers were also altered by the colonial project, although their memories of it are marked by self-serving amnesia. The glory evokes nostalgia while the atrocities are repressed.

Whether it is soccer hooliganism, dealing with the pandemic, or prevailing racial stereotypes, Sanghera demonstrates that contemporary Britain is as much a post-colonial society as any other.

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain; Sathnam Sanghera, Penguin Viking, ₹999.

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 8:34:50 PM |

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