Why David Cameron Should Read “Empireland”

Sathnam Sanghera’s book unravels the nostalgic myth of the British empire

Photo by Tamara Menzi on Unsplash

So in the fall of 2015, I went after David Cameron. Not in person, or in any print or visual media (the Daily Mail would have lapped it up). I took my shot on Facebook, back when it was slowly but steadily losing its cultural influence over anyone who would not eventually vote for Trump. Whether my anti-Cameron rant means anything to you (he was prime minister at the time) might depend on how much stock you put in social media, but maybe it was for the best that online was where it stayed. Regardless, I was on fire. Cameron had just visited Jamaica, and in stunning and downright imperial fashion, demanded that we Jamaicans get on with moving past the legacy of slavery—that we stop living in the past. With that trademark condescension he reserves for speaking to people of color, he advised us to “focus on the future.” He then introduced the real reason for his visit, which was to announce that the United Kingdom was about to front a whopping 40% of the cost to build a new prison on the island. That way Jamaicans convicted of crimes in the United Kingdom could be sent back to the country they had supposedly come from, whether or not they were legal British residents. Even by Churchill’s colonial standards, the speech was jaw-dropping. Equally enraging was how the entire Jamaican parliament—based on the rowdy British model no less—seemed to take it like a bunch of house slaves being given a sermon on loving their masters. I couldn’t decide if the speech came from ignorance, arrogance or simple gall.

On my first trip to the UK… I was a little appalled that the British Museum would ask me for a donation to enter.

Cameron seemed ignorant of how much his country’s imperialism, particularly during slavery, had shaped every aspect of the Britain he has lived in, from its magnificent palaces right down to the stunning sense of national entitlement that allowed him to make such a speech. How it was only a few years before his speech that the British people had stopped compensating slave owners for post-abolition losses. On my first trip to the UK four years before, I was a little appalled that the British Museum would ask me for a donation to enter. I couldn’t conceal the sense that I owned the place, or at least that I had earned it through the work of my people, unpaid during slavery, and barely paid after. Looking around Bristol and Liverpool, I wondered how I was supposed to get over all the bad that had been wrought by the empire, while the empire itself held on to all the good. So after David Cameron’s speech, I couldn’t hold myself back:

“Listen David, I feel you. I’m with you on this forgetting slavery business, screw all the haters. I too am all ready to move past slavery and forget the whole thing. I just have one condition: You First. You heard me. I promise to stop bitching about the legacy of Slavery and Colonialism (don’t get it twisted, the latter was even worse) and move on if you also move on, by destroying every building, every landmark, every statue, every port, every bridge, every road, every house, every palace, every mansion, every gallery (Hello, Tate!), every museum, and every ship built with slavery and colonialism blood money. That would mean that London, Bristol and Liverpool would all have to go. Then we’d all be just about full free, David.”

There was Cameron, and by extension Brits like him, surrounded by the empire’s façade of colonial opulence, oblivious to the scars on the back side. So when I came to Sathnam Sanghera’s book, I did so with visceral expectation, saying to myself he better preach. I approached the book with amens in check, ready to dish them out at every fact that I already knew, happy that now white people would learn the truth of what I, and many like me, felt. Except, more often than not, the person doing the learning was me.

I wondered how I was supposed to get over all the bad that had been wrought by the empire, while the empire itself held on to all the good.

If all Sanghera wanted to do was unveil scars, then this book would be only half as effective, half as stunning, half as revelatory. Digging, simply for its own sake, sometimes leaves us with more holes in our stories, not fewer. It makes it easy for people on both sides of history to pounce. History is complicated. Not every forward-thinking movement came from beyond colonial influence. After all, abolition was codified not too many doors down from slavery. And some of the most appalling atrocities done in colonialism’s name came from the colonized, not the colonizers. But Sanghera is more than just a muckraker. Yes, he exposes these sordid legacies. But furthermore, he traces the surprising bloodlines from which these legacies still flow. It never occurred to me, for example, to trace the origins of British racism toward the Caribbean beyond the first landing of the Windrush, back to India in 1857. On the other hand, I used to look at multiculturalism as the great civilizer of our modern times—until, that is, I saw it was a reality of British life that predated the Tudors.

Sanghera’s Empireland is not the historical painting some would like. Paintings aren’t hard to find—that’s what the Jan Morrises and the Niall Fergusons of the world are for. Rather, Empireland is a mirror. Mirrors show truths that paintings do not—messy, complicated, uncomfortable truths. And of course, those messy truths are, in fact, us. This is not a furious book. In fact, much of it is conversational, eager to engage, disarming and sometimes funny. But it will nonetheless provoke downright blinding fury. This is also not a partisan book in the least, but still one that will provoke some readers to take sides, at least until they get to the end of an incendiary paragraph. It’s still a new thing to see imperialism written in this way, refracted through the eyes of the “mother country.” It’s something that Sanghera must have known that we might not have the language for, yet.

Even still, it doesn’t matter if we don’t. The most important lessons do not wait until you’re ready to receive them. And while we may know much about empire’s impact on pre-Commonwealth Britain, its persistent and striking impact on modern Britain is another story, one where denialism intrudes upon the conclusion. Imperial revisionism is nothing new. It sweeps through France as much as it does through Britain. But the vibe one gets from the U.K., at least from those within it nostalgic for empire, is that the country wants to have it both ways. It wants to be the land that ended slavery, that fought the Nazis. But it’s also proud to have given rise to the imperially nostalgic Nigel Farage and the still-present influence of Enoch Powell, a man who Farage cites as a political hero, and whose views were shaped most critically by his time in colonial India.

Sanghera’s Empireland is not the historical painting some would like.

Powell is long dead. But there are many living Brexit voters who still remember the last gasps of imperial Britain. There are certainly enough novels and television shows that romanticize the era, most with a dash of discrimination, offstage violence and the occasional rape to pass the work off as “complex.” And there are many British citizens old enough to have actually sailed on the Windrush (my now gone uncle Errol being one of them) who yet recognize the mix of ignorance and arrogance that continues to make such exceptionalism possible. We’ve read and seen a ton of this recently, revisionist attempts to “complicate” the record of horrible events, the deeds of despicable people, as if the ambivalent lens is the superior one. I read this book feeling as if I had witnessed and sometimes participated in the legacies of the past. But I never felt responsible for them. Sanghera rejects the culturally relativist trick of making everyone feel equally accountable. Empire has left consequences in every single country it touched, and it is important to unearth those consequences, interrogate them, learn from them, so that we recognize the strands that persist within us. Empire left consequences for Empireland as well, and it is because of our failure to recognize these aftershocks that racism is looked upon as a rootless aberration, or denied altogether. You can read this book and concede why Brexit was not an anomaly at all, but an all but inevitable outgrowth of the imperial position. The most Britishly British outcome Britain could have ever granted itself.

Empire has left consequences in every single country it touched

Sanghera often presents these staggering facts as if he has just discovered them himself, and even he can’t hide how much they astonish. He invokes the “I” often because the truths he’s unearthed are as much for him as they are for whoever reads his book. There’s a reason for this. Sanghera makes these consequences feel personal, because we have a personal stake in what he’s found. The stories in Empireland—and the story of empire itself— cannot be told without it becoming personal. History will remain incomplete, full of holes, if it ignores the actual humans it affects. And in reading Empireland, we find ourselves living within this history. Maybe this is how we should have been looking at history all along.

Empireland is a crucial journey of discovery, not just for those within the empire, and not just for those from former colonies granted independence. This journey is also for those from the colony that took independence by force: America, of course, a country that holds its Yankee spirit (see Hamilton, the musical) and its unquenchable Anglophilia (see also Hamilton, the musical) with equal fervor. You don’t have to go too far south to see a country that never figured out what to do with its past other than mythologize it or forget it, each approach chafing against the other. Slavery’s memory still hangs high and swings low in all states, and statements like “heritage, not hate” show how tricky it is to pull nostalgia from the memory of atrocity. The problem is that we haven’t yet discovered an alternative. Empireland suggests one. It shows us a way to revisit the past with eyes unflinching, yet open and generous. We can stare down history’s atrocities, but the key word here is “we.” Stepping into the future is not the work of one person, or one nation. With books like this, maybe we can finally reach that future together.

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