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Sathnam Sanghera on Britain's Imperial Legacies on a Global Scale

Posted on 9th January 2024 by Anna Orhanen

Empireworldthe new book from the bestselling author of the award-winning Empireland and The Boy with the Topknot  takes the reader on a eye-opening journey, examining the various global effects of British imperialism. In this exclusive piece, Sathnam Sanghera discusses the importance of ongoing research and reassesment of Britain's imperial legacies and recommends a selection of fascinating reads that approach the subject from various perspectives. 

It’s inevitable, I realise, that my new book, Empireworld: How British Imperialism Has Shaped the Globe, is going to get discussed in relation to the last significant popular survey of the impact of the British Empire, Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World from 2003. And I don’t mind. I disagree with many of Ferguson’s conclusions, of course, but it’s important to read books you disagree with. It’s not a bad introduction to the basic history, even though the arguments about the history go awry, in my opinion. And it’s notable at how mild Ferguson sounds in comparison to modern-day imperial nostalgics, who go as far as denying imperial genocides to make their case.  

Also, reading it two decades after publication highlights how much imperial history has been conducted in the intervening years, and how much our understanding has changed. Anyone who consults it in 2023 should follow up with a bunch of more recent books, not least those on how British imperialists changed the world through botany, a subject that often gets neglected in general surveys of empire. I’d recommend one in particular book as an entry-point: Luke Keogh’s The Wardian Case. In it, Keogh reminds us that on a long sea or land journey there were all sorts of ways, back in the day, to destroy a delicate seedling: extreme temperatures, rough handling, the salt from ocean spray. The invention of the Wardian case, which appeared at the Great Exhibition in 1851, and has been described by historian Lynn Barber as “probably one of the best investments the British government has ever made”, changed everything, and, like many breakthroughs, it was invented by accident. 

I’d also recommend Kate Teltscher’s Palace of Palms, which tells the gripping tale of what she calls “the finest surviving Victorian glass and iron building in the world” at Kew, and provides an insight into the role that the botanic garden played in imperialism. And I really enjoyed Just the Tonic by Kim Walker and Mark Nesbitt which, among other things, demolishes the myth that gin and tonic was ever taken medicinally by imperialists for malaria. Apparently, it would have taken a concentration of quinine five to ten times higher than that found in a modern tonic to have any preventative effect from a standard gin and tonic.

There has also been improvement, over the last 20 years, in our understanding of imperial indentured labour, a much-neglected facet of empire which saw more than one million Indian workers shipped over from cities such as Madras and Calcutta to British colonies, including British Guiana, Fiji, Trinidad, and Jamaica, after slavery was abolished. The conditions during the (usually) five-year-long assignments, on British plantations of sugar, tea, coffee, rubber and cinchona, during some eighty-odd years of contracted migration, were so brutal that in 1839 the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society described indentured labour as “slavery under a different name”.

In her book Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, American journalist Gaiutra Bahadur makes moving attempts to trace the story of her great-grandmother over three continents, and in the process produces nothing less than the single most compelling treatise on indenture and one of the most important books written on the British empire. The diligence of the research, even when it doesn’t generate clear answers, and perhaps particularly when it doesn’t produce precise explanations, makes you appreciate just how lowly the indentured were within the British imperial system. And, like all great literature, it offers nuance: Bahadur illustrates how a female indentured labourer could be at once a victim and use her sexuality and gender as “leverage” within a perilous and unjust system.

There’s also been a revolution in how we understand the consequences of slavery in recent decades. Matthew Parker’s The Sugar Barons is an eloquent account of how the West Indies were fought-over colonies by Europeans, as colonists “made and lost immense fortunes growing and trading in sugar - a commodity so lucrative that it was known as white gold.” I’d recommend reading it in conjunction with Blood Legacy, in which Alex Renton traces how his aristocratic family participated in the transatlantic slave trade. In it, he traces the influence of slavery on everything from murder rates in the Caribbean (“the origins of the violence are in the deeper traumas that derive from history”) to poverty (“exacerbated by the failure to develop the economy during the British colonial period, along with the usual Caribbean brain-drain that sees so many leave for the UK, Canada or United States”), and poor education (“British schools pay six times what a teacher can earn in Jamaica and many, especially science and maths teachers, leave for the UK and North America  . . . Underfunding education in Jamaica is a story that starts at emancipation”).

Beyond this, recent years have seen the publication of some revelatory thematic surveys of the British Empire. Chief amongst them, there is Caroline Elkins’ Legacy of Violence. Then there is Matthew Parker (again) with One Fine Day. It was such a great idea to tell this complex history through the prism of a one day in 1923, when British empire hit its peak. Doing so meant he was immediately freed from the inane “balance sheet” view which has British historians forever listing the positives and negatives of the enterprise. What emerges instead is a deeply nuanced and incredibly readable book.

Elsewhere, Lizzie Collingham’s The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World is still one of the entertaining books on empire around, and if you get along with it, you’ll probably also enjoy her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors too. Meanwhile, in the wry The Empire’s New Clothes, Philip Murphy finds dozens of entertaining ways to restate his main argument which is “essentially, that the Commonwealth has lost almost all of the limited significance it once possessed, and has become something of a mirage in the field of British foreign policy”. 

Finally, if you’ve found yourself irritated or bewildered or even excited by the extraordinary culture war that has erupted on the theme of British empire in recent years, there’s no better guide to it than the imperial historian Professor Alan Lester. He draws upon thirty years of research and writing to outline a path through the insanity in the essential Deny & Disavow: Distancing the Imperial Past in the Culture Wars.

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