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Sanghera on the British Empire: Weak, flawed, limited

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Written by Jeremy Black

Professor Jeremy Black reviews Sathnam Sanghera’s new book EmpireWorld. How British Imperialism has Shaped the Globe. and concludes that is is rather a good laugh that repeats well-established themes and serves them up in a familiar fashion

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Doubtless kindness lay behind Penguin’s absence of response to The Critic’s repeated requests for a review copy for me of this book. My request also failed, but I have gone out and bought a copy, and now I understand. Possibly Penguin felt I might be upset to find no reference to my Imperial Legacies: The British Empire Around the World (2019) in a book described as “a ground-breaking exploration of how British empire has shaped the world we live in today”.

But actually no. With its pretensions and authorial conceit, Sanghera’s book is actually rather a good laugh. He apparently is the word and the way for Britain, which “cannot hope to have a productive future in the world without acknowledging what it did to the world in the first place”, a process that is to be done on his terms in order to overcome a British allergy to the unattractive aspects of the imperial past.

Stripped to its essentials, this is a book that repeats well-established themes and serves them up in a familiar fashion. Although 461 pages long, only 247 are text and, with a generous typeface that is a pleasure to read, there is only so much space for his analysis. Unfortunately, that is what is on offer.

It might be thought appropriate to establish what was different or familiar in British imperialism in a Western European context by comparing in detail, say, Britain’s Caribbean empire with those of France, Spain and the Dutch. It might be thought useful to assess Britain as an Asian imperial power alongside Russia or the Ottomans, China or the Persians.

It might be appropriate to follow the direction of much of the world history approach over the last half-century and assess empires as shared projects in which there were many stakeholders, British and non-British. To turn to the British empire, it might be useful to discuss the oldest “colony”, Ireland, or to assess policy in (Highland) Scotland. It could be appropriate to consider how the causes, context, course and consequences of British imperialism varied greatly.

Sanghera has not risen to the challenge. His study is conceptually weak, methodologically flawed, historiographically limited and lacking basic skills in source assessment. This is a pity, as his position as a journalist, and his link with Penguin, provide an opportunity for using his abilities as a communicator to expand public understanding of the subject.

Sanghera criticises “an enervating culture war on the theme of British empire”. He rightly draws attention to the flaws of the “balance sheet” view of British empire, but I am less confident than he is about how best to consider what he terms “a culture war”. The promotion of “understanding” for which he calls is scarcely value-free, nor does he adequately address the degree to which there have always been “culture wars” in both Britain and its colonies and former colonies. Unsurprisingly so, as there were substantive issues at stake, and questions of goal and identity were very much part of the equation.

From reading journalists’ comment pieces, it is hard to avoid the sense that they feel that there is a correct view (theirs, what a surprise) and that others are variously culture wars, populist, ignorant, etc. This is the standard approach to history, notably national history, and, particularly in the case of Britain, empire and slavery. Yet, such a stance scarcely captures the complexities of the issue, a problem very much seen in Sanghera’s work, despite his claim to nuance.

Take the slave trade. How much of an emphasis should be placed on the pre-existing slave trade in Africa and on African agency in the Atlantic trade? On his Caribbean “research trip”, Sanghera found time to note the prices of luxury hotels, but not to visit the best of the museums, that in Guadeloupe. It makes much of both factors, and offers a far more subtle account (reaching to the present) than you will find in Sanghera.

Yet one of the four publisher’s readers for the second edition of my The Atlantic Slave Trade (2015, 2024) wanted no mention of African agency. To suggest there is no “culture war” on empire is mystifying, and it implies that the present is somehow different from the past, when such differences and exchanges were commonplace, and a key element of identity and politics.

That captures another problem with Sanghera’s work: his tendency to exaggerate the impact of empire and, in doing so, fail to give sufficient prominence to earlier factors as well as to the limited chronological span of empire. The latter does not mean that empire was inconsequential, but rather that it has to be placed in context.

This is not only true for Britain. There is, for example, much to be gained by putting the Japanese imperial episodes in Taiwan and Korea into context. Similarly, the British presence in much of empire, for example Burma or Sudan, was shortlived, and very different in impact from that in Ireland or Barbados.

To emphasise the British imperial presence can be to downplay local agency. For example, with West Africa, Western imperialism was but one of a wide range of transformative factors, local and international. The impact of Islam from the Sahel has been of greater long-term consequence. Sanghera might disagree, but he tends to shy away from analysis and debate, preferring to select material based on a priori assumptions that reflect a limited understanding of historical processes.

For Nigeria, he refers to “the disastrous merging of very different ethnic groups into one political structure”. Maybe so, and worth consideration, but it is not of course the case that such a process awaited the Europeans in West Africa. There were significant empires within the subcontinent, Mali and Songhai being but two. Moreover, the conflicts and enslavement seen in the absence of European control scarcely suggest that British imperialism was the true source of conflict.

There is a sense of profound laziness in much of Sanghera’s analysis. He really should have devoted more attention to the pre-Western history of the areas he discusses, for, as in Sudan, this history has persisted. In part, empire worked by adapting foreign rule into a practice of shared control, and that is as, or more, significant than resistance or violence.

Of course, such a proposition should be contextualised, but it is one that deserves attention. So too when discussing the imperialisms, however defined, of other empires at the present moment, whether China or India, Russia or the United States. By contrast, there is scant intellectual capital invested in Sanghera’s approach. Instead, it is discussion by diatribe that comes to the fore.

Jeremy Black MBE was Professor of History at Exeter University and is author of Imperial Legacies: The British Empire Around the World (2019) among many other books. This article first appeared in the Critic Magazine and is reproduced with kind permission of Professor Black.

 

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Jeremy Black