Empireworld: How British Imperialism Has Shaped the Globe 
by Sathnam Sanghera.
Viking, 449 pp., £20, January, 978 0 241 60041 2
Show More
Show More

When Iremember the British Empire, two scenes – two stage sets, really – come to mind. One is a courtroom in Uganda, when it was still a British protectorate. Joseph Kiwanuka, a battered but irrepressible editor, was being tried yet again for ‘criminal libel’ – the favourite charge used by the colonial authorities to deal with seditious newspapers. As the hearing concluded, the judge walked across to the prosecuting counsel (they were both white men). ‘How much would you like me to give him? Six months? Big fine?’ The prosecutor shook his head. ‘No, Jim, he couldn’t pay. We’d be OK with a couple of months and confiscating his printing press like we did last time.’ The judge did what he was told. Joe Kiwanuka was led away. The two white lawyers went off for lunch at the club.

The other vision is a tangle of black ironwork, an ancient lift shaft loud with clanks and groans in Denison House, near Victoria station. Here, in the final years of the empire, was a rookery of remarkable men and women whose life mission was to denounce the empire’s crimes, to give British journalists and politicians news they wouldn’t get from the Colonial Office, and to help the struggle of Britain’s colonial possessions towards independence. The lift hoisted visitors to the shabby offices of great causes. Among them was the Africa Bureau, led with arctic integrity by the Rev. Michael Scott, with Mary Benson – just as dedicated but warm and welcoming – by his side. Close by was the Aborigines’ Protection Society, run by Tommy Fox Pitt. A dignified, slightly military gentleman, Tommy had been a district officer on the Copperbelt in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) until he fell out with his colonial masters. His first offence was to encourage miners’ trade unions. Then, in the early 1950s, he rebelled against Britain’s appalling plan for a Central African Federation (this in effect created a second and vaster apartheid South Africa, placing the enormous black majorities of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland under the domination of the white-settler minority in Southern Rhodesia). Back in London, Tommy used the Aborigines’ Protection Society, founded in 1837, to help destroy the federation. It finally expired in 1963.

The relevance of those two memories is that they underline a point Sathnam Sanghera keeps making in Empireworld. At the outset, he warns against the ‘balance-sheet’ approach: was the empire on balance a good thing or a bad one? That way, he writes, one gets ‘dragged … into an enervating culture war’ that obliterates all nuance. Instead, he is interested in imperial contradictions and paradoxes. As those memories of the Uganda courtroom and Denison House help to illustrate, the British Empire imposed repressive governance but also bred the warriors (brown, black and white) who would overthrow it. By forcing million-strong population movements, the empire spread diseases, but also developed the medical technology to treat them. Game reserves and national parks were established to protect nature, but were founded to ensure that there would be enough animals to shoot for ‘sport’, and drastically degraded the lives of local people, by restricting traditional hunting and fresh settlement. The Brits introduced newspapers and books, but also censorship; they ‘dehumanised millions of Indian labourers … through indenture and laid the foundations of international labour laws’; they ‘spread democracy to large parts of the world’, but ‘sowed discord in ways that still destabilise many … regions of the planet’. And – here comes Denison House – ‘the British Empire was an incubator and propagator of white supremacy, as well as a forum in which humanitarians founded campaigns that liberated people from crude ethnic classification.’

Empireworld is a sequel to Sanghera’s clever and very successful Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain, published in 2021. His new book investigates the way the British Empire has influenced one part of the present world (not ‘the globe’ of the overdone subtitle), looking at what the experience of empire did to tropical former colonies and possessions, rather than to the White Dominions. He spent a rather disagreeable working holiday in Barbados, a spell in Mauritius, another in Lagos, and visited New Delhi (further north lies the Punjab, home of his extended Sikh family).

The Barbados trip was in part an escape, to recover from the tempest of troll abuse that fell on him after Empireland was published. Sanghera hadn’t expected to read messages like this: ‘It’s not your nation, Baboo. You’re another third world shitholian leeching off another nation’s luxuries … Keep it up and all you street-shitting goat-fuckers will be sent back home to Sisterfuckistan.’ And so on, by the thousand. In fact, Sanghera was born and raised in Wolverhampton, a landscape polluted by Enoch Powell and a few subsequent racists, which might have prepared him for all that online sewage. But it shook him, and why should he have to be prepared for such a reception? (He notes that his friend William Dalrymple, whose books about the Raj and imperial history are just as scathing as Empireland, wrote in the Guardian that ‘he had not received a single piece of similar hate mail from a British person.’ But then, as Dalrymple himself pointed out, he is white.)

Beyond callow racism, Sanghera’s books confirm that there is a perception problem here. This is the glassy wall – some would say one-way mirror – that separates the colonised from the colonisers, the defeated and occupied from the victorious occupier. In France after 1940, even the most disaffected and pro-French Germans – and there were quite a few – had no real access to what the Paris crowds were thinking or feeling. In the same way, Brits have been surprised and annoyed to find that Indian and Irish people, though born long after these events, cannot easily move on from the 1919 Amritsar Massacre or from Bloody Sunday in Derry. But Sanghera’s background allows him to climb through this perceptual looking-glass and understand why the balance-sheet approach – ‘isolated blunders … tragic exceptions’ – doesn’t cut it. He has been slagged off for not being grateful enough to Britain for the enormous network of Indian railways (think of all those boastful ‘great railway journey’ TV programmes), and asserts that they were designed with British convenience and profit in mind, not Indian need, and that their transformation into an effective national system came after independence.

Nonetheless, it’s not only the British who cook up convenient delusions about the imperial past. For Narendra Modi, decolonisation means not only changes to street and city names, to official pageantry and the use of English, but repudiation of India’s Moghul-Muslim centuries as an earlier form of alien colonial suppression. In Barbados, Sanghera toured some of the old sugar plantations and found the guides reluctant to bring up the slavery economy that had made them so profitable. Visitors didn’t want to hear about it, or grieve over iron shackles. ‘So you whitewash it and you turn it into something more palatable,’ one (black) guide said. But he went on to describe the painful racism that endures in Barbadian society. Sanghera reflects that this conversation

left me with a powerful sense of the enormous gap between what British people think empire did to the world and what the world knows empire did to the world. And also of the gap between a postcolonial world that wants to discuss these issues and a nation that doesn’t want to listen and, if forced to do so, would rather focus on abolition or the myopic, crusty old debate about whether British empire was ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Many writers have commented that all the British public want to remember about slavery is that Britain abolished it. Sanghera agrees. But he is more interested by what followed abolition. In the British Caribbean, after liberation in 1834, the ex-slaves were bondaged into an apprentice system of forced labour: they had to remain with their former masters for four years and were forbidden to relocate during this period. If anything, conditions grew worse after abolition, leaving the Caribbean colonies – no longer profitable – to decay into what Joseph Chamberlain would call ‘the empire’s darkest slum’. But a broader consequence of abolition was the replacement by imperial employers, public and private, of slavery with indentured labour. This is the most powerful section of the book. ‘The movement of indentured labour from India became one of the greatest migrations in the history of the planet,’ Sanghera writes, and he follows the torrents of Indian peasants and their families lured by the million to emigrate across the oceans. They would work and settle in Mauritius, the Malay States, the Caribbean and South and East Africa, where they built the railway from the coast to Lake Victoria and made homes in what became Kenya Colony, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and the Uganda protectorate. They were often horribly exploited.

These British-induced uprootings – the emigration from India, the three million African slaves transported on British ships across the Atlantic, the millions who left Ireland after the 1840s Famine – permanently changed the world’s human geography. The empire changed global ecology too. Sanghera describes the way Kew Gardens’ plant collectors and their clients spread species across the world: tea from China to Assam, rubber trees from Brazil to Malaya, sisal from Mexico to East Africa. The trade in live plants, made possible by the ingenious Wardian case used to transport them, brought glory to British gardens but also spread every kind of invasive pest. Massive deforestation began. Ambitious irrigation schemes often failed, creating salt deserts.

These are among the demographic and ecological impacts of empire on the postcolonial world. But Sanghera also asks about the human and physical impacts. ‘British involvement in slavery,’ he writes, ‘has permanently and clearly disadvantaged nations in the Caribbean.’ He is referring not only to the slavery period itself, but to the almost equally miserable and hungry aftermath. And he raises the difficult topic of epigenetics. In 1944, the Nazi occupiers inflicted acute famine on part of the Netherlands. Long after the war, in the 1990s, scientists were disconcerted to find that the famine’s long-term human damage – such as exceptional rates of heart disease, kidney problems and obesity – could be identified even in the children born to the generation after the famine. Beyond that span, the transmission of ‘genetic memory’ is predicted to cease. It’s a controversial subject. But Sanghera speculates that such a ‘memory’ of slavery and post-slavery deprivation might still be a factor in physical and mental ill-health in the Caribbean.

For Sanghera, Nigeria is an example of the way the empire ‘instilled chaos and spread democracy’. As in other parts of colonised Africa, straight lines were drawn on maps to establish imperial or provincial frontiers, often splitting societies apart. Loose confederations of similar ethnicity were clumped into supertribes, with one dialect promoted as the official language and one group (here, the Hausa) selected to act as imperial collaborator and enforcer. The Victorians loved the idea of enlisting ‘martial races’ to police the empire: Sikhs from the Punjab or (the queen’s special fancy) kilted Highlanders. Bagpipes and modern rifles were widely distributed. But visiting Lagos, in spite of warnings that he would probably be kidnapped by ransom gangs, Sanghera found an exuberant nation frustrated by corruption, chaos and the omnipresent threat of violence. He visited King’s College (‘no room for morally bankrupt children’, the school rules say); founded by high-minded imperialists, it gave an English public school education to an elite who then used it to wrench their country out of the empire into independence. He traces Nigeria’s endemic violence – including the Biafran War and the Islamic risings in the north – back to the colonial past: to the bloodshed that brought this part of West Africa under the Union Jack, and to the earlier wars provoked by Britain’s slave-trading. Is that last point fair? Arab slaving empires were devastating the region at the same time. But Sanghera writes that by the early 19th century, Britain alone was selling 394,000 firearms to African warlords every year.

I wish Sanghera had glanced at Leopold II of Belgium’s genocidal Congo Free State, but his point is that ‘no other empire sowed chaos so far and wide.’ He looks beyond jostling Nigeria to Sudan, to partitioned Kashmir, to Burma/Myanmar, to the eternal crisis of Palestine. In all these places, Britain laid down legal frameworks, mostly based on English common law but highly diverse in detail. They were designed to enforce colonial authority and, in their application, white supremacy. Everywhere, the racism implicit in the system meant that the rule of law in the colonial empire would always be qualified.

‘In general, British people find it easy to look at former colonies and observe the existence of corruption and injustice,’ Sanghera writes. ‘They find it harder to connect it to the dysfunction and unfairness that British imperialists baked into colonial legislation.’ This relates to another battleground of the culture wars. Many former colonies entered independence as Westminster-style parliamentary democracies, only to veer off into autocracy or semi-permanent states of emergency. Right-wingers argue that such regimes would never have evolved under British rule. Leftish or anti-imperial writers – like Caroline Elkins, quoted by Sanghera – suggest that the new rulers simply adopted brutal and repressive colonial laws that had been used against them before and during the independence struggles: the only legal framework they had ever known.

As a general theory of postcolonialism this is an oversimplification. The batty one-party dictatorship of President Museveni in Uganda is not an inevitable outcome of the colonial unfairness that hit Joe Kiwanuka in that Kampala courtroom long ago. Sanghera resists the temptation to go that far. But one of the engaging things about his books is the way he can suddenly change his mind and tell readers why. In one chapter, he sifts the past of global charities – the Red Cross, Christian Aid, the Rotary Club, Save the Children, Freedom from Hunger and others – for traces of ‘white saviour’ attitudes and racial bias. He finds plenty. Christian Aid long preserved the paternalism of colonial missionaries; Save the Children hired Ken Loach to make a film about itself but then went to the law to have it suppressed when it ‘criticised the charity’s neocolonial attitudes and practices’. And yet Sanghera concedes that these charities have made the world a better place. ‘For what it’s worth, I’ve not cancelled my standing order to Save the Children. Besides, many of the INGOs I’ve talked about here (inadvertently) propounded anti-colonialism even as they propounded colonial attitudes.’

In rather the same way, he is ambushed by his own feelings over the Commonwealth. ‘What the hell is the Commonwealth about anyway?’ he starts off by asking, and agrees with any number of statesmen and historians that it has no ‘mission’. Sanghera misses a trick here. The Commonwealth did once discover a mission: to defy Britain. He should have remembered how its secretary-general Sonny Ramphal (from Guyana) and his superb lieutenant, Patsy Pyne (Jamaica), rallied the Commonwealth against a furious Margaret Thatcher and her government on the issue of sanctions against South Africa.

It was with low expectations that Sanghera went to the 2022 Commonwealth Games, in his home metropolis of Birmingham.

The show starts and … guess what.
      I love it.
      I clap.
      I jump.
      I high-five volunteers (at their suggestion, I’m British after all).
      And I admit I also cry my eyes out.

The opening ceremony included a literary section – and suddenly a costumed boy dancer was performing a tribute to Sanghera’s own writings. ‘I have to lean back in my seat so my brother doesn’t see me weep.’ Afterwards,

for this moment at least, the Commonwealth feels like a tangible thing. Which, in turn, inspires an idea: we should revive the Commonwealth as an institution, by establishing it as a forum for post-imperial discussion, a place where we can all face up to the consequences of the British Empire … There’s … the gap between how the world sees Britain through the prism of its imperial history, and how we fail to see ourselves through the prism of that history.

If Britain ever sets its eye to a clearer prism, Sanghera’s two empire books will have done much to polish it. But he is not an academic historian. Instead of original research, he has spent years tunnelling through a Himalaya of secondary sources, mostly books, from which he often reprints long extracts, generally of opinion rather than narrative. It’s a method with an ancient feel – the young scribe’s respect for older wisdom – and Sanghera is old-fashioned too in his love for long, sometimes distracting but always irresistible footnotes.

Empireworld sets out to show that the global impact of Britain’s empire remains unavoidable. Sanghera tots it up on a flight back from India: the airlines, the banks, the Unilever merchandise, the duty-free whisky brands, even the destination boards (76 Kingstowns, 50 Georgetowns, 41 Jamestowns). After all, it was the biggest empire the world has ever seen or, with luck, ever will. This restlessly intelligent and lively book constantly asks new questions about it and debunks old answers. And yet, inevitably, it has omissions. For example, it leaves out the Colonial Office’s long, vain battle to stop Britain taking over vast and apparently profitless tracts of Africa merely to placate the missionary and military lobbies. And Sanghera should have looked at something that didn’t happen. How did Britain avoid the most dangerous postcolonial trauma: the reflux of bitter, vengeful white settlers, police and soldiers returning to the homeland after being chased out of the newly independent colonies? The pied-noir backlash brought France to the edge of civil war after Algerian independence; returnees shook Portugal and even the Netherlands. But Britain in the 1960s was threatened by nothing worse than sad families trying to keep warm in seaside private hotels. The mass arrival of expelled Kenyan and Ugandan Asians attracted far more concern.

Perhaps the empire had been inoculated against such dangers. In 1948, as the British mandate in Palestine ended, the Palestine Police disbanded and redistributed its officers to every colonial territory where there was active resistance to British rule. As I witnessed myself in Malaya, Kenya and Rhodesia, they brought with them a special ruthlessness from their mandate experience, including the routine use of torture. Initially resenting them, local colonial police forces often adopted their methods. But that was a generation before the tropical empire finally fell apart, and the Palestine sepsis never infected the motherland’s domestic politics.

As Ferdinand Mount wrote here recently, ‘what seems to become clearer is the ultimate failure of the imperial ideal to take root in the popular imagination’ (LRB, 22 February). Myopic and flattering as their take on empire history has been, the Brits never drugged themselves into supposing that the millions out there loved them and longed to be British. ‘All English from Stornoway to Singapore?’ They left that sort of rubbish to the French. Perhaps this was because ‘our empire’ was presented as a glowing abstraction, floating above the tangible reality of one’s own country, just as the Crown is meant to hover invulnerably above the fallible human who wears it. This is the way Harriet Marshall, a highly patriotic Scottish writer of history for children, ended Scotland’s Story in 1906: ‘The rest of the story of Scotland’ after the Union is ‘the story of the Empire … they fought and laboured, not for themselves but for the Empire, and so Scotland shares in the glory of the Empire and adds to it.’

It hurts, but it’s holy: a duty and a destiny. This sanctity propaganda is one reason Sanghera finds the British so sulky when invited to discuss the empire. It props up UK exceptionalism, that other inherited obstacle to understanding. When Henry VIII proclaimed that his English kingdom was an empire, he didn’t mean it possessed colonies. To him, empire meant a sovereign realm that took no orders or reproaches from anywhere else. As England expanded, it spread this armoured hostility to criticism across the island and then the globe. Sanghera still feels its force.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 46 No. 13 · 4 July 2024

Neal Ascherson asks how Britain avoided ‘the reflux of bitter, vengeful white settlers, police and soldiers returning to the homeland after being chased out of the newly independent colonies’ (LRB, 23 May). My grandmother was a settler in Kenya from the 1950s until independence in 1963. Afterwards the family moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and remained there until 1980, when they felt it was no longer safe. They first came to the UK for a few months and then moved to Australia. All this to say that if the UK was indeed ‘inoculated’ against a reflux of white settlers in a way that France was not, I can only offer the rationale my grandmother gave when I asked her why she didn’t consider staying in the UK: ‘The weather!’

Ruari McCloskey

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences