Documentary on Jallianwala Bagh: The Massacre That Shook the Empire

Click to watch on Channel 4

In his brilliantly illuminating new book Sathnam Sanghera demonstrates how so much of what we consider to be modern Britain is actually rooted in our imperial past. In prose that is, at once, both clear-eyed and full of acerbic wit, Sanghera shows how our past is everywhere: from how we live to how we think, from the foundation of the NHS to the nature of our racism, from our distrust of intellectuals in public life to the exceptionalism that imbued the campaign for Brexit and the government’s early response to the Covid crisis. And yet empire is a subject, weirdly hidden from view.

The British Empire ran for centuries and covered vast swathes of the world. It is, as Sanghera reveals, fundamental to understanding Britain. However, even among those who celebrate the empire there seems to be a desire not to look at it too closely – not to include the subject in our school history books, not to emphasize it too much in our favourite museums.

At a time of great division, when we are arguing about what it means to be British, Sanghera’s book urges us to address this bewildering contradiction. For, it is only by stepping back and seeing where we really come from, that we can begin to understand who we are, and what unites us.

Reviews for EmpireLand: How Modern Britain is Shaped by its Imperial Past

“If, in the past, much of the thinking about empire was blinkered and jingoistic, these days it is often lacerating. British imperialism is identified as the source not only of militarism and hooliganism, but of the irresponsibility of high finance and much besides. In contrast to such polemics, Sathnam Sanghera’s new book is nuanced, intelligent and even entertaining. It is also refreshingly honest… As well as chronicling the familiar sins of empire, particularly in India, the author gives a fair hearing to those who emphasise the more positive aspects of imperial rule… [an] excellent book.” 
The Economist

Empireland is the product of Sanghera’s mission to decolonise himself. It’s a noble, often poignant effort at self-education…  a gracefully written book, but its real beauty lies in its complete absence of dogmatism. It’s so refreshing to encounter an author who isn’t bloody certain about everything…. In assessing the empire, Sanghera is… admirably equivocal… Empireland is not an angry diatribe; there’s enough of those already. It’s a sensitive, often uncomfortable commentary on the stubborn influence of empire. Sanghera loves his country but is no longer blind to its faults.
Gerard DeGroot, The Times

“[An] impassioned and deeply personal journey through Britain’s imperial past and present… Moving effortlessly back and forth between history and journalism, Sanghera connects the racial violence and discrimination of his childhood in 1970s and 80s Wolverhampton with the attitudes and methods previously used to impose empire and white supremacy across the world… Without getting bogged down in definitions, calculations or complicated comparisons, Empireland also manages to convey something of the sheer variety of imperial experiences over four centuries… unflinching…  a moving and stimulating book that deserves to be widely read.”
Fara Dabhoiwala, The Guardian 

Empireland, [a] scorching polemic on the afterburn of empire.”
Ferdinand Mount, The Financial Times

In this excellent book, the Times writer Sathnam Sanghera tries to understand why the modern British display such amnesia about their forebears’ vast, world-changing project… He is a good guide to the complexities of this issue, less because of his background — a successful and accomplished commentator, who comes from a Sikh family in Wolverhampton and could speak no English at the age of five — than because of his instincts, which are balanced and largely optimistic…. most readers will learn a lot, from the imperial origin of moustaches to the shameful invasion of Tibet, and Queen Elizabeth I complaining in 1596 about England being swamped by black immigration… this is a book anyone really interested in their own identity in modern Britain should read, enjoy and occasionally shout at.
Andrew Marr, The Sunday Times

Those who have read Sathnam Sanghera’s wonderful memoir The Boy with the Topknot will not be surprised to find that this latest very well written book combines hugely readable quantities of information about our centuries as an almost inadvertent imperial power with decent, ­balanced and wise judgements. This account of how much of our “island story” was written in other countries deserves to be widely read, not least by those who have migrated to the extremes of present public debate. It is neither woke nor jingoistic; the sentiments are those of a fair-minded British citizen who comes from a Sikh family. His decency and talent remind us of how much we owe to all those immigrants from our empire who came to make their lives here and too often (but happily not always) had to face hostility with a racist hue. The racism was frequently sired by our imperial past.
Chris Patten, The Tablet

“Sanghera wants Britons to recognise, with him, their ‘deep and complex relationship with the world through empire’, to reclaim intimacy with the multicultural nature of a common history... As Sanghera grapples with details of atrocities…  what takes hold, to his own surprise as much as ours, is a sense of moral outrage that in turn disrupts the way he sees himself… In the wake of personal epiphany, we glimpse with Sanghera pathways of transformative potential… It’s a simple but profound response – this searching introspection and a quest for new horizons, combined with a readiness to sit with the contradictions of it all 
Ashish Ghadiali, The Observer

“Excellent… a desire to rectify ignorance – to shed light on what has been whitewashed from mainstream knowledge – drives this rigorous examination of hidden histories… Empireland skilfully sets out the empire’s staggering scale and scope, including its geography… He delves deep through the centuries… He unflinchingly shows the sheer brutality of empire… Empireland is, most refreshingly, forward-looking, too… powerful.”
Anita Sethi, The Independent

Empireland is a wide-ranging survey of Empire and its after-effects, where Sanghera examines his subject through a range of potent lenses. From the debate on the restitution of cultural artefacts to attitudes towards immigration, to Brexit exceptionalism, he contends we can only really move on as a nation when we learn to look our past squarely in the face. Clear-sighted, provocative and timely, this is a book to challenge assumptions and ignite a thousand debates – many of them hopefully productive. 8/10.” 
Dan Brotzel, Press Association

Interrogating the role of Empire in everything from the artefacts in museum collections to the origins of our nation’s multiculturalism and racism, this clear-sighted book also manages to be empathetic and witty – testament to Sanghera’s extraordinary skill in telling this complex story. It should be on every school’s reading list.” 
Harper’s Bazaar

EmpireLand could not be more prescient… a good primer on on the history of migration to Britain… nuanced…  incredibly important. Copies should not only be inside every school and public library in the UK, but its contents should be taught.” 
Harry Taylor, The Camden New Journal

As Sathnam Sanghera argues in his timely Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain, the collective amnesia over the nation’s often-dark colonial past underpins the jingoism that helped spawned policy disasters from Suez to Brexit. With luck, the book can be part of the solution… meticulously sourced…  powerful… Sanghera’s uncompromising assessment will certainly face disapproval, especially from those who regard criticism of empire as somehow unpatriotic. But a long, hard look at such a formative period is way overdue. The twin traumas of Brexit, with its related fantasy of reviving colonial links to replace trade with the EU, and the coronavirus pandemic, with its outsize impact on non-white Britons, are two pressing reasons to clamber onto the psychiatrist’s couch. Empireland provides another.
Ed Cropley, Reuters BreakingViews

“The legacy of Europe’s empires is so bound into our society that trying to remove their influence upon us is as futile a task as attempting to remove the egg from a baked cake, to borrow an analogy that the author and Times writer Sathnam Sanghera uses in Empireland. As he superbly chronicles, the legacy of the British empire is everywhere you look. Perhaps most fittingly of all, the word “loot” is itself appropriated from the Hindi word “lut”: the spoils of war. Although Empireland is the product of wide reading rather than original research, it is a fantastic introduction for anyone who wants to learn more about the British empire. Sanghera shares his knowledge without pretension or affectation. He also has a peerless eye for a killer fact and a great story.” 
Stephen Bush, The New Statesman

“There is something to be said for authors who approach the topic [of empire] in the spirit of engaged curiosity rather than didactic declamation… Sanghera is a deft synthesist who sifts through mounds of historical treatises and alights on visceral, often shocking details… The British Empire was vast, bureaucratic and longlasting – so much so that it can feel abstract, hard to fully grasp. But Sanghera has a talent for tangibility… At the same time, he never talks down to his readers, discussing both the slipperiness of his subject (“historians agree that empire was both unplanned and a nebulous construct”) and highlighting key historiographical debates.”
Sukhdev Sandhu, The Times Literary Supplement

“Even if you think you know this country’s history well, Empireland is a stunning and thought-provoking read. Sathnam Sanghera’s new bestseller resists the temptation to take anachronistic shots at the brutality and greed of Britain’s imperial history or to puff its achievements. Instead he does something much harder and more interesting. He highlights the empire’s hidden influence, positive and negative, on modern Britain: our politics, culture, education, ethnic make-up, language. Indeed our whole sense of place and being. The empire was one of the biggest things in world history, he writes. It has shaped the lives of billions of people. The least we can do is to think about it.”
Edward Lucas, The Times

Empireland is clever, extremely thoughtful and surprisingly understanding even towards the kind of people whose attitudes Sanghera condemns. His explanation of British racism is full of insight and pretty much unanswerable. This book should be on the compulsory reading list of every secondary school in the country, because it explains modern Britain in ways that no other writer can. I think it is an essential element in the essential effort to come to terms, finally, with Britain’s colonial past — and move on. It was also very enjoyable to read. I can’t praise it highly enough.” 
John Simpson, BBC journalist

Empireland is a vital investigation. In the stammering words of a character named Whisky Sisodia in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses: “The trouble with the Engenglish is that their hiss-hiss-history happened overseas, so they do- do-don’t know what it means.” It’s the perfect epigraph for the book, which stands apart from most volumes on the merits and demerits of the British empire because it is cast as a personal journey of understanding… The result is an extremely readable and well-researched book that seeks to explain, among other things, the country’s sense of exceptionalism when dealing with Brexit and the pandemic; the position of the City of London as one of the world’s major financial centres; the wealth of its richest families and institutions; and the state of its grand country houses and museums.”
Sanjay Sipahimalani, Money Control

This remarkable book shines the brightest of lights into some of the darkest and most misunderstood corners of our shared history. As urgent as it is illuminating, Sanghera drives a coach and horses through the ludicrous but increasingly popular notion that wanting a proper public understanding of all aspects of British and Imperial history is somehow unpatriotic or ‘anti-British’.” 
James O’Brien

This is the book I had long thought of writing. Sanghera has produced a terrific sweep through the legacy of empire and it should be required reading on every school history course. He achieves a good balance between ensuring the reader learns a lot and yet doesn’t get overwhelmed by the scale of the subject. This is the quick, deep dive.” 
Madeleine Bunting, in her selection of Top 10 books about the aftermath of empire, for The Guardian

Empireland is an utterly fascinating journey...  For many British Asians who feel a strong connection to their heritage, Empireland exposes things you will wish you had learnt at school. What is particularly extraordinary about the book is how densely packed it is with thorough research and quotes… This thoroughly engaging and incredibly important book must be read by everyone…. enlightening and transformative. This remarkable work should be included in school curricula… [it] will undoubtedly continue to improve the understanding of future generations and perhaps even shape them.
Eastern Eye

The subject is timely. With statues being tossed in rivers and the National Trust accused of going woke, it feels as if the Right regards the past as the repository of civilisation and the Left sees it as a closet packed with skeletons of dead racists, but the reality of the British Empire, says Sathnam Sanghera, was infinitely more complex…. The cultural treasures looted by Britain, now sitting in our museums, were recognised by contemporaries for what they were: booty….  I am sold on the larger part of Sanghera’s thesis, that the empire could be rotten and we don’t know enough about it…. a lot of what Sanghera documents is news to me… Sanghera’s point, I guess, is that we are unconscious citizens of Empireland: empire made us, whether we realise it or not. He might be correct… The history is on Sanghera’s side. The facts speak for themselves.  
Tim Stanley, The Daily Telegraph

“Sathnam Sanghera’s new book should be mandatory reading in schools across Britain… The British author objectively addresses the lasting influence of imperialism… an urgent and remarkable book… levity is found throughout Empireland… And yet the breezy, sometimes baffled tone never belittles what Sanghera calls the “wilfully white supremacist and occasionally genocidal” aspect of Britain’s imperial past… There is a brilliant chapter about “selective amnesia”… It’s a deeply personal – moving, even – reflection of the country he lives in, which could start as many conversations about the continued corrupting influence of the British Empire.”
Ben East, The National

“Marvellous… terrific and very important.” 
Simon Schama

May I humbly commend #EmpireLand by @Sathnam?
Hugh Laurie

“Couldn’t be more timely, or eloquent, or needed.”
Meera Syal

“A wonderful, wonderful book.”
David Lammy

“Sathnam Sanghera presents penetrating glimpses of the rarely perceived obvious about Britain’s history & modern multicultural reality. As uncomfortable as it is enlightening. And a lot for Australians to reflect on too.”
Malcolm Turnbull, 29th Prime Minister of Australia – 2015 -2018

Lucid but never simplistic; entertaining but never frivolous; intensely readable while always mindful of nuance and complexity – Empireland takes a perfectly-judged approach to its contentious but necessary subject.” 
Jonathan Coe

In this witty and multi-faceted portrait of our nation, the award-winning journalist and novelist looks with great acuity at how the Empire wrought contemporary Britain; from the attitudes of our politicians and our response to Covid-19, to the words we use daily without appreciating their colonial origin. How is it, he asks, that despite the ubiquitous evidence of imperialism in our lives, we still so often refuse to acknowledge it, let alone teach it in schools?
Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller

Sathnam Sanghera’s nuanced, witty and evidence-driven book explains how we arrived where we are as a country. It celebrates our triumphs and interrogates our faults. A useful antidote to those pushing culture wars, Empireland should be read with an open mind by all of us educated in this country – as we have only really ever had a limited perspective of what it means to be British and the impact of the British Empire. I only wish this book has been around when I was at school.
Sadiq Khan

“Brilliant.
William Dalrymple 
“My book of the year so far… a really thoughtful, deeply-researched & elegantly written look at the legacy of empire in the UK
Gideon Rachman, FT columnist 
“A masterpiece.
Peter Frankopan, Professor of Global History at Oxford,  author of Silk Roads
 
“Perceptive… relevant…  nuanced… immersive… Each of the chapters is an article flowing freely yet standing separately from the last. The tongue-in-cheek writing helps one engage with a book that draws out skeletons from the closet… without leaving you with a sense of moroseness. It is an honest account that is neither apologetic nor gloating.”  
Rai Mahimapat Ray, The Indian Express 
“Just about everyone I know is talking about empire and that’s because of Empireland… It feels like a huge step. Three generations, both sides of my family, all reading and talking about the same book. The last time this happened was Watership Down.” 
Nina Stibbe 

Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland is an absorbing, sober and witty reflection on the ways in which its imperial past has shaped so much of modern British life – its politics, education, culture and language, and, of course, its ethnic composition. Meticulously researched, it is an indispensable book for confronting colonial amnesia and shallow post-imperial jingoism, and the racism which typically lurks beneath.”
Sudhir Hazareesingh, Winner of the Wolfson History prize for Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture 

“Tremendous… nuanced and considered exploration of the imperial legacy of modern Britain… His critics so often – and so revealingly – fail to grasp that as a British, Cambridge graduate columnist for The Times, Sathnam is not attacking “their” history but exploring what is unequivocally his own.” 
Hugo Rifkind, The Times 
“Superlative… an even-handed yet revelatory account of how the British Empire (quite naturally) has shaped our history, perceptions, understanding of the world. Everyone should read it.” 
Lewis Goodall, BBC Newsnight 
Fascinating and timely… deeply personal… meticulously researched… passionately argued. Sanghera sets out his convincing arguments in a series of chapters examining how various aspects of empire have left an indelible effect on every aspect of British life and culture.. Despite it clearly being the product of extensive academic research, the book is never dull, often humorous, and held my interest throughout…  nuanced, fair-minded and extremely readable”
Jeff Halden, On:YorkshireMagazine

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?”
G. Sampath, The Hindu

“A great book.”
Will Hutton, political economist and writer