Of all the seismic images taken in the past, momentous year, the sight of British slave trader Edward Colston's statue being toppled into Bristol Harbour was surely one of the most hard-hitting. Not only did it reveal to a wider public the embarrassing truth about the darker elements of British history, but it also sparked a divisive culture war about the whole notion of celebrating the British Empire.
The events prompted Sathnam Sanghera to embark on another rewrite of his urgent new book Empireland, a remarkable look at how British imperialism has not only shaped the world, but also the way in which Britain still regards itself.
“I started out thinking this was stuff only I was interested in, but by the end of writing, it was on the news every day, which totally freaked me out,” he says, with a laugh. “The first time I’ve ever been relevant in my life. It was like being a fan of a really obscure pop star, and they turn out to be Britney Spears!”
Such levity is found throughout Empireland. There are countless vignettes in the book about the way in which the fundamentals of Britishness are, in fact, derived from the country's Empire, such as the fact that the archetypal image of sitting down to afternoon tea is really the story of a plant from China traded for opium grown in Bengal, and sweetened by sugar cultivated by African slaves on West Indian plantations.
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.
Empireland actually grew out of a documentary Sanghera made about the 1919 massacre by the British Indian Army of at least 379 unarmed civilians, who had gathered in peace at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in the Punjab region of India.
"To my shame, I knew barely anything about it," he says. Which might initially sound odd, given Sanghera's family are Sikhs from Punjab, but since he grew up in Wolverhampton wanting to play Nintendo, feeling as English as he did Asian, and never came into contact with an education system that offered much about the British Empire, why would he?
"It wasn't until my last term at university that I studied a single brown writer," he says. "My notions of India almost entirely came from western writers and western teachers, and I was kind of educated to look down on my ethnic heritage. I was brought up to believe I had the best education on the planet, but it probably took until I was about 44 to realise it was quite bad."
This idea, that deliberately or subconsciously, the British are not honest about the darker elements of the largest empire in history, is a key component of Empireland. There is a brilliant chapter about this "selective amnesia", as Sanghera puts it, which can find prominent politicians making major speeches about Britain's distinguished role as a beacon of liberty – without ever mentioning the reason why Colston was thrown into Bristol Harbour in the first place: because Britain facilitated and profited from the transportation of millions of slaves.
And what that lack of reckoning with the past does, says Sanghera, is instil this idea that the British still see themselves as exceptional – as Brexit and the continual promise of "world-beating" responses to the pandemic suggest. Which is fine, until you dare to point out the inconsistencies. Particularly if you're of Sanghera's heritage.
"As soon as I do, I'm told to go back to where I come from if I hate it so much, along with the demand I be more grateful," he says. "In general, being proud of the Empire is seen as being patriotic, it's a side of a culture war, like an extension of nationalism. But in Germany you can talk about the Holocaust and still be patriotic; in Japan, you can talk about Kamikaze pilots and still be patriotic.
“I’ve noticed that being brown and having a heritage where I was colonised means people think I’m going to be too emotional about this stuff or I’m woke. I’m not allowed to be unbiased, even though this book absolutely tries to navigate a path through the Empire, which gives it proper context.”
Context is exactly the right word. There is a section in Empireland in which Sanghera cites a survey that finds British expatriates in the UAE are the least integrated in their societies, the suggestion being that while British people – from the times of Empire to present day – have always loved the excitement, and romance even, of travelling and working abroad, they are not necessarily open-minded once they get there.
"It is positive, completely, that we're so internationalist," he says. "We travel and relocate like almost no other country on the planet. But we also have to recognise that when people come to this country, we expect them to integrate. And there's no such thing as a British immigrant, is there? All British people are expats. Immigrants are brown people. Massive hypocrisy, really." Particularly since many black and Asian people in Britain were either invited to work in the country or enter as citizens. It's the closest Sanghera gets in our conversation – which is funny and full of the anecdotes that make this book such a joy to read – to anger. It's because he's infuriated that this myopia prevents people from understanding Britain is actually a multicultural society – and has been for centuries – because it had a multicultural empire. "It makes our national conversations about race tragic and absurd," he says.
In an ideal world, Empireland would be a set text in the education system that Sanghera says failed him so badly – simply because it refuses to reduce imperial history to a matter of good or bad. 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 as the statue of Colston.
"There are signs of progress," says Sanghera. "People have learnt more about imperialism through these campaigns than they would have done at school.
“For me personally, though, I feel like I’m deep into a very long marriage. I’m just beginning to realise that my partner is complicated, there’s some dark history there – and just because there’s darkness and awkwardness in a relationship, it doesn’t mean you love them any less. I just feel like I understand my home nation better.”