Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera

I’ve been reading a lot of books on culture and racism recently. The thing that surprises me the most is how much I still don’t know; in every book I’ve learned something that feels like a slap in the face with a wet haddock: something you know you’ll experience one day, and that you won’t enjoy it.

Sanghera’s book takes a slightly different approach to the likes of Caste as it focuses on the Asian experience, and is similar to Natives as it takes a long, hard, painful look at the British Empire and its contribution to the divisions we see in society today.

It’s a broad-ranging piece of writing too, covering the author’s own experiences growing up, but focussing mainly on the hidden history of Britain’s time in India and China, and its treatment of the population.

I had no idea that the British invaded China to force them to open their country to opium trading, which leads me to one small criticism of the book: I don’t think it went into enough depth about the mysterious East India Trading Company, which appeared to operate as both a private import/export enterprise – and the double zero branch of MI6. That might be unfair though: covering the East India Trading Company would probably need an encyclopaedia on its own.

Empireland is an excellent read, bringing home the tragedy and sheer arrogance of the nation at the time. The book tells the story without too much emotion, yet still manages to bring a sense of resignation through a very subtle dark humour. If I could pick one small part that illustrates the point, then I’d probably go with this:

Just as the experience of the Indian Uprising created the need for notices in Indian hotels that read ‘Gentlemen are requested not to strike the servants,’ and just as such attitudes led in 1903 to the cricketer and writer Cecil Headlam advising that ‘You must be very careful how you hit a man in India it is best to carry a cane and administer rebuke upon the calves and shins, which are tender and not usually mortal’

I mean … the entitlement … Jesus Christ …

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