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Author Sathnam Sanghera on his book 'Empireland'


The prime minister of Britain, Rishi Sunak, was born in Southampton to Hindu parents of Indian Punjabi descent who were born in Southeast Africa and immigrated to Britain. A lot of history - Indian, British, African, empire - is packed into that one sentence. Author and journalist Sathnam Sanghera believes that Britain and the rest of the world should learn more of it. His new book, "Empireland," has been acclaimed in Britain and just published in the United States. Sathnam Sanghera joins us now from London. Thank you so much for being with us.


SIMON: You've got an opening chapter added for and addressing U.S. readers, which says - if I might paraphrase - just because you guys rebelled against the British Empire in 1776 doesn't mean the story doesn't apply to you. How so?

SANGHERA: Yeah, I mean, America likes to think of itself as anti-colonial, but America itself is a creation of the British Empire. You know, the 13 colonies were a distinct phase of British colonialism. The Puritans who ended up on your side of the Atlantic, you know, they were escaping religious persecution, but they were British. And, you know, the enslaved who ended up in America did so largely due to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which the British Empire dominated. Britain's racist imperialism also inspired America's own racist imperialism. You know, in 1899, you had Theodore Roosevelt talking about how the colonization of India had done great things for the English character; if we do as well in the Philippines, in the West Indies, it'd be good for us, too. So I think to understand American history, you really do have to understand British Empire as well.

SIMON: Yeah. A good portion of the book is phrased as a personal journey. You're from a Sikh family, grew up in Wolverhampton. And I wrote down your words - (reading) having faced up to how Britain has shaped and defined my life in deep ways, I had never realized - I can't help but wonder - how imperialism may have shaped modern Britain itself.

What have you observed?

SANGHERA: British Empire explains so much about Britain. It explains not just our multiculturalism. The reason I'm in England and talking to you now is 'cause some white people invaded India several centuries ago. Similar - explains Rishi Sunak as well. But it also explains our particular brand of racism, explains a lot of our politics - things like Brexit - explains our language, explains our success in the world wars, explains our businesses. And yet we don't really teach it. And I think the world has a better sense of British Empire than the British people themselves.

SIMON: You trace through the several stages of imperialism from the plantations in Caribbean and North America to the British takeover of the East India Company. And then, finally, Britain, of course, abolished its trade in slavery in the 1800s. But you caution your countrymen, don't be too proud of that.

SANGHERA: Yeah. I mean, I think the legacy of the racism is something British people are not particularly aware of. I mean, the racist violence was imported straight into Britain in the 1950s and '60s and '70s. Brown people were beaten up almost for a sport - came straight from empire - and equally, the discrimination in jobs. But in pubs - you know, there were certain pubs when I was growing up that you just didn't go into if you're brown. And the wild racial stereotypes, you know, the idea that, you know, Sikhs were good fighters; West Indians were good workers, or, you know, equally, Black people were lazy - all these racial generalizations came from empire.

SIMON: I say this as someone who admires your book and as a reporter in India - India still unofficially has a caste system. Empires are not unique to Britain. Many existed across what we now know as modern-day Africa, South America and the Middle East. Their empires were not nearly as large as the European powers. But are you holding British history to a higher measure?

SANGHERA: I don't think so. I think British Empire matters in particular 'cause it was the biggest empire in human history, you know? It covered a quarter of the planet. And I think it also matters because I think the level of denial in Britain is really quite profound. And I think there's very little awareness in public culture about what British Empire involved. I think that's why it needs particular attention.

SIMON: You note many times in the book, though, that there was always a lot of opposition to imperialism within Britain, from prominent Britons - Prime Minister Gladstone, Orwell.

SANGHERA: Queen Victoria sometimes, yeah.

SIMON: Yeah.

SANGHERA: You know, there's an idea in - at the moment that, you know - in Britain that you mustn't criticize British history 'cause doing so is unpatriotic. But you're right. There's a proud tradition of opposing empire right from the beginning, you know - people like Gladstone, Queen Victoria, objecting to the excesses of the British army in China. Opposing empire, it was just a proud and a British imperial legacy as all the other things that these people are proud of like the railways and, you know, defying the caste system and so on.

SIMON: Yeah. What does it say in Britain today that the prime minister, Rishi Sunak - Conservative Party and a Hindu - the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan - liberal party and a Muslim. Racism is certainly real, but does it suggest Britain has a capacity for something better, too?

SANGHERA: Yeah, absolutely. I think things have improved a huge amount in our lifetime. And it's undeniably a great thing that Rishi Sunak is prime minister, a brown person. I never thought it would happen. But at the same time, you know, his political party are - have embarked on this culture war arguing that, you know, woke people, like me, should be silenced. And so it feels like brown people can make it to the very top in Britain, but once they get there, they have to act like nothing needs to change.

Unfortunately, almost all the brown people at the top of British politics all have the same views about race, which is just not natural. And I've talked to people in the Conservative Party, brown people, who say that, you know, they feel like they can't bring their full selves to their careers. And that means that we've still got a lot of work to do when it comes to race and our history of imperialism.

SIMON: Sathnam Sanghera, his book "Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain." Thank you so much for being with us.

SANGHERA: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.