The British Empire is still controversial

The British Empire is a glorious achievement in the opinion of many, whilst others see it only in a negative way. A recent documentary Empire State of Mind by Sathnam Sanghera looked at it from the point of view of a British Asian. I was surprised, as he had been, at the amount of controversy his recent book Empireland created. It obviously touched a raw nerve, or several.

The British Empire is bound to be controversial

Of course, people have different experiences and attitudes which colour their opinions, but I am sad that we cannot debate the subject more rationally. I do not agree with everything Sathnam said in the documentary, but I think we need to consider all his points. We should not reject any before we think about them, or accept all without question. His main point was that the Empire gave rise to both multiculturalism and to racialism. He also showed many of the less glorious aspects of that empire. He did not deny all the positive things.

What do we know about the British Empire?

In the documentary, many interviewees showed a lack of knowledge about the Empire. Many schools do not teach about it, or teach only the certain aspects of it. Some emphasise the abolition of slavery, whilst understating the extent to which slavery was the basis of Britain’s wealth and power. Schools seldom taught or even discussed the connection between empire and immigration. I have previously stated my opinion on Black History.

What do I disagree with about his view of the British Empire?

Firstly, I believe racism is a phenomenon we can see in countries which have never had an empire. I include countries which we once ruled in Africa and Asia, as tribalism is one manifestation of racism. It also exists in Eastern Europe. However, I do accept that the empire has affected our British view of ourselves and the rest of the world. It has therefore given a particular flavour to British racism.

What aspect of the British Empire do I defend?

There is a long list, but I will contest one claim in the documentary. Railways! I do not accept that they benefitted only the British. I believe they helped develop the economies of the relevant countries. I also believe they changed the social structure by building up the town and hence the native middle classes, thus weakening the rural feudal aristocracy which opposed change and was at least as oppressive as the British.

What do I know about the British Empire?

I did learn quite a lot in school. Mine must have been more progressive than many. In addition, when I was young we still had an empire and I knew a number of people who had worked in it. These were mostly professionals or businessmen, rather than rulers. Most were patronising towards the natives they had encountered, not hostile, like many racists today. Many believed they were doing good as well as making money. I think some were sincere.

Will I be writing about the British Empire?

Probably. I have several works in progress at present, but I do intend to write about an engineer building railways in India. I did know one. I wrote a few short stories based on him and his wife – a true ‘memsahib’. They are in Geoffrey’s Historical Shorts. I may write some more shorts before I produce the novel set in India. I’ll let you know.

The cover of Geoffrey's Historical Shorts. There are some stories set in the British Empire.

There are some stories set in the British Empire.