Certain historians and politicians like to claim that the British Empire was “on balance” a good thing. Slavery was evil, they admit, but abolition was good; racism was wrong, but free markets are desirable.
In his new book Empireworld, journalist and historian Sathnam Sanghera rejects this “balance sheet” reading of history in order to wrestle with the contradictory legacies of imperialism. But does the obvious complexity of this history really make it impossible to make any moral claims about the empire overall?
Eleanor Penny finds out, asking Sathnam about the interpretation of historical legacies, how Britain exported racism around the world, the impulse to “civilise” foreign subjects, and the lesser understood ecological impacts of empire, from national parks to quinine production.
Empireworld: How British Imperialism Has Shaped the Globe, the follow-up to 2021’s bestselling Empireland, is available now.
Photograph by Chris Durlacher.