When anti-racism protesters threw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour in June 2020, it reignited the ongoing debate about how Britain should deal with its colonial history.
Presenter and writer Sathnam Sanghera has certainly become increasingly aware of just how much the topic is on people’s minds. He says: “When I started thinking about this subject four years ago, the way imperialism has shaped modern Britain was an esoteric concern. But publication of my book Empireland this year has taught me that there’s massive interest in the question of how colonialism influences us.
“It’s an issue that seems to exercise and enrage politicians, teachers, academics, pundits, think tanks, talk show hosts and students all over the nation.”
Now, he’s bringing the debate to Channel 4 with the two-part documentary Empire State of Mind, which looks set to explode some of the myths and misunderstandings of colonial history, while also exploring the ways in which it has shaped 21st-century Britain.
Channel 4 certainly believes that Sathnam has something new to add to the debate. Shaminder Nahal, Commissioning Editor at Channel 4 says: “What empire means to us now is such a vital subject, and so hotly contested – but I don’t think anyone else is articulating how empire has shaped pretty much everything about Britain now including – and most surprisingly – our state of mind, the way we think and feel about so much.”
In this opening episode, Sathnam begins his personal journey in his hometown of Wolverhampton. While there, he visits the house where his parents lived after arriving from India in 1967 – a year later, the local MP Enoch Powell would deliver his infamous Rivers of Blood speech, strongly criticising immigration.
Sathnam hears from a variety of political voices as he examines attitudes to race, and the degree to which they are influenced by notions of empire and British exceptionalism.
One of the people the presenter speaks to is the writer Alex Renton, who recently discovered that his ancestors were involved in in West Indian slavery. This leads Sathnam to reflect on whether the conversation surrounding Britain and the slave trade is changing.
He also looks at this own background, and the way it has influenced his attitudes. He believes his Sikh heritage meant that he grew up with a somewhat rose-tinted view of empire – Sikhs were largely loyal to the British during the time of empire and signed up in great numbers to fight in the First World War.
However, a trip to Brighton, were many wounded Sikhs and other Indian soldiers were sent to recover, reveals that their loyalty was often not repaid. While some people may like to think things have changed since then, Sathnam asks whether history is repeating itself.
He draws on the example of Fiji, a former British colony, which provides more soldiers to the British army than any other Commonwealth country. Yet many former soldiers from Fiji, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, are now facing a fight to remain in the UK.
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