Review of Empireworld by Sathnam Sanghera – examining the paradoxes of colonialism.
In the early 1730s, there was a popular trend in Georgian Britain where people subscribed to receive a special box of seeds from “Bartram’s box” for five guineas per year. This box contained seeds from a variety of North American plants, and was highly sought after by plant enthusiasts and gardeners. The supply chain for these seeds involved two Quakers: John Bartram, based in Pennsylvania, and Peter Collinson, an English merchant.
The expensive phlox and rudbeckia that we purchase from garden centers in an attempt to add color to our outdoor spaces, as well as the rhododendrons and magnolias that catch our eye on even the dreariest of streets, were originally brought to England by the efforts of Collinson and Bartram. Their list of subscribers included high-ranking members of society who competed to enhance their estates, but they also had connections outside of the elite circles. Collinson was a part of the Royal Society and corresponded with collector Hans Sloane and botanist Carl Linnaeus. Bartram later became a founding member of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, alongside Benjamin Franklin. With their impressive social and intellectual networks, Bartram was appointed as botanist to King George III in 1765 and his plants were also given a home in the Royal Gardens at Kew.
In Empireworld, Sathnam Sanghera chronicles the intertwined stories of Bartram and Kew, providing a complex and nuanced portrayal of the impact of the British empire on our world. This account is keenly aware of the contradictions inherent in its narrative. For instance, while advancements in technology allowed for the transportation of plants and seeds that transformed the English landscape and advanced modern plant science, they also fueled the mass cultivation of crops like indigo, sugar cane, and rubber, which in turn shaped the fates of countless enslaved and indentured laborers on British-owned plantations around the globe. This pursuit of profit and expansion also led to widespread ecological destruction, prompting the need for conservation efforts and environmental activism. The consequences of these actions are still evident today and have also greatly influenced global communication and cuisine.
Britain’s colonial ambitions had a far-reaching impact, not just on the world of plants but also on non-governmental organizations and charities. Sanghera explains that this same dynamic is evident in the realm of hunting, where the pursuit of imperial masculinity led to the endangerment of various animal species globally. However, it also sparked the creation of numerous charities and the establishment of environmental protections. Sanghera reminds us that history is not a simple balance sheet and that sometimes we must hold opposing truths in our minds. Both nations and individuals are capable of both great good and evil, and this complexity can complicate our understanding of what is considered right or wrong. In fact, actions that are deemed evil may ultimately lead to positive outcomes, and vice versa.
Sanghera approaches the conflicting aspects of the empire’s history with caution, acknowledging the potential backlash he may face as the author. His latest book, Empireworld, can be seen as a continuation of his earlier work, Empireland, in which he faced criticism and personal attacks for discussing the role of imperialism in shaping Britain’s past and present. In the first chapter, Sanghera addresses this backlash and revisits it several times throughout the book. However, he ultimately strives to shed light on the intricacies of historical evaluation with meticulous clarity, highlighting the intertwined nature of both positive and negative impacts of the empire.
The spread of British laws and political systems serves as an example. In modern-day Mauritius, Nigeria, and India, many of the strict and divisive government structures, designed to enforce and maintain the dominance of certain social groups at the expense of others, have origins in colonialism. It is commendable that Empireworld acknowledges this uncomfortable reality instead of ignoring it.