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Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain, by Sathnam Sanghera

empire land book review
R P Fernando
Written by R P Fernando

Empireland has been widely praised and has reached the bestseller lists. As an immigrant from Sri Lanka (once part of the British Empire), I consider much of this book illuminating. But the author focuses entirely on the deplorable episodes of the British raj. Whatever good Britain achieved is ignored. This is an extraordinary argument.

Sathnam Sanghera’s book has been published to explore how Britain has been shaped by the empire. The author contends that most Britons know little about the British Empire and how much the country has been influenced by it. As an immigrant from Sri Lanka who arrived in Britain in 1963, I consider this a very laudable aim and much of the book is illuminating. The book gives valuable insights on how much Britain and British values have been influenced by Britain’s imperial past. Where I disagree with Mr Sanghera is that he considers that, when one assesses the legacy of the empire for the colonies, one cannot balance the positive and negative legacies and one must focus entirely on the deplorable episodes that took place, such as slavery and the Amritsar massacre. Whatever good that Britain might have achieved must be ignored. This is an extraordinary argument. No leader or government in history has done only praiseworthy deeds. All their actions are a combination of good and bad. Historians must assess both and judge their immediate and lasting consequences.

Just as most Britons are largely unaware of how the Empire benefitted Britain, they are equally unaware of how the Empire benefitted the colonies. Mr Sanghera’s book has thoroughly covered the former. This paper discusses the latter in relation to India. I shall concentrate on education, healthcare, justice, parliamentary democracy — though railways and archaeological research would be other important topics. In order to obtain a more objective viewpoint, I only quote Indian authors, who were knowledgeable in their field, and experienced the Empire at first hand.


Little is known about education in India before the British period. There are practically no documents or records. The sons of the wealthy were well-educated by private tutors. The rest were given a rudimentary education in reading, writing and arithmetic in schools attached to temples and mosques. Western schools, in which hundreds of pupils are taught a full curriculum encompassing arts and sciences, by trained teachers, were introduced by the British. The first modern school, the Calcutta Madrassah, was founded by Warren Hastings in 1780. This was followed by the Benares Sanskrit College established by Jonathan Duncan in 1791 and the Hindu College by the joint efforts of Chief Justice Hyde East and David Hare in 1816 in Calcutta. A more formal role in education, following a campaign by William Wilberforce and others, was given to the East India Company by the Charter Act of 1813 to ‘spend a sum of not less than 1 lac of rupees in each year and set apart and applied to the improvement of literature and the encouragement of the learned natives of India and for the introduction and promotion of science among the inhabitants of the British territories in India’.  This laid the foundation of a modern education system and for the first time an Indian authority had a legal duty educate the people.

The next milestone was Macaulay’s Minute in 1835 that the object of educational policy should be the spread of Western learning through the medium of the English language. This led to India having a national language, students able to use English text books and attend British universities and to enter all government departments. The next major development was Sir Charles Wood’s despatch of 1854. This created the Education Department, founded universities and established a network of graded schools all over India. The first three universities at Calcutta, Madras and Bombay were opened in 1857. For the first time, records were kept of the number of schools and pupils. The number of schools and colleges belonging to, maintained, or aided by the government increased from the original 3, to 8,058 by 1858, teaching 148,494 pupils. The total number of educational institutions increased further to 196,919 by 1918 teaching 7,948,068 pupils. At independence there were about 170,000 primary schools teaching 13 million pupils and 14,000 secondary schools teaching 3 million pupils. The first university was founded in Calcutta and by 1902 there were an additional four at Madras, Bombay, Allahabad and Lahore. At independence India had 19 universities with additional ones in Pakistan. India alone had 241,794 students at university at Independence. There were also over 350 Arts and professional colleges.

The lives of countless Indians were transformed by the introduction of modern education as described by Idris Ahmad, a Headmaster, in his book Britain in India in 1923: have we benefitted? (1923): ‘Of all the steps taken by the British Government for the benefit of Indians, the policy which it adopted of public instruction as a state duty, to all its subjects, is the greatest advantage it conferred on our country. None of the preceding Governments of India ever undertook or attempted the task of educating the whole Indian people, of whatever race, caste or creed. It was the British government which for the first time recognised the education of all classes as the most important duty of the State, and undertook to teach Indians the English language, with the view of rendering Western arts and sciences accessible to them, so that Indians should not lag behind other advanced nations of the world. In the course of 30 years between 1857 and 1887, five universities were established at Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Lahore and Allahabad; and schools and colleges were opened in all the important towns and villages. In ancient times education was confined to certain privileged castes. The depressed classes or the untouchables were absolutely debarred from all sorts of education. The blessing of knowledge was denied to them. This invidious distinction is generally observed even to this day, and in private schools, managers still object to the admission of low caste children in their schools and usually do not admit them. It was reserved for the British government to ignore all racial and social distinctions and to open the doors of public schools to the boys and girls of all classes of the Indian people, irrespective of race’.


The first hospital the British established was the Madras General Hospital in 1679. The Presidency General Hospital was established in Calcutta in 1796. Towards the end of the 18th century a hospital was provided for Indians in Calcutta. It had 218 in-patients and 4,443 out-patients in 1803.To fulfil the need for health professionals, the East India Company founded the Calcutta Medical College in 1835, the first institute of Western medicine in Asia. An early historical event was the first dissection of the human body (in modern times) by a Hindu, Pandit Madhusudan Gupta, in January 1836. The event aroused so much enthusiasm that a salute of guns was fired from Fort William in honour of the occasion. In the next few years, medical colleges were opened in Madras and Bombay.

A network of hospitals was set up throughout India and in 1854 the government took on the responsibility of supplying medicines and instruments and set up store depots in several places. The total number of government hospitals and dispensaries was about 1,200 in 1880 rising to 2,500 in 1902 treating 7.4m and 22m patients respectively. The history of vaccination can be traced to 1802 when a Superintendent of vaccination was appointed in India. In 1880, an act was passed for the compulsory vaccination of children in municipalities and cantonments. The proportion vaccinated at birth was 19.9% in 1880 and 39.1% in 1902. Formal public health began with the appointment of Sanitary Commissioners in five provinces in 1880. For the first time, registers of births and deaths and causes of deaths, such as cholera, small pox, plague, fevers, dysentery etc. were recorded. In 1917, there were 3,101 hospitals and dispensaries treating 35,830,499 patients in India. By 1937, there were over 35,000 qualified doctors working in 5,891 hospitals and dispensaries.

Idris Ahmad in the 1923 book mentioned above also discussed the improvements in healthcare during the British period: ‘Before the Crown assumed the government in 1858, much had been done to provide medical institutions for the relief of Indians, but it is in the last half century that progress has been most remarkable. In 1857, there were 142 civil hospitals and dispensaries at which 671,000 people were treated during the year. There were in the year 1917 some 4,638 hospitals and dispensaries maintained or assisted by the State at which 44 million persons are annually treated, of which almost a million are treated as in-patients who are allowed free-board, lodging and medicines and who are nursed by hospital servants. There are, besides, 1,000 private institutions, and about 900 special hospitals are maintained by the state for soldiers and the police, and by the railway companies for their servants. The number of Indian practitioners qualified in modern surgery and medicine is now more than twenty times as large as it was in 1857.The surgical work has been specially appreciated by the people and has their entire confidence, more than a million and a half operations are performed every year. One officer in the Punjab in a year did more than 1,700 operations for cataract, a common eye disease in India’.


The Indian justice system is based on the British model. The British introduced the concepts of the Rule of Law, Independent Judiciary and Equality under Law. In this section I will frequently quote the book English Law in India by A C Banerjee, who was a professor in Indian History in Calcutta University, and whose academic career spanned from the 1930s to the 80s. Before the British, all India’s rulers were despots, some good and some bad. It is with the advent of the British Empire that the notion that rulers had to govern within constraints specified by a set of laws first appeared. If they did not, people could take them to an independent court.

The Rule of Law was introduced in India by the Regulating Act of 1773. Professor Banerjee discusses the profound implications of this: ‘The Regulating Act of 1773 created a pattern of collective government (the Governor-General and Council) resembling the English cabinet system and introduced the English system of administration of justice by a King’s Court, i.e., the Supreme Court. This was the beginning of a system of checks and balances which was developed by later Parliamentary legislation and also by the growth of political and administrative conventions.’

Another aspect of British justice was the equality of justice and this has also been addressed by Professor Banerjee: ‘Though not directly connected with the question of social reform, it is necessary to mention in this connection the principle of equality before law which is one of the greatest gifts of English law to India. This principle was entirely unknown to Hindu Law and Muslim Law. Under Hindu Law the Brahmins enjoyed privileged treatment. Asoka is said to have offended them by introducing dandasamata (equality of punishment) and vyavahara-samata (equality of law). Under Muslim law the theological classes – the pirs and the ulema – were privileged persons. The idea that the same law applied to all persons irrespective of religion, caste or class was unknown in ancient or medieval India. It was introduced for the first time through the introduction of English law which made no distinction between Brahmins and Sudras, Hindus and Muslims’.

Professor Banerjee’s overall summary was: ‘Except in the case of the personal laws of the Muslims the entire legal system of India is based on English Law … While retreating from India, England has left behind a vast and enduring monument in a legal system which embodies the egalitarian and humanitarian values evolved during the nineteenth century’.

Parliamentary Democracy

Before the arrival of the British, all India’s rulers were despots, though some enlightened ones, such as Emperor Akbar, considered a spectrum of opinions in the country in his decision making. It is frequently said that self-government was promised during World War I, but that this promise was not kept. This is untrue. The promise relates to the declaration by Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, in October 1917, that responsible government (i.e. by Indians) was the goal of British policy. Far from breaking the promise, considerable steps were taken to set India on the path to self-government. Montagu came to India and discussed with British and Indian officials and judges and political leaders, such as Gandhi, and he and the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, published the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms in 1918 on how democracy could work in a complex country like India. The report advocated the need ‘to emancipate the local government from central control; and to advance, by successive stages, in the direction of conferring responsible government on the provinces’. They proposed a central government in Delhi with two chambers and provincial governments in the provinces. They specified which areas should be devolved. The key principles of responsible government, self-governance and the federal structure grew out of these reforms. It is not surprising that some refer to the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms as India’s Magna Carta.

These reforms were followed by the Government of India Act (1919). This led to India’s first national elections in 1920. The subjects most affecting the lives of Indians in the provinces, such as education, health and agriculture, were transferred to Indian ministers. British Governors still had the power of vetoing legislation, but, for the first time in India’s history, there were Indian ministers responsible to elected Indian legislators. Furthermore, some British civil servants were now working under Indian ministers. In addition to these reforms, Britain showed its gratitude to India by admitting Indians to the War Cabinet and to the Imperial Conference, which was the body including all the dominions. Mr S P Sinha was elevated to the peerage and appointed Under-Secretary of State for India. Indians were allowed to be officers in the army. Britain agreed to India to have its own seat at the League of Nations. A department was formed, the Reforms Department, whose role was to facilitate the transfer of power. A process was started, Indianisation, to increase the proportions of Indians in all government departments.  A new parliament building was built and opened in 1927 for the central legislature and the building is still the home of the Indian parliament.

The Government of India Act (1919) specified that situation would be reviewed in 10 years and that was done by the Simon Commission. Following their report and the Round Table Conferences in London, extensive powers were transferred by the Government of India Act (1935). Further powers were transferred to Indian Ministers in the provinces. The transferred powers included health, education, public order, agriculture, justice and public debt. Essentially, the internal governance of India was transferred to Indians with the Viceroy, at the centre, retaining foreign affairs, defence, communications and coins and currency. The 1935 Act contained the provisions to make India an independent dominion and, hence, India retained this Act as its constitution for 3 years after independence and Pakistan retained it for 9 years after independence. The new constitution of India, drawn up by Sir B N Rau, which is the one still in use, is largely based on the 1935 Act. Indian MPs today sit in a parliament building built by the British and function with the terms of a constitution which is also derived from British legislation.

The foundations of Indian parliamentary democracy were laid by the British and the benefits to India have been noted by V P Menon, a senior Indian civil servant, in his book Transfer of Power in India: ‘From 1765 when the East India Company took over the collection of revenues of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, the British had gradually built up in India an administrative and political system hitherto unknown. They brought about the consolidation and unity of the country they created an efficient administrative organization on an all-India basis it was they who, for the first time, introduced the rule of law and they left to India that most precious heritage of all, a democratic form of government. As long as there is an India, Britain’s outstanding contributions to this country continue to abide’.


For a fuller version of this review, see http://www.forgotten-raj.org/doc/Empireland.htm

About the author

R P Fernando

R P Fernando

The author was born in Sri Lanka and is a scientist with a first degree and doctorate from Cambridge. Extensive correspondence and some articles of his have been published in the national press in the UK and in Sri Lanka. He has published Selected Writings – W A de Silva (2009) and Buddhist Heritage in India and Sri Lanka – Rediscovery and Restoration (2017).