Anna Kent reviews Charlotte Lydia Riley’s Imperial Island: A History of Empire in Modern Britain (London: Bodley Head, 2023)


Imperial Island is an engaging book that shows the great power that historical research can wield. Changing understandings of what Empire was, and in some ways still is, is important to the understanding of contemporary Britain. With this reality as the foundation of the work, historian Charlotte Lydia Riley has produced a deeply researched, archive-rich and thorough analysis of Britain, starting with the Second World War and ending with the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

Riley traces the arrival in Britain of immigrants from various parts of the Empire, and charts the lives and challenges of these British citizens. It is this point, that these are not immigrants from foreign lands but rather British citizens taking up the opportunities that being part of the Empire affords them, which runs as an undercurrent throughout the book. The author highlights the racism to which non-white immigrants were subjected. She also looks at what is happening in these former British colonies and dominions that has led to immigration to Britain, and the ways in which the Empire itself is disintegrating. Significantly, Riley also notes that in spite of nominal independence ‘many white settlers living in the dominions felt culturally and emotionally bound to their motherland.’ (p.27) This juxtaposition – white settlers in dominions feeling bound to Britain, and non-white immigrants in Britain being made to feel unwelcome in the ‘motherland’ – is highlighted throughout the book.

Dire Straits (Wikipedia)

From the so-called Windrush Generation (a problematic conception that Riley interrogates), to post-independence migrations of Kenyan and Ugandan Asians (as they were known), and others, these cultural and migration groups each faced different issues once in Britain. Riley tells these stories from an incredible foundation of research, across archival documents, newspapers, pop culture and more. These elements are all woven together to provide a readable and enjoyable narrative, with insight and depth. The use of these ‘alternate’ sources provided me as a reader with delights – for example I learnt about the origins of a Dire Straits song I heard much in my childhood, and I was thrilled to see Adrian Mole (or more correctly, Sue Townsend) being quoted in the chapter about the 1980s which discusses the Falklands War at length. Riley also uses the Mass Observation tool, which offers historians of Britian an excellent (and enviable) insight into the thoughts of ‘everyday’ Britons at various times, and in relation to a multitude of events.

This broad range of research gives the book real nuance. This is not just a story of immigration, or race and racism, or culture, or foreign policy. It is a book about all of these things, all at once. Without bashing you over the head with it, Riley is able to make it clear that these things – pop music, journalism, politics, war and more – are all connected. And they are all connected to the story of Britain’s Empire and its aftermath.

The book also discusses these issues from a number of perspectives. By telling the story of the racism faced by many of these migrants, as well as the many anti-racist and community building activities that were also occurring, we are able to see these ‘characters’ as active participants in the development of society in Britain – not tearing the social fabric but helping to weave it. She tells the stories of the subjects of race riots and violence, such as the experiences of the owners of the Taj Mahal café (a Pakistani man and his white wife), which was at the centre of violent protests by white Britons in 1961. Also documented is the ‘more insidious’ day to day racism that was faced by Black and Asian Britons, and their responses. This includes the ‘first Black-led labour campaign in Britain’ that was working to disrupt the colour bar used in employment at a Bristol Bus Company in 1963. (p.151)

There are moments in the book when historical discussion feels like contemporary conversation. The use of deportation or visa cancellation to deal with perceived criminality is located in a chapter about the 1960s and 1970s but feels like it could have been taken from a newspaper today. And the author’s discussion of virginity testing of female migrants evokes disgust, but also recognition that the current government in Britain (and Australia and other nations for that matter) continues to do terrible things in the name of ‘protecting borders’.

If there is something missing from this book it is the theme of money. The end of the formal British Empire is linked to the economics of maintaining an Empire, and for colonies in the Pacific and elsewhere, which became independent very late in the piece, this was an important impetus for their independence. How much this financial commitment, and the realities of it, was understood in Britain would have added something to this otherwise excellent book.

When I started reading this book, I was struck by a sensation that I also felt when I read How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr – this book is really important, and when can we have the Australian version? This is in part because of the way in which Riley elucidates the fact that ‘British history and imperial history cannot be separated.’ (p. 279) Australia’s history as a coloniser is part of Australian history, and it should be understood as such. Perhaps as Australians we need a book like Riley’s to illuminate that reality.

Anna Kent
Anna Kent

Dr Anna Kent’s new book, Mandates and Missteps analyses the role of Australian government scholarships in the Pacific between 1948 and 2018. Anna researches the history of international education and the intersections between education and foreign policy.