“Isn't that where they got the Koh-i-Noor diamond from?,” Afua Hirsch, host of the startling six-part Audible series We Need to Talk About the British Empire, asks of the Indian region where her guest on episode one Anita Rani’s family hails from. “I read about that in history.”
Rani deadpans, “Some would say it was gifted”; the Koh-i-Noor diamond now sits among the British crown jewels. Rani’s line evidences the reason for this provocatively titled podcast: There is the history you’re told about from a certain (British) perspective and then there’s the reality on the foreign soil of empire.
This series, arriving in Brexit year, seems timely. Hirsh gives its raison d’etre: “Many Britons, in generations past and present, have felt great pride in the history of the empire and the role it played in making this small island a major player in the world stage. But a new generation is beginning to realise that the legacy of the British empire is far more complex.”
We in Ireland have our own relationship with Britain, but it is eye-opening and upsetting hearing about India, the “crown jewel of empire”, Somaliland, the “Cinderella of empire”, and Hong Kong, where empire had its last vestiges. Hirsch narrates the podcast through interviews with guests including actors such as Diana Rigg, best known as Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones; and musicians such as Emma-Lee Moss aka Emmy The Great. The interviewees, like Britain itself in 2020, seem a little unsure of their own past, and wrestle with that of empire’s.
Experts add authority to the horror wreaked on colonies and their people by the supposed saviours from England. The partition of India in 1947 is particularly shocking, split, as it was, down religious grounds and thus creating Bangladesh and Pakistan. Dr Deena Heath explains: “Partition, to me, is one of the greatest tragedies in modern human history, I can never talk about it without getting upset because it was so unnecessary.”
We Need to Talk About the British Empire is fascinating, informative, and compelling. There are plenty of other stories left to tell about the British empire so hopefully there are more series in the works.
The Telegraph has launched Crossfire, a series looking to explain the “untold story of the Russia-Trump scandal, revealed by those who saw it first hand”. It’s a cross-continental story of espionage worth of John Le Carré. Four episodes are out already (episode one streaming below).