Ten Cities That Made an Empire
Review: Portraits of 10 cities by Tristram Hunt, the British Labour politician, make for an ingenious approach to a familiar theme
Imperial partner: Dublin International Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, in 1865. photograph: sspl/getty
Ten Cities that Made an Empire
At the close of the first World War, in 1918, the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe and ruled over almost a quarter of the world’s population. Within 50 years it had almost entirely dissolved, to be succeeded by new “national” states. The question of what Britain’s role in the world ought to be in the aftermath of empire remains a live and contentious issue in British political debate. Coming to terms with the historical legacy of long centuries of empire is a central crux of this debate, an aspect of which is the vexed issue of what a “national curriculum” in history ought to mean in the multicultural society that is present-day Britain.
Tristram Hunt’s concern in this absorbing book is not with providing a balance sheet of empire (on moral or other grounds) or with reaching a verdict about whether the British Empire was a good or a bad thing, for the rulers or the ruled. Instead he explores the theme of empire through portraits of 10 imperial cities, from the Americas to the Far East, following chronologically the fortunes of the British Empire from the late-18th-century crisis that resulted in the loss of the American colonies to the relentless extension of the British reach in the east throughout the 19th century. It is an ingenious approach to a familiar theme and is accomplished with impressive panache.
Hunt’s imperial urban gallery comprises three cities of the old Atlantic empire (Boston, Bridgetown and Dublin), six from the empire of the east (Kolkata, Cape Town, Mumbai, Hong Kong, Melbourne and New Delhi) and the exemplar of the imperial homeland, Liverpool. There is a common structure to the chapters. A short scene-setting section, cross-cutting acute observations from a range of historical witnesses with an encapsulating statement of the current condition of each city, is followed by a richly documented account of the foundation and development of each to its high imperial moment, before concluding with a brief signpost to the next city for review.
The approach is premised on the proposition that “from Dublin to Melbourne, the British Empire had asserted its colonial vision through the civic fabric of its cities: this was the canvas upon which the ideology of empire could be painted. In architectural styling, city planning, and urban iconography the shifting meanings of the imperial project were explored.”
Hunt explores these shifting meanings, geographically and across time, with an assured command not only of the physical and aesthetic aspects of imperial urban development but also of its cultural assumptions and social mores.