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

Imperial partner: Dublin International Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, in 1865. photograph: sspl/getty

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
Ten Cities that Made an Empire


Tristram Hunt

Allen Lane

Guideline Price:

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.

Local circumstances and the timing of the British expansionist impulse produced strong particularities of urban culture in each of the cities. Race and colour mattered. In the centres of white settlement, where the natives were overwhelmed or reduced to virtual invisibility, an emergent colonial identity was a product of complex factors.

In the case of Boston, after independence “the imperial city transformed itself into a revolutionary citadel”. Bridgetown, capital of Barbados, built on slavery and sugar, retained its essentially British colonial character up to, and for some commentators beyond, its independence, in 1966.

Dublin’s inclusion in the imperial gallery rests on Hunt’s conclusion that, notwithstanding Ireland’s multiple complexities, of status and identity, within the British imperial world, “the Palladian designs, the iconography and the rhetoric show that Georgian Dublin was much more a robust expression of imperial affinity than Irish nationalism”. Following the convulsions of the 1790s and throughout the Union era, Ireland was “transformed from a problem to a partner in imperialism”.

Australia’s British origins

Unlike the US colonists, Australia’s white settlement did not find in revolt against the mother country a freedom myth of destiny for a new nation. “Australia fair” – and certainly Melbourne – developed its sense of itself in the culturally close (and, in sport, fiercely competitive) reflection of its British origins. In recent decades Australia increasingly perceives and positions itself within its natural geopolitical zone and embraces a multicultural identity reflective of its changing population. But the British imprint, not least “the mental architecture of empire”, remains strong.

Britain’s mastery of the seas was essential for the success, and defence, of the imperial project from the outset. The key staging posts of empire reflected this reality. The Cape, taken in the 1790s as a strategic link between west and east, remained vital for the long route to India, until the British purchase of controlling shares in the Suez Canal shortened the route east, gave added significance to the Mediterranean chain (Gibraltar, Malta, later Cyprus) and prompted Benjamin Disraeli, as prime minister, to advise Queen Victoria to add empress of India to her titles in 1876. India, of course, was the great prize of empire in the east.

Family history gives Hunt a particular empathy with the colonial mindset of the British in India: the hill stations, the deliberate spectacles of imperial architecture and pageantry – the durbars, balls, clubs, polo and the social whirl of the Raj.

But such empathy never lapses into slack nostalgia, and Hunt’s differentiation between the three Indian cities – reflecting three successive phases or statements of the British imperial presence in India – is impressively refined. In this context, it is salutary to remember that, whatever elegiac note may be detected (not least in Kipling) regarding intimations of imperial mortality in the later 19th century, the final defiant spasm of monumental imperialism in India came as late as 1912-27, with the creation of the new capital for the Raj in New Delhi.

Hunt’s pen pictures of the imperial ruling elites draw from a rich trove of contemporary sources – diaries, letters, memoirs and travellers’ accounts overwhelmingly from the colonial overlords – and paints a wonderful canvas of eccentricity, greed, altruism and cruelty, framed by an unshakable sense of superiority and a right to rule. The sharp sketching of characters and of key scenes is matched by Hunt’s own pithy verdicts on the roots of the hubristic imperial mindset.

Thus, in his portrait of Hong Kong (annexed in 1841 and developing into “the most potent city of free enterprise in the history of British imperialism”), Hunt underlines the racial terms of the antipathy between the Chinese and the British imperial masters: “Hong Kong’s exclusive panoply of clubs, associations, sports, recreation, entertainment and civic functioning were the means by which they maintained a colonial sense of purpose and . . . racial superiority . . . The Chinese could do the hard work, but the lion’s paw remained on top.”

For his final chapter Hunt returns to Liverpool, at once the British city of empire par excellence and now, in the postimperial era, a city struggling to reinvent itself: “As the riches of empire receded, urban bravura gave way to urban ruin.”

Its postimperial problems may be familiar, but Liverpool is not quite Tyre and Nineveh. In its battle for renewal the old queen of the Mersey is striving to attract a share of surplus Chinese capital investment, an irony of contemporary neoimperialism not lost on Hunt. Because, of course, Tristram Hunt is not only a distinguished historian but also a British MP and, since last year, the shadow secretary for education. At 40, he is frequently talked of as a coming man in British politics. But it is the gifts of the historian rather than the anxieties of the practising politician that ultimately triumph in this absorbing and insightful book.