Ten Cities that Made an Empire, by Tristram Hunt, Allen Lane, RRP£25, 544 pages
There are a multitude of ways in which historians – alongside them, economists, geographers, cartographers, social scientists – have tried to reckon with the achievement of the British Empire, a subject that remains for many of us one of very great interest, at least if the term is used in a proper way. Thus, the word “achievement” is not meant here as some sort of patriotic reinforcement to Tory Home Counties triumphalism, but simply the plain measure of historical record: the fact that, for well over 200 years, a small cluster of islands lying off the northwest Eurasian landmass exercised political, cultural and economic power out of all proportion to its size. No Indian railway lines criss-crossed northern England; no Nigerian gunboats sailed up the Clyde; no West Indian polity built church schools in Glamorgan for Sunday services. From about the 1650s onwards, in some ways before, all flowed in one direction until, of course, the tides began to turn after 1900.
The islanders left behind many intriguing signs of their outsized role, and sometimes it’s still hard to grasp this remarkable story, except perhaps in anecdotal and antiquarian ways. An American colleague of mine at Yale measures it through his schoolboy postage-stamp collections of imperial coronations and jubilees; another (this seems truly idiosyncratic, unless you happen to have been in the West Indies during the days of a Test match) through the spread of cricket. One of my personal favourites is through tracing the multitude of quiet, modest Commonwealth war graves and memorials scattered across 153 countries. There are thousands of sites, often, as at El Alamein, kept in lovely, watered condition even in the midst of dusty urban sprawl.
And then the story could be measured and told via the many British overseas ports, cities and towns, as has been done in Tristram Hunt’s attractive new book, Ten Cities that Made an Empire. The author, a Labour MP and a history lecturer at Queen Mary College, London, takes 10 of the most important and colourful cities within the old empire, explaining how they came about, what they became, and the role they played in the larger system. It is a great idea, and Hunt achieves his purpose superbly, with panache and in fine style.
Hunt’s first imperial city is Boston, a choice so obvious when you read more about it and yet perhaps needing a bit of explanation. About 1740 Boston must have seemed very much like Bristol, Portsmouth and Exeter: all fast-growing cities prospering upon the Atlantic trades, absorbing colonial wares from the West Indies, imbibing vast amounts of manufactures from the English north and midlands, and mutually profiting from the lucrative trade in slaves that formed the distant, hidden third “leg” of the triangle. Boston’s men of high standing, like Bristol’s, were merchants, lawyers, bankers, owners of publishing houses and newspapers, a socially conservative and Protestant elite who disliked much change unless it was thrust upon them – as it was, momentously, in the 1770s when these unlikely revolutionaries banded together against high, arbitrary taxes and tossed bags of tea into their own harbour to begin a movement of independence.
While Hunt tells this well-known tale of the Boston Tea Party with verve, he does not linger long before he takes the reader to another thriving 18th-century port, turning in Chapter 2 to the trading outpost of Bridgetown in Barbados in the British West Indies, an emporium for slaves, sugar and rum. This was an altogether less orderly imperial city, full of runaways, cast-offs and brothels, and yet still a part of the great enterprise. In peace and war it was held together by the squadrons of the Royal Navy; constitutionally it was governed out of London; politically its fate was decided on by parliament.
We follow the empire’s 19th-century advance, as it becomes less of an Atlantic and more of an Asian enterprise
The variety of Hunt’s panorama is one of its joys. As we move to Dublin and then on to Cape Town, Mumbai, Hong Kong, Kolkata and Melbourne, we roughly follow the empire’s advance through the 19th century, as it becomes less of an Atlantic and more of an Asian enterprise. In New Delhi – the subject of the penultimate chapter – Lord Curzon, Herbert Baker, Edwin Lutyens and others strove to erect the grandest imperial city that would ever exist, but were overtaken by events. The imperial architecture remains to this day, a sort of latter-day Rome. By contrast, the final chapter, on the emergence of Liverpool during the 19th century as a great trading and manufacturing city of the home islands, and then its decline over the past century, all appears a little sad.
University lecturers may judge Ten Cities not an important enough book to include in their courses on modern imperial history. It is not a grand exposition of Britain’s outer surge such as Christopher Bayly’s Imperial Meridian (1989), which made the claim for the importance of the late-18th and 19th centuries in the nation’s evolution. It tells no story of an “official mind” orchestrating and prioritising imperial strategy, as Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher did in Africa and the Victorians (1961). Although the chapters on New Delhi and Hong Kong capture the peaceful handover of empire, there’s little serious here on that contentious field of study, western decolonisation.
Yet Ten Cities is significant in another way, in giving the reader so many vignettes of what we now call the “material culture” of empire, of how the colonisers lived and ruled, of their architecture, their churches and offices, their social life, and their many links back to the home islands from which they came and well might, after 25 years, return. It captures a vast, sprawling enterprise so very well. This work, like the empire it describes, is something unique – could you write a similar book on, say, 10 imperial French cities, or Russian cities? One doubts it. The British Empire was sui generis. A stroll across downtown Melbourne, or sitting in the shade of the University of Mumbai today, tells you so. You could take this with you, and also have a very nice read.
Paul Kennedy is professor of history at Yale. He is the author/editor of 19 books including ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’, to be published in a second revised edition next year