Ten Cities that made an Empire – Tristram Hunt

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Harewood House, Leeds, paid for with money from the slave trade

Ten Cities that made an Empire tells the history of the British Empire from a new perspective. Beginning with Boston, which Hunt claims was the first city of Empire, and finishing with Liverpool, a city bound up with the empire’s rise and fall, it examines the stories of these cities to reveal how the British empire began, grew and finally declined.

Hunt arranges the ten cities chronologically, showing the development of British power and prestige. The empire experimented with new forms of government as the old failed and faded, always seeking an identity and form that would be permanent and lasting. In fact this proved impossible, and implicit in Hunt’s argument is the point that the empire was only ever an extemporisation, a reaction to the political realities of its time, and never a successful or coherently organised institution. It never had a plan.

Hunt begins with Boston. The city grew out of a spirit of religious freedom, and as a consequence of the Reformation. However it was not long before it became a significant business hub, benefitting from the trans Atlantic trade in sugar, tobacco and cotton. Later, in the wars with the French, much of the wealth of its prominent citizens came from supplying the British army.

Boston was a patriotic city, celebrating English festivals and traditions such as GuyFawkes. Its wealth was displayed in the form of luxurious imported goods such as china and cloth from the industrial heartlands of Britain. It was loyal and patriotic.

But the English felt that the colony was not paying its way in the wars with France. The consequences are well known, and the first city of Empire was lost to the revolution.

Bridgetown is the second city on the list. It’s a simple story of the slave trade. Bridgetown was never home to the British elite, who poured the wealth they gained into stately homes in England. These included Harewood House outside Leeds, which even today is an extravagant reminder of the wealth plundered from the plantations.

Dublin comes next on Hunt’s list. After the American revolution a different approach was adopted, and Dublin was allowed more independence during the period called the Protestant Ascendancy. Dublin developed a strong identity. The institutions of government brought income and the city became a vibrant cultural centre. However after the 1798 rising, and with fears that the French may invade, direct rule from Whitehall was imposed in the act of union. The institutions of government left for London, and Dublin once again became a backwater. Resentment over English dominance was to some extent mitigated by the project of Empire which gave a sort of unifying purpose, but it never disappeared.

Cape Town was the next step in empire, and a key stepping stone to India. First occupied by British forces in 1797, it became increasingly anglicised and was a key strategic outpost until 1955.

Calcutta developed from a trading post, and from here came Clive to conquer India. Many British in Calcutta adopted Indian customs, and lost their commercial edge, relying instead on land ownership and taxation, and milking the interior for all it was worth. Bombay was a different proposition, cut off from the interior by a range of mountains and so more dependent on trade. Hunt describes the development of both these cities up to the present day.

There are descriptions of the depravities of empire in the section on Hong Kong, which begins with the establishment and development of the port, and the initial commercial fears that investment there would be wasted. It was the opium that made Hong Kong profitable, and the gun boats that enabled the British to trade opium against the wishes of the Chinese government, and the interests of its people. Hong Kong was linked to England, India and Singapore by the profits from opium.

Melbourne was chosen as the Australian city, rather than Sydney. Melbourne developed largely through the Victorian period and the urbanisation of the area mirrors developments in London. Hunt claims the first ashes victory by the Australians marked the beginning of a new independent attitude, though the links with England remained strong through two world wars.

New Delhi and Liverpool focus on the loss of Empire. The idea at Delhi was to build a capital that would last, but Hunt argues that before it was built, and with Gandhi already set on the path to independence, India was lost. Liverpool grew as a slave port, and became the first multicultural city in Britain. It was already in decline before we joined the EU, but that and the loss of the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery accelerated that decline. Now Liverpool is expanding its container freight terminal and developing links with China, which will expand with the opening of the new Panama Canal. (This is open now, but was not at the time of publishing.) Hunt claims this will allow Chinese goods to reach the heart of the country, turning Liverpool into a different kind of colonial city, and England itself into a colony of China.

In Ten Cities that made an Empire Hunt returns frequently to the question of trade. After all it was an empire built on trade and for trade. There were tariffs and laws that excluded the Dutch and French from trading with Boston, and the intention was to secure sole rights to the Atlantic trade for the British. Cape Town was seized in order to facilitate trade with India. It provided supplies and shelter.

Later the free trade movement, inspired by the Manchester School is mentioned. This led to the repeal of the Corn Laws, reducing food prices. But one perhaps unforeseen consequence of the emphasis on free trade was that British products were undercut by cheaper goods from India.

Indeed empire seemed to work better under protectionist trading arrangements such as the Commonwealth, rather than under extreme free trade policies. Of course the empire and the gunboat were very good at facilitating these kind of exclusive deals.

It was when trade with the Commonwealth diminished in the 60s and 70s, as more colonies gained independence, that Britain joined the EU, swapping one customs union for another, as industry struggled to thrive in an open market.

One of the most interesting aspects of Hunt’s book is the focus on architecture and town planning. Each section contains a map of the city in question and Hunt considers the way the streets developed, including the significance of street names, and the architecture, which of course often reflected aspects of empire.

The classicism of Bath was recreated in Dublin, whilst Melbourne saw the development of suburban housing: we are shown plans of houses at different price brackets. These types of home exist in British suburbs now. In India the debate about architecture struck at the cultural issues underlying British rule. The buildings were magnificent, but often European rather than Indian styles were used. At times there were odd marriages of the two, and the country was subject to the vagaries of European fashions, as classicism gave way to Gothic styles.

In New Delhi Lutyens was employed to design the whole new town. But this carried the seeds of its own destruction, separating the ruling classes into an enclave that left them out of touch with reality and at odds with the local population. The British were left with nothing but grand displays of power, designed to impress and intimidate, and the end of empire was nigh.

 

 

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