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The sun never sets...
on 11 July 2014
Tristram Hunt, historian and Member of (the British) Parliament, has chosen an innovative way to look at the history and legacy of the British Empire by considering ten of the cities that played important roles in the two centuries when the Empire was at its height. There can be a tendency to think that the Empire came into being at some defined point, existed for a while, and then ceased. Hunt's city tour gives a much clearer picture of how the Empire was always evolving, always changing, as global events raised and lowered the importance of products and markets - and he makes it very clear that the Empire's primary purpose was indeed economic rather than political, at least initially. Hunt admits that there were many other cities with as good a claim to be included as the ones he chose, but his purpose is to show how the Empire shifted geographically and politically over time and his choices work well for this purpose.
Starting with Boston, Hunt sets the pattern he subsequently follows with each city. He gives the reasons for the city's founding (or colonisation if it already existed), explains its importance to the development of the Empire, describes the culture of the society and discusses how the city developed physically in terms of its architecture and industrial or trading infrastructure.
The book is not immensely long, so each city only gets around forty pages. This is long enough to give a reasonable overview of the city's place within the Empire, but clearly Hunt has had to set himself some limitations to keep the length down. The major limitation for me was that he only told us about each city at the point that it was at its height in terms of Empire. As the Empire rolled on and away, we aren't given much feel for what happened to the cities afterwards. This is truer of the early cities more than the late ones - Boston is more or less dropped at the point of Independence while the current political situation of Hong Kong is briefly discussed. At first, I found this abrupt departure from each city very disconcerting, but as the book went on it became clear that Hunt was portraying the Empire like a wave or perhaps a bandwagon that rolled into town, changed everything, and then rolled on. I found that in the end it did give me a much clearer picture of how all the various geographic bits fitted in at different points in history.
So from America, Hunt takes us to the West Indies, stops off in Dublin, and then heads east - to Africa, China and, of course, India. India's importance to the Empire is indicated by the fact that three of its cities are covered - Calcutta, Bombay and New Delhi, showing how the Empire in India developed from an initial trading zone to the full scale colonial undertaking it eventually became before gaining independence. Hunt balances the book well between the colonies and the Dominions, showing how the Dominions were seen as a means of disseminating British values and of building an interconnected anglicised world that would come to the support of the mother-country in times of need (as indeed they did in both WW1 and WW2). He finishes off with a look at Liverpool, the only British city to merit a chapter, showing its importance as a trading hub under the Empire and discussing the economically devastating effects, still being dealt with today, of the end of Empire.
While I was glad that the book was kept down to a reasonable length, I'd have liked to learn more about what happened to the cities post-Empire, and I'd have been happy to sacrifice some of the architectural detail to make way for that. However, I think that's probably more a matter of personal preference than a criticism. All-in-all, I found this an interesting and well written read that took an innovative approach to telling the much-told story of the Empire, and recommend it to anyone interested in knowing more about how the Empire worked. I read an advance copy of the book, so can't comment on the illustrations, but I believe there are over forty colour plates plus maps in the final copy, which I imagine would greatly enhance the enjoyment of the book.
The Ten Cities are: Boston, Bridgetown, Dublin, Cape Town, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Bombay, Melbourne, New Delhi, Liverpool.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books (UK).