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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).
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 19 June 2014
This excellent book charts the rise and fall of the British Empire in an unusual and very effective way. The global, maritime Empire is described through the stories of ten cities from Boston to Hong Kong, spanning two centuries.

Tristram Hunt guides us around the globe and through the streets of the ten cities in extremely readable style, raising vivid pictures of imperial life as lived by the rulers and the ruled. This is a balanced, fascinating history of the Empire that at times reads almost like an exciting novel of commerce, politics and social change. The author includes quotes from a wonderfully diverse array of sources to give a colourful, contemporary picture of life in the ten cities, depicting everything from the future William IV on a drunken night out in Barbados, to the elation of an Indian judge on the night of his nation's independence.

Each city illustrates a different part of the imperial story, from the loyal city of Boston that became the cradle of American independence to post-war Liverpool suffering the economic after-effects of the passing of the Empire. Similarities between the colonial cities and events in Britain are considered, for example the cotton industry of Manchester with its rapid increase in urban population and deprivation, followed by civic improvement works, finds a parallel in the development of Bombay. The book is well illustrated with 45 historic plates (many in colour), 11 maps and 15 other pictures and is accompanied by an extensive bibliography and notes for each chapter, plus the detailed index.

On the journey we see sugar, slavery and profits made by exploitation in Bridgetown, Barbados; Calcutta shifts from the cosmopolitan mercantilism of the East India Company to imperial rule; free trade and gunboats build Hong Kong. The construction of New Delhi parallels the crumbling of the Raj and becomes the scene of Indian liberty, but also of later sectarian violence and perhaps, a new elitism.

The changing relationship with Ireland is explored as colonial Dublin grows in imported Georgian grandeur, then her parliamentary buildings stand empty after the Union with Britain. Cape Town illustrates the turning of imperial ambition from the lost American colonies towards the East and the establishing of naval supremacy. Melbourne shows the desire to create a new addition to Britain overseas, followed by a growing Victorian sense of loyal but self-confident equality with `the mother country', expressed (more or less) peacefully on the cricket field.

`Ten Cities that Made an Empire' is not merely a collection of ten cities but a well-constructed and cohesive account presenting the history of Empire in a very original way, so (unfortunately) a second volume would seem unlikely. No doubt many readers will enjoy considering what alternative cities might have been included; a highly recommended book.


Canadian readers may feel their country's unique story is overlooked. Examining the British-French struggle in North America in more detail through a history of Montreal would have provided an insight into a part of the British Empire where Britain was sovereign, but gave official recognition to the majority who were firmly rooted in a different colonial culture, language, Church and laws. It would have been interesting to explore the effect this progressive recognition of French (and Catholic) local rights had in the Thirteen Colonies, which were already becoming impatient but were still loyal, British and Protestant.

Scots, and especially Glaswegians, will be the first to suggest that they too have a city worthy of inclusion, having literally `made an empire', or at least made a sizeable part of its infrastructure. Glasgow's story of exported technology and expertise that helped connect the other cities of Empire would have been fascinating to read, considered with the changing self-perception of Scotland within the Union as the importance of imperial connections came and went.
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on 23 August 2014
For several hundred years the British Empire was the envy of the world. It was a network of trade and politics that brought huge wealth to Britain and, arguably, allowed many nations to develop government, commerce and education. However over the past hundred years that Empire has dissolved and Britain no longer controls trade.

In this book Hunt tries to expire the history of the British Empire, both its rise and its fall, by looking at the urban history of ten cities central to it. Each city is taken separately and its architecture, design and history are linked to the colourful characters of empire.

This is a novel approach and in general works well. The characters and stories are entertaining and cleverly chosen to illustrate certain points. Hunt is writer who does not get too bogged down in historical detail and that lightness of touch is definitely a benefit.
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on 5 November 2015
I haven't read it yet so I cannot give full review. Started the book and Tristram Hunt is a good writer. Dry subject reads well.
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on 14 July 2015
This is a series of portraits of cities that were of great importance in the days of the British Empire, such as Cape Town, Bombay and Hong Kong.

Each chapter follows the same pattern, presenting a bit of history, economics, architecture and a few portraits of leading characters.

The author, Tristam Hunt, is a Labour MP and, like many post-imperialist British observers, has mixed feelings about the Empire, recognizing that it was based on aggressive exploitation of other cultures but stressing what he regards as the positive points.

Fortunately, Hunt is more realistic and honest than Niall Ferguson whose "Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World" is an insult to the millions who were exploited by British imperialism.

Hunt starts off with Boston and brings his cycle to an end with a portrayal of Liverpool that reads like a piece of marketing, projecting a glowing future for the city.

However, these individual chapters do not really come together to make a satisfactory whole and it is a book to be sampled in bites.

Furthermore, I would have thought places like New York, Johannesburg and Singapore were more important than Dublin or Melbourne.
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on 16 July 2014
This book informs in two separate ways. It casts light on ten cities around the world, particularly looking at their development in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It also illuminates the current attitudes of the residents of those towns and cities. Your reviewer lived in Bridgetown Barbados in the 1960's and, as a result of reading this book he better understands the attitudes and views of the white plantocracy of the island and of the remainder of the population.
The book also shows how, in some ways quite accidentally, Britain acquired an Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Altogether a well written and thoroughly informative book.
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on 5 July 2014
Tristram Hunt's wide view makes this a very worthwhile and enjoyable read. As a historian, his clearly keen interest in social and cultural aspects of history ensure that the cities he portrays really provide a very broad appreciation of their role in the life of the Empire and it's development in their time. He writes very well and accessibly, and is clearly a born teacher in his ability to create an interest and enthusiasm for his subject. I very much enjoyed this hefty book, even more for the lack of overt political bias which was certainly present in an otherwise excellent previous oeuvre I had read.
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on 16 January 2015
Good idea and general thesis with some fascinating details - a good read.
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on 15 January 2015
a Brilliant book - bought as a gift - good value and fast delivery
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on 10 July 2014
I enjoyed this book on ten cities created by the British Empire. Tristram Hunt steers a middle course, outlining both the economic benefits brought by the British but also the terrible cost - the slave trade and famines in India. With the exception of New Delhi, all the cities were originally founded because of their value as harbours. He describes in detail the commercial life of the cities and the architecture that resulted from it.
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