Ten Cities that Made an Empire by Tristram Hunt

The sun never sets…


🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

After sporting pastimes and the English language (to which might be added Anglicism, the parliamentary system and Common Law), Jan Morris has described urbanism as ‘the most lasting of the British imperial legacies’.

ten citiesTristram 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 Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor" - 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier of what later became known as the Boston Tea Party.
“The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor” – 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier of what later became known as the Boston Tea Party.

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.

Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, formerly known as Viceroy's House, was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.
Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, formerly known as Viceroy’s House, was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

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.

The strange and macabre Nelson Monument in Liverpool - the first public sculpture to be erected in the city at the height of its prominence as a major trading hub of the Empire. Along with a nude nelson, there are four prisoners in chains (representing Nelson's major battles apparently, but somehow more resonant now of the city's involvement in the slave trade...)
The strange and macabre Nelson Monument in Liverpool – the first public sculpture to be erected in the city at the height of its prominence as a major trading hub of the Empire. Along with a nude Admiral Lord Nelson, there are four prisoners in chains (representing Nelson’s major victories apparently, but it has been suggested they might also have been making a veiled statement about the cruelty of the slave trade…)
Tristram Hunt
Tristram Hunt

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).

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

53 thoughts on “Ten Cities that Made an Empire by Tristram Hunt

    • Yes, and I must say I become more and more aware of how the Empire and particularly India has left such a huge legacy on all things British too, from food to literature…


        • Haha! Well, certainly those aspects – especially the ubiquitous curry. But I was also thinking of all the British authors who’ve written extensively about India and Empire and conversely all the great Indian authors whose books are often seen here as part of our culture too, mainly because they’re written in English and are also often dealing with the after-effects of colonialism. And the effects of immigration over here – every big city with its own gurdwara – the growing awareness of festivals like Diwali…


  1. What an interesting-sounding book, FictionFan! I also like very much the fact that it’s balanced across cities, so we get more of a perspective on the process. And it says something about the writer’s skill if you’d have liked more information…


    • It is, Margot, and a bit lighter than some histories of the Empire tend to be. It gave a good flavour of how the whole thing was in a constant state of flux. A good read!


    • Oh yes, sorry! I was just going along with the old names because that’s what they were known as at the time he was writing about. Must admit that although I knew about Mumbai, I wasn’t aware that Kolkata had changed its name though (or perhaps reverted to its original name?).


      • Using the old names for the review made perfect sense – I wasn’t trying to correct that, just supplying some info.
        Reverting to original name is correct and those are just 2 out of many that were changed – Madras is now Chennai , Ooty is now Udhagamandalam ….. I could keep going on ! 🙂


        • I didn’t know that Madras had changed either, and to my shame I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Ooty! Sometimes we hear the new/reverted names on the news but unless they actually say what the place was previously called it just leaves me feeling vaguely lost…but then both geography and history often leave me feeling lost… 😉


  2. A lot of dadblame history there! But I do think this would fascinate me. I do wonder why they through the tea in the harbor instead of stealing it. I would have taken and hidden it. At least, it could have been enjoyed.

    The author looks like a nice chap, doesn’t he?


  3. I’m at the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop right now, where there are fiction and nonfiction “tracks.” We were treated to a panel of four NF writers last night, Christopher Beaver, Jordan Fisher Smith, Julia Flynn Siler, and Jason Roberts. They were all passionate about their subjects to the point of obsession.

    Jason Roberts wrote “A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler” (2006). Apparently, the blind man covered more miles than any other man in history, and he never went to the same place twice. I can’t recall why now, but he was in so much pain, he needed to distract himself by endlessly changing his external environment. Roberts is finishing up a book about a boy from Japan who was shipwrecked for 14 months before landing in the U.S. The Japanese boy inspired a Native American boy from the U.S. to fake being shipwrecked in Japan. This was when Japan’s borders were closed to all foreigners, and all who tried to set foot ashore were killed. But they didn’t kill the “shipwrecked” boy. The Japanese boy taught people in the U.S. to speak Japanese, and the U.S. boy taught people in Japan to speak English. So that when Japan finally allowed a vessel from the U.S. to dock on its shore, the two different factions could speak to each other. The book is due out in the UK in April 2015.

    Jordan Fisher Smith wrote “Nature Noir” and “Under Our Skin,” a film about Lyme Disease. From a review of “Nature Noir”: “This is a walk in the woods like Thoreau never imagined,” says Mike Davis, bestselling author of Ecology of Fear, “I can’t make up my mind whether Jordan Fisher Smith is John Muir at the crime scene or Elmore Leonard with a backpack. In any event, this astonishing book, with its brilliant interweaving of murder, irony and natural history, invents a new genre.”

    Julia Flynn Siler, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, has written a book about the Mondavi family called “The House of Mondavi” about the fall of the famous wine dynasty. And she’s written “Lost Kingdom”, a book about Hawaii and U.S. imperialism—all for sugar.

    Christopher Beaver is a documentary filmmaker, known for his latest work, “Tales of the San Joaquin,” a film about a California river that disappeared. He also showed us a work in progress about what used to be the largest lake west of the Mississippi as of the 1800’s, Tulare Lake (pronounced Too-LAR-ee), that now no longer exists.

    Perhaps you could add any number of NF titles to your TBR list from the first three listed here? 😀


    • Oh, glad to hear you got in!

      And phew! what are you trying to do to me??? Some of these look fascinating and are getting lots of good reviews. The Hawai’i one appeals given my current fascination with all things imperial, but the Nature Noir one looks good too…

      The Hawai’i one is actually a great example of what can sometimes happen with amateur reviewing though. On Amazon US it has 86 reviews, most of them either 4 or 5 stars. But the top review is a 1-star shredding job, criticising the accuracy of the history. Now the reviewer might be right (how would we know?) or he might have some kind of axe to grind, or even some personal vendetta going on…but whatever, his review has stacked up a couple of hundred ‘helpful’ votes. I’ve thought for years that negative reviews carry more weight on Amazon than positive ones (one reason I think long and hard before totally ripping a book, especially from an unestablished author) and this example kind of backs up that theory. I also believe, from years of reviewing on Amazon, that at least ten times as many people read each review as vote on it, maybe a lot more, so a couple of hundred votes probably means a couple of thousand people have read the review. I never think negative reviews affect sales of the big authors (I bet The Goldfinch hasn’t suffered much from my criticism!) but for less well-known authors it potentially has a huge impact.

      Anyway, enjoy your workshop! 😀


      • Sadly, I did not get in off the waiting list. I’m here as a “member of the general public” who can attend the afternoon panels and evening readings. I’m treating it as a writing retreat. I write in the morning and then late at night after the panels and readings are through. It’s quite a bit more relaxing than being a participant, because there are so many manuscripts to read and comment on daily if you’re going to workshop.

        As far as accuracy is concerned, all of the panelists seemed to be sticklers for accuracy, and not allowing anything in their work that could not be verified in some way. I took a look at a few “Goodreads” reviews of the Hawaii book. It sounds like some reviewers thought Siler was too biased toward the Hawaiian Queen. A few others said that the structure of the book was a bit disorganized. I can’t tell you, because I haven’t read it. I think her “House of Mondavi” really hit the mark. But there’s no imperialism there to hook you. She did read a scene from the book about a famous wine auction she attended in Napa wine country. It sounded fascinating, giving the reader a glimpse of the culture of the super wealthy wine world. 😀 It’s so difficult to read Amazon reviews and try to separate the wheat from the chaff. I do like your analysis, though.


        • Oh well, sorry you didn’t get in but to be honest the way you’re doing it sounds like it might be more fun anyway – though I think that might be a reflection of my laziness!

          Yes, because of the Vine programme I’ve spent far, far too much time reading Amazon reviews over the last few years, and I now ignore most of the reviews completely unless they’re by one of the reviewers I’ve come to trust – and they’re few and far between. Between the obvious shills, the five-stars in the hope of getting sent freebies, the trolls who like to rubbish all the big sellers for fun, the people who spend their free time leaving nasty comments on other people’s reviews…it’s a weird old place. Ten minutes there is always enough to renew my appreciation for the blogosphere…


          • Yes, I do have more time to stop and smell the roses doing it this way. 😀

            Yes, I’ve decided to stop reading Amazon reviews and head over to Goodreads…or spend more time with you and LF. 😀


  4. Oh, and what got me started on the list I mentioned above: They all talk about how history now needs to be written with the particular in mind. We don’t need any more general histories. I think that speaks to why Hunt selected his particular “slant.”


    • Hmm…I wonder if I agree with that? Certainly I always like when an author takes a particular aspect of a piece of history and looks at it from that viewpoint, but I think I also enjoy broad brush histories, especially of things I don’t know much about. My current imperial kick started when I read John Darwin’s Unfinished Empire a couple of years back and I think I’d probably call it a general history. Since then I’ve read loads of books looking at different bits of the Empire, so more ‘particular’. Unless I’m misinterpreting the terms?


      • I think they were talking more about individuals’ places in history. They asked “How many more general biographies do we need on famous people who’ve already been done to death—haha?” It’s heading into the era of the biography about the unknown person and why we should care about them and what they did. Or in some cases, exploring something entirely new about a famous person.


        • Ah yes, well I probably agree with that a little more, although personally I must admit to a fairly profound indifference to biographies of unknown people. But I accept that they’re growing in popularity. I do hope the days of new biographies of the famous aren’t over though – I feel every generation has something to add even if it’s only a contemporary perspective – or even just contemporary language. I’ve just ordered a new biography of Napoleon…


          • Yes, that’s a good point. But I would hope that each new biography would address some new perspective. I read three biographies of Georgia O’Keefe one summer. By the end, I was skipping passages, and sometimes entire chapters, that added nothing new to the mix.

            As far as your profound indifference is concerned, I think a good writer should be able to present you with evidence as to why you should care and then make you care. 😀 That is, if they’re doing their job.


            • Yes, I do find I have to leave plenty of time between biographies of the same person, though fortunately my shocking memory helps there.

              Ah, but the blurb writer plays the essential role, and my eyes tend to glaze over as soon as they say ‘unsung hero’ or one of the other cliches. But then I read memoirs by obscure politicians so perhaps they count… 😉


  5. I have to say that I really like the way you post the author’s pictures with your posts; frequently, it’s my favorite part. For instance, this fellow looks like someone I would completely believe in a serious book, or even a crime thriller, but could you imagine him writing fantasy? Of course not! I love checking to see if the author’s picture matches their genre (in my mind). Do you think they choose pictures based on the image they’re portraying?


    • Haha! I love them too, and I really do think that you can tell what kind of books people would write from their faces. One day I plan to do a quiz of some kind – match the face to the book…you’ve encouraged me to start thinking about how to do it again…

      I like to get their pics randomly via google rather than from publishers so I can pick and choose a bit – I try to be kind and not pick the ones where they’ve been having a bad hair day!


  6. I’m a day late coming to this review, so had the pleasure of reading everyone else’s comments as well. Sounds like a good read.


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