Ten Cities that Made an Empire

By Tristram Hunt

Rating: 4 stars

It appears that this book has taken me exactly five months to read. Not because it’s difficult, or complex, or dull, but I just have trouble with non-fic, especially history. I tend to read a chunk, put it down, meaning to pick it up again the next day and get distracted by a graphic novel or space opera. Still, I’m very glad that I did eventually get through this book, which uses ten cities to provide a breakneck tour of the history of the British Empire, from its first phase in the Americas through its turn towards the east, and right down to its end and the impact on Britain itself.

It’s an odd mix, but the architecture of the cities is only ever there in the background and never as important as you think it’s going to be, but still, weaving together the history of the cities with the wider context of Empire is fascinating. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Hunt, as he seems to be on the right wing of the Labour Party but his history seems balanced. He talks about how the British Empire alternated between waves of free trade imperialism and more traditional conquering imperialism, but is never flag-waving. He never shies away from the dark underbelly of the Empire, particularly the slavery that formed the basis of the West Indies economy for so long, and the racism that was evident in India (and elsewhere), compared with the ‘white colonies’.

My knowledge of the Empire has always been patchy, and this book has helped fill in some of those gaps, particularly the broad brush of its rise and fall across a few hundred years and its actions and behaviour in India. Indeed, the Indian chapters were amongst the most interesting for me, especially the comparison between Calcutta and Bombay (as they were then), with New Delhi being the Empire’s last hurrah, despite the triumphalism that went into its building and its architecture.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141047782
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2014

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