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Ten Cities That Made an Empire

by Tristram Hunt

(London Times)

WHATEVER YOU might think of the men and women who built the British Empire, their dedication to the table was nothing short of heroic. No matter how punishing the climate, they remained firmly attached to a simple principle: the heavier the food, the better. 'We dine at two o'clock in the very heat of the day,' wrote one woman in Calcutta, whose friends polished off 'a soup, a roast fowl, curry and rice, a mutton pie, a fore quarter of lamb'. Indeed, everywhere they went, empire-builders tried to re-create Britain. As a Parisian visitor to colonial Boston put it,'in their whole manner of living, the Americans resemble the English', from their Wedgwood pottery and taste for tea to - inevitably - their 'excellent beef'.

For Tristram Hunt, a television historian turned Labour shadow education secretary, the drive to re-create Britain was only part of the imperial picture. Far from being a simplistic account of Anglo-Saxon rule being imposed on captive peoples, William Flew's fine survey of 10 colonial cities is a story of persuasion, collaboration and adaptation, in which the colonised played just as important a role as the colonisers.

Even so, he recognises that the British often set out to rebuild their new possessions in their own image. Thus Hong Kong boasted amateur dramatic clubs, a boat club, a rifle club, a cricket club and a jockey club, as well as the pinnacle of the social pyramid : the Hong Kong Club. Chinese, Indians, women and settlers from the petite bourgeoisie were, of course, banned. Indeed, Hong Kong is a good example of the racism that underpinned so much colonial life. 'Social intercourse between the races is wholly unknown,' wrote one visitor a few years after the colony's foundation in 1842.

The irony, Hunt remarks, was that it was Hong Kong's much-despised Chinese inhabitants who made it a success, for without their links with the mainland, it would never have proved such an economic hit. Yet the British saw Hong Kong as the proof of their civilising genius. 'No Englishman,' declared Lord Curzon in 1872, 'can land in Hong Kong without feeling a thrill of pride for his nationality.'

Even now, our image of the empire remains deeply coloured by ideological partisanship. All too often, historians cast it as the supreme expression of Europe's moral superiority or as a uniquely wicked project to grind the wretched of the earth into the dust. But Hunt takes a more thoughtful approach. His new book shows how the British Empire actually worked on the ground, not just in New Delhi, but in the streets of 18th-century Boston, the quays of slave-trading Bridgetown in Barbados, the squares of Georgian Dublin, the marketplaces of Victorian Bombay and the villas of suburban Melbourne, to name just some of his 10 cities. And he ends, rather depressingly, with postwar Liverpool, once one of the greatest of all imperial ports, now a battered relic left high and dry after Britain's imperial retreat.

Hunt is not, of course, the first politician to write a history book. But this is in a different league from fellow MPs' efforts, being distinguished not just by its vivid detail and fluent prose, but by the sheer complexity and subtlety of its arguments.

One of the great strengths of his account is that it focuses on each city at a particular moment in its imperial history (Bridgetown just after the American Revolution, for example, or Hong Kong in the 1840s), allowing him to explore how the meaning of empire itself evolved over time.

At the heart of the imperial project there was always a hard core of material self-interest. Yet as Hunt points out, the overtly Protestant colonial project of the 18th century was very different from the free-trade empire of the 1840s, or indeed the flag-waving Anglo-Saxon imperialism of Joseph Chamberlain's late Victorians. The empire itself was never fixed; it was always changing.

What the British created, Hunt argues, were hybrid societies, from New England to Hong Kong: ethnic, religious and political melting pots, in which the architectural landscape reflected a deeper sense of flux. The supreme example was New Delhi, one of the greatest imperial projects in human history, largely designed by Edwin Lutyens after his appointment in 1913.

Its origins tell a wider story. The men who governed India had decided to shift the capital of the Raj from Calcutta to a new, purpose-built imperial complex outside the old city of Delhi. As the planning committee put it, New Delhi would convey the idea of a peaceful domination and dignified rule over the traditions and life of India by the British Raj. But it would be a statement of Anglo-Saxon values, not Indian ones. Indeed, during Lutyens's first tour of the subcontinent, he denied that there was any real Indian architecture at all. 'They want me to do Hindu,' he joked. 'Hindon't I say.'

The result was one of the most extraordinary planned cities on the planet and a testament to the heterogeneous character of empire in action. From Lutyens's vast, Roman-style parliament building to the staggering grandeur of the Viceroy's House, New Delhi remains the ultimate expression of British imperial self-confidence.

As Hunt observes, though, there is more to it than Anglo-Saxon arrogance. Almost despite himself, Lutyens ended up producing a complex that blended British and Indian traditions, incorporating latticed windows and miniature pavilions as well as lions, snakes, elephants and lotus blossoms. And so New Delhi became a monument not to monolithic autocracy, but to multicultural ambiguity. As Lutyens himself put it: 'East and West can and do meet, with mutual respect and affection.'

Alas, the end of the British Empire was often bad news for the buildings that had become symbols of Anglo-Saxon dominion. New Delhi survived largely unscathed, but other cities were not so fortunate. In 1966, Irish republicans, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, blew up a statue of Nelson that had stood in Dublin since 1808.

But anti-colonialism went even further. Many Irish politicians in the decades after independence dreamt of purging Dublin of its British heritage. As late as 1963, some 16 Georgian houses on Lower Fitzwilliam Street were demolished to make way for dingy new offices for the electricity board. 'Georgian buildings are an offence to all true-blue Irishmen,' one man wrote to the Irish Times, 'they are a hangover from a repressive past and they must go.'

Yet, as so often in Hunt's book, the wider picture is more complicated. The fate of Calcutta, the capital that Lutyens had been commissioned to replace, is particularly revealing. In 2001 its name was changed to Kolkata, which looked at the time like a rejection of its British imperial past. But 10 years later, West Bengal's chief minister announced a plan to revive the city by turning it into, of all things, 'another London', complete with a Kolkata Eye and a redesigned park based on Hyde Park. The legacy of the Raj, in other words, is not quite as unwelcome in modern, self-confident India as some British writers like to think. Perhaps not surprisingly, Hunt cannot resist quoting Kipling's verdict on Calcutta: 'Why, this is London! This is the docks. This is Imperial. This is worth coming across India to see!'

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