Ten Cities That Made an Empire

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There has been a row in educational circles recently about the teaching of history in schools in response to former Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove’s attempts to “reform” the history curriculum.

This sumptuously produced book by the man who may, possibly, be the next Labour education minister gives us some idea of how he views history and what he might do about it in office.

Tristram Hunt claims in his introduction that he wants to go beyond the good/bad dichotomy in discussing the British Empire; it is more complex than this, he says, and he wants to find a more explanatory approach.

He sets out to provide an explanation by devoting a chapter to each of ten cities — Boston, Bridgetown, Dublin, Cape Town, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Bombay (Mumbai), Melbourne, New Delhi and Liverpool — that played a significant role in the development of the British Empire from the mid-17th century until the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

This seems like a useful approach since in such a broad subject a focus is needed and the cities represent continuing physical evidence of past empire. And a lot of the detail is fascinating. But ultimately it is disappointing.

This is a storybook, more at home on a coffee table than a library shelf. It is long on description and short on analysis and sometimes almost novelistic. No attempt is made to analyse the dynamic of imperial competition or to understand the need for accumulation in the growth of British capitalism.

Why these particular cities? Would a different story have emerged if different cities had been chosen? The choices are not always obvious. Why Melbourne rather than Sydney, Bridgetown rather than Kingston, Dublin not Belfast? Were they chosen to illustrate stages in a pre-ordained grand arc of narrative rather than for their intrinsic significance?

The structure also inhibits comparison between cities. Comparing Boston with the settlements of Virginia, for example, or the approaches taken in Hong Kong with those in Shanghai would have been informative. There is also little on the societies that existed before these cities were founded, which limits discussion of the impact that empire had on them. Nor does Hunt make as much use of his material to explain empire as he might have done.

In some chapters the organising principle works quite well. In discussing Bombay he is able to link the boost to the cotton industry to the shortage of cotton created by the American Civil War, and so to the growth of railways and port facilities and to population growth and urban geography.

Apart from pointing up the obscene differences in wealth between these rulers and the indigenous people, it serves no explanatory purpose other than to make these people seem more “human” and therefore perhaps more forgivable. Which highlights the question of perspective. This is a story told almost wholly from the point of view of the imperialists.

The only other voices are of those who threw in their lot with the British and made themselves wealthy, but it is the underlying attitude that is so insidious. It is true that Hunt is critical of slavery and of the opium trade and the Indian famines that occurred while Bombay prospered. But the tone is one of liberal detachment. These incidents were, of course, regrettable but it was a long time ago and they don’t happen now, as it were.

Can we draw any conclusions from all this about how Hunt might approach the question of teaching history in our schools? Well, he is no Michael Gove. He is prepared to be critical about Britain’s imperial past. But the overall impression the book leaves is that there were good and bad and it is all too complicated to draw definite conclusions.

Read it for the fascination of the detail, but to understand the British Empire look elsewhere.