Capital legacies: The British Empire through its cities

By Vikas Datta

Title: Ten Cities That Made an Empire; Author: Tristram Hunt; Publisher: Penguin Books; Pages: 515; Price:Rs.599

ten cities that made an empireIt was an empire on which the sun never set, so widely did it span the globe and varied terrains from the polar tundra of Canada to steamy Malaysian jungles, from the icy Himalayas to sea-splattered tropical islands in the South Pacific, from the African savannahs to the barren rocks of Aden to a bustling port city at China’s doorstep. But did the British empire leave any enduring legacy? For us, physically at least – Lutyen’s Delhi, Colaba and Fort areas in Mumbai and central Kolkata are good examples.

Was the British Raj good or bad is a question that has no easy answer – or one which shouldn’t be framed in such simply binary terms. But celebrate or ignore, revere or revile, safeguard or eradicate the colonial past, some tangible, and unavoidable legacies remain in evidence – residents of India’s metropolises (and many other cities in various countries across different continents) have to only look at the seats of government and justice.

This is the prism that politician-cum-historian Tristram Hunt chooses to present a new history of the empire – through the biographies of its 10 most significant cities over six continents and three centuries.

He makes a wide, sometimes surprising, list – Boston (from Britain’s first empire), Dublin (Ireland), Cape Town (South Africa), and Hong Kong while “jewel in the crown” India bags three spots – for Calcutta, Bombay (the older names are more suited to this context) and Delhi. Less obvious choices include Melbourne (Australia) and Bridgetown (Barbados) – and Singapore and Sydney are missing. The only British city to figure is Liverpool.

Underscoring the British supremacy over the seas and trade, all except Delhi are ports. The choices also reveal history at its most capricious – some of these cities were not only representative of empire but also those where were sown the seeds of eventual independence.

The narrative (largely) moves chronologically and geographically from 18th century Boston and follows a pattern – the reason and process of the city’s foundation (or colonisation and/or adaption), its importance to the imperial project and ambitions, a description of the social culture and the city’s development as far as its architectural and industrial or trading infrastructure.

Rejecting the tendency to weigh in with moral judgments, it instead uses a wide array of primary, contemporary accounts, anecdotes and personal reflection to give an idea of the varied processes shaping the colonial experience – and how they eventually ended up transforming the ruler too!

As notes Hunt, a sitting Labour MP and author of books on the Victorian concept of cities and Karl Marx’s overshadowed colleague Friedrich Engels, the book “seeks to explore the imperial nature through the urban form and its material culture” and chart British imperialism’s “changing character” and ideologies – mercantilism/free trade, promoting Western civilisation/protecting multicultural relativism, righteous exploitation/(and after slavery’s abolition) selfless crusade for liberty.

“And it is the very complexity of this urban past which allows us to go beyond the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cul-de-sac of so much imperial debate,” Hunt observes, and makes a compelling case how the city was influenced by the era’s pervasive ideology and economic considerations – slave trade and sugar for Bridgetown, the capture of Cape Town to secure the way to India and Asia, Calcutta for mercantilism and Hong Kong for free trade, Bombay replacing Calcutta as trade and industrial powerhouse as opium from Malwa and then cotton flowed in, and the Edwardian period with its assertion of power and authority dictated the choice of Delhi as British India’s capital.

And be all these cities of independent countries – the imperialist past is hard to beat: Lutyen’s Delhi is still the coveted spot for residences for the rulers, the administration of West Bengal was long run from the East India Company-era Writers’ Buildings and Chief Minister’s Mamata Banerjee’s model for a refurbished Kolkata is London!

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])

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