Tristram Hunt: Ten Cities That Made an Empire.
Ten Cities That Made an Empire
(London: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2014)
ISBN: 9781846143250 (hbk) 25.00 [pounds sterling]
Having previously published on the Victorian city and the life of Friedrich Engels, urbanist and politician Tristram Hunt has embarked on the ambitious study of the British Empire that explores the interwoven histories of empire, urban life and commodity exchange from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries. Broad in its geographical, temporal and content approach, Ten Cities That Made an Empire explores the intricacies of the Imperial experience with the intent of moving beyond the good/evil constructions of the British Empire (7-10), as well as the dichotomies of centre/periphery that often characterise studies on the subject.
To this end he undertakes a relatively innovative approach to the study of empire that combines aspects of urban history, historical biography, architectural history, cultural practices and material culture within a transnational framework, in order to tease out the local and global connections of the modern era. Appealing to both popular and academic audiences, the book reveals and interrogates these complexities but, at the same time, the broad scope creates difficulties of research and interpretation that weaken the endeavour.
Hunt has chosen ten cities that each played an important role in the development of empire and the spread of British forms of culture, and he focuses on the interwoven aspects of commerce, manufacturing and the urban environment, both built and social, within them. From seventeenth-century Boston to eighteenth-century Bridgeport and Dublin, from nineteenth-century Hong Kong and Melbourne, to twentieth-century New Delhi and Liverpool, each chapter focuses on one city that was a locus for the exchange of goods, ideas and people from all over the British Empire and beyond.
Goods from the globe circulated through these sites and Hunt eloquently describes this exchange network that involved the distribution and redistribution of both raw and manufactured commodities 'such as Bridgetown for sugar, Boston for fisheries or Melbourne for gold--and then the emergence of more complicated economies around them, from ship-building to financial services to foodstuffs, leisure and retail' (11).
Throughout each chapter he emphasises the interconnectivity of the cities and colonies of the British Empire and the global web that connected them to the rest of the world. Hunt successfully intertwines this story of commodity exchange with the growth and development of these cities, alongside the development of urban modernity, the changes of attitude and intent of British Empire, as well as broader historical events and processes occurring amidst British expansion.
He also underscores the creation of British culture and manners that went alongside this trade and urban development, sometimes melding with local influences. These included architectural forms, the adoption and adaptation of British forms of sociability and political structures, as well as the conspicuous consumption of British-made or -inspired manufactured goods that contributed to the Anglicisation of these cities and their inhabitants to varying degrees.
Hunt's engaging writing style and generally in-depth research ties all of these elements together and makes for a fascinating and thought provoking read. He has used a diversity of primary sources that range from newspapers to travelogues, memoirs to maps, official records to the artworks and photographs that are used in abundance throughout and meticulously documented in the endnotes and the robust bibliography.
But the ambitious scope of the project is also responsible for some of its weaknesses. An in-depth analysis of the Melbourne chapter reveals the difficulties in exploring such a broad topic and the weaknesses in research and errors of fact (such as calling John Batman a bushranger (308)) would be evident to those familiar with the city's history. Hunt's description of Melbourne is the least nuanced of all of the chapters and follows the now familiar stories of gold; boom to bust; suburban development; the sport-loving Australian; the slums of inner city Melbourne; and the characterisation of Melbourne as 'Another England' (312-8). Although the emphasis on multiculturalism is a hallmark of other chapters, that on Melbourne almost completely ignores the racial diversity of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century city-except for the inevitable tokenistic nod to the Chinese population (332).
These weaknesses are probably partly due to the selection of sources (4379). For Melbourne, the contemporary perspective is dominated by outside visitors such as Twopeny, Twain and Trollope, and emphasises British assessments of the Australian colonies. The secondary material utilised for the chapter is narrow and displays a lack of engagement with works that could shed a different light on the diverse and dynamic nature of the city's urban and public culture--for example McCalman's Struggletown (1984) or Brown-May's Melbourne Street Life (1998).
The book could also engage more evenly with the complexities of settler societies, and interactions between Indigenous peoples and colonisers, and shies away from issues of postcolonialism, despite the intriguing discussion of the contemporary cities that accompany each chapter. In some cases Hunt delves into problematics and horrors of race and segregation in the imperial context--such as slavery in colonial America, Barbados and Cape Town, or the interactions of English settlers, the Khoekoe of South Africa, and Indian agency in Mumbai, Calcutta and New Delhi. But in others there is little or no indication that any such interactions occurred: in the characterisation of Boston the Massachusset people were decimated by disease, never to be heard of again (27-8); in Bridgetown the local 'Caribs' had left by the time the British arrived (70, 77), yet later settler reactions to them are mentioned; and the interactions between Aboriginal people and British settlers in the early days of Melbourne are ignored (eg Edmond's 2010 Urbanizing Frontiers).
While the book aims to show a more diverse, interconnected and complex empire--in which it does succeed to a great extent--it inadvertently continues to perpetuate an Orientalist and exoticised view of colonial spaces that at times reads as apologist and sits uncomfortably with readers versed in postcolonial discourse of empire. But it is, on the other hand, a valuable piece of research, not least in its transnational approach, which emphasises urban life as a lens through which we can view the complex and diverse global connections of the modern era.
University of Melbourne
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|Publication:||Melbourne Historical Journal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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