A rather brilliant non fiction volume from Mum’s bookshelves – like me, Mum was always fond of a good history book, and this is no exception. The premise is to tell the story of the British Empire in ten easily digestible chapters, each dealing with a city that has played a major role in both the rise of the Empire, its ‘glory days’, and subsequent decline, and it does so extremely well. In the introduction, the author states that his ambition is to ‘explain how the idealogies of Empire were made flesh through the urban form and habits of city life’, and he does so by paying close attention not only to the inhabitants and their roles, but the architecture and symbolism. I’m going to give you a small precis of all ten cities…
The book opens in Boston with the first European settlers, where I was surprised to discover just how early Harvard College was founded and that its principal purpose was to provide home grown preachers for the new colony. But by the time the American’s had won their independence, slavery and the sugar income from the West Indies, (Chapter 2, Bridgetown, Barbados), had funded the Industrial Revolution in Britain, including the development of Watt’s steam engine, and the wheels of Empire were in motion, kick started by a brutal traffic in human flesh.
In Dublin, Mr Hunt really gets involved with the architecture as a new, grand city is built in Georgian times to reflect the growing wealth of the upper classes, and Cape Town, once just a stop over port, becomes hugely significant to Britain in terms of supplying the Navy who by the late 1700’s are controlling the oceans, as well as servicing the rapidly growing shipping lanes between India and the Far East.
Calcutta, the original seat of power for the East India Company, and the subsequent and completely illegal but extremely lucrative opium trade from there to China via the newly acquired Hong Kong, were both fascinating chapters, with a glimpse into how ruthless merchants like Jardine Matheson & Co caused two ‘Opium Wars’ between Britain and China, described at the time by Lord Shaftesbury as ‘the most lawless, un-necessary and unfair struggles in the records of history’. That, by the way, is the British behaving badly, not the Chinese.
Bombay meanwhile has become a bustling and multi cultural hub of commerce which is, according to the author, due to the fact that native businessmen lived within the city unlike their counterparts in Calcutta..he mentions the 27 storey tower block that is the current residence of the incredibly wealthy Ambani family which I remember being pointed out to me by a rickshaw driver when I was in Mumbai a few years ago! Rich natives also sponsored many public charitable institutions, notably the Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy Hospital – Mr Jejeebhoy made his millions in the opium trade as a partner with Jardine Matheson.
And so to the Antipodes, where the author has chosen Melbourne, opening with the note that unlike India, where a relationship existed between the natives and the British, Australia was considered an empty land for the taking, the indigenous Aboriginal population being considered so extraordinarily backward as to be beyond redemption. Thus, the relationship between the white colonists and the mother country was as strong as it had been in the early American settlements, and the Australians almost more British than the British themselves – and of course, he uses cricket to emphasise this!
Back to India and New Delhi. It’s not surprising that three Indian cities feature in this book, it was the jewel in the crown of Empire, but by the time this one was being built away from the old, cramped and higgledy piggledy ancient city of Delhi, the Empire was in decline – it was described as being the Rome of Hindustan, a splendid imperial city, laid out with broad roads and palaces to once and for all stamp the power and glory of Empire on the face of India. But the author notes that perhaps more attention should have been paid to Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ as by the time New Delhi was being built – Lutyens was appointed chief architect in 1913 – the end was indeed in sight, and the British only enjoyed their Rome for under thirty years, although the city remains, and is indeed splendid.
We end up on home soil, in Liverpool in the Eighties, where the huge Tate & Lyle factory, (yes, back to sugar again), has just closed down and Toxteth is burning in the riots. 80,000 unemployed people are chasing just 1000 job vacancies.
The author uses this chapter to illustrate what the decline of Empire actually meant to to a port city like Liverpool – the collapse was catastrophic. ‘The move away from a British economy based around raw material extraction at the edges of Empire and manufacturing production at the core’ – Britain – killed Liverpool.
But now the tables are turning. The author concludes by noting how much our cities are now being changed by the influx of foreign wealth and investment – after centuries of exporting our power abroad, we are now on the receiving end. Influence and investment from China, India, South America and the Gulf is flooding in, buying football clubs, building art galleries and the like, and changing the fabric of our cities.
As Joseph Conrad said, ‘Empire is not a pretty thing when you look into it too closely’, but the author wears no rose tinted glasses in this history. I definitely recommend it.