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Cities of Empire, by Tristram Hunt.

February 20, 2015

Cities of Empire: The British Colonies and the Creation of the Urban World by Tristram Hunt.  Metropolitan Books (2014), Hardcover, 544 pages

4 stars

An unconventional history of the of the British Empire focusing on ten major colonial cities, for general readers.

Colonialism can be studied in a variety of ways. Tristram Hunt has chosen to approach the topic through the cities which developed as the British Empire grew and changed.  Viewing the cities as essential to the empire, he has researched ten of them, looking at their place in imperial economies and politics as well as the material art and culture which developed in each.   Although some studies claim that colonialism was either all good or all bad.  Hunt provides us with the details and complexities that caused specific groups to profit or to suffer by the colonial enterprise.

Tristram Hunt is a professionally trained historian, the author of several histories, and a member of the British Parliament. He belongs to the subgroup of  historians whose focus on cities allows them to cross the traditional boundaries between political, economic, intellectual and military history and the new approaches to the study of artifacts and culture. This background enables him to describe a wide variety of aspects for the cities he has chosen and how these changed over time.  He makes his research fresh and alive for general readers.  While the cities have some predicable similarities, he sees each as depicting a particular aspect of empire building. Although the colonial narratives overlap somewhat in time, he has arranged them in a roughly chronological order according to when each reached its peak of success. In doing so, he reveals how the Atlantic empire, organized around merchantilism, flourished in the 1700s and was replaced by the shift to Asian markets and the ideology of free trade.

Hunts account of British colonization of the western hemisphere is  an example of his approach.  English settlers in Boston initially prospered within the centralized trading patterns of merchantilism, but they never lost their fundamental opposition to the crown. When trade regulations interfered with their profits, they were ready to rebel.   On the other hand, Bridgetown, the central city on Barbados in the West Indies, thrived because of Europeans’ newly acquired desire for sugar. The slave trade fit nicely into British system and enormous profits were made. Like Boston, the region had been virtually emptied of indigenous people by epidemics of disease. Unlike Boston, the elites of Bridgetown remained closely tied to leaders in Great Britain and were more able than the Bostonians to acquire regulations that profited them at the expense of other colonies. In addition, Hunt’s work on Bridgetown includes recent detailed studies that provide evidence of how the wealth gained from slavery in the colonies was essential to British leadership in the Industrial Revolution. Other cities that Hunt examines are Dublin, Cape Town, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Bombay, Melbourne, New Delhi, and Liverpool.

Cities of Empire offers much to readers like myself, trying to put together the scattered bits of global history that I have learned from my reading. It would serve global travelers well in a similar way with its attempts to set the current structures of the cities in an historical context. The book is a pleasure to read and requires no former knowledge of global history. Hunt seems to have done a creditable job of summarizing a vast amount of current scholarship, and his book has the documentation to support his claims. His numerous excerpts from the writings of people in the heyday of each city, brings his narrative to life. The vast majority of these quotations, predictably, are from elite Europeans who visited or worked in them.

Yet this book is explicitly an overview, and as such, has its weaknesses. Hunt simply tries to write about so many topics that the details can become overwhelming. His categorization of the cities is neater than the narratives he tells about their changing leaders and policies. The discussions of the architecture of the cities are fascinating but lack enough illustrations to be clear for those of us who do not know them firsthand. There are no African or Middle Eastern cities in the book—except for Cape Town, which may be an exception—and I wonder how their inclusion might change Hunt’s narrative.

Particularly in his discussion of Asian cities, Hunt makes the intriguing point that despite the British monopoly on power, other groups made important contributions to what the cities became. He notes how “multicultural” some of them were as people from other regions arrived as workers or refugees. A few non-British obtained wealth and social acceptability. In the early years, sharp distinctions might exist between White Town and Black Town, but crossing the barriers was easy and people of mixed ethnicities were numerous. This is an issue I would like to explore. Certainly in fiction, characters on the boundaries of their own cultures frequently interact, despite the sharp formal distinctions. Also, Hunt’s accounts focus on British colonists almost exclusively in some colonies. In other colonies, those who were being colonized are more of the story. I wasn’t quite sure if Hunt meant to say that Asians were more acceptable to empire-builders than darker-skinned Africans or Indigenous Australians.

I found Cities of Empire, well-crafted and interesting, especially for non-scholars seeking a wider understanding of how our world came to be as it is.  I recommend it to all seeking to understand our interconnected world.

I am interested in global history and would welcome suggestions for other books of this type.


Links to other global histories that I have found useful in my attempt to make sense of global literature.  I also recommend each of these.

The Birth of the Modern World, by C.A. Bayly.

Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. By Janet Abu-Lughod. 

 Drawing the Global Color Line: White Men’s Countries, by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds.

A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor.


One Comment leave one →
  1. maamej permalink
    March 2, 2015 3:25 am

    It sounds like a very interesting read. I also note the absence of European cities outside the British isles. Still, it sounds like the scope is so grand he had to draw the line somewhere.

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