In Cities of Empire: The British Colonies and the Creation of the Urban World, historian Tristram Hunt (author of Marx’s General) explores Britain’s imperial history through the lens of the formerly colonial cities that he argues are her greatest legacy to the modern world.
Hunt organizes his work around ten cities and their role in the development of the British empire. Most, such as Boston and New Delhi, were founded as part of the empire. Others, such as Dublin and Liverpool, were transformed by the empire’s expansion. Hunt considers the history of each city’s creation or annexation not simply as an imperial act but as a series of negotiations and exchanges between two cultures, though admittedly often on unequal terms. He looks at their architecture, civic institutions and street names as imperial artifacts. He discusses the role of each city as both an entrepôt within the imperial network and a hub of the economy that developed around it. Working more or less chronologically, he traces the history of the empire from Boston’s transformation of itself from a colonial to a revolutionary city through Liverpool’s post-imperial decline. The book ends with Hunt’s assertion that Britain is now on the receiving end of the empire it created, shaped by exchanges and negotiations with its former colonies.
Cities of Empire is informed by post-colonial theory, urban history, and Hunt’s own Labour Party politics, but Hunt uses them with a light hand, creating a work of colonial history that is both lively and authoritative. If you’re fascinated by the British empire, this one’s for you.
This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.