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From Boston to Bombay: the ten cities that made the British Empire

All ten cities share a self-confident belief: that it is quite unthinkable any of their number might ever dim or wither, no matter the tides of human history that sweep around them.

A view over south Bombay (now Mumbai) from Cumbala Hill in c1890. Photo: Getty
A view over south Bombay (now Mumbai) from Cumbala Hill in c1890. Photo: Getty

Ten Cities That Made an Empire
Tristram Hunt
Allen Lane, 514pp, £25

“And where will you fetch it from, all you Big Steamers,” asked Kipling in 1911, in a piece of Edwardian doggerel written for a children’s history of England, “And where shall I write you when you are away?” “We fetch it from Melbourne, Quebec, and Vancouver./Address us at Hobart, Hong-kong, and Bombay.”

Such were once the great cities of empire. Theirs were names to be learned, recited, remembered. Lines of this sort were designed to inculcate pride in our little drawing-room darlings, youthful propaganda made easy by rhyme and poetic rote.

A century later, the perspective has changed, just a little. The great jewel-cities of the British Raj, with their palaces and parks, their pleasaunces and parade grounds, all still stand, of course, the most visible legacy of five centuries of London’s pink-washed dominion. But time catches up. Some of Kipling’s one-time gems have dimmed in the public’s esteem. Who thinks much these days of Hobart? Of Quebec City? Or even, beyond Canada, of Vancouver? Aspic or decay have settled on some of these once-grand ports. They slumber on – still charmingly, true; but on the world stage rather unrated, mostly overlooked and somewhat unremembered.

Yet some other cities once fashioned for our imperial benefit retain an enduring importance. Perhaps now is the time – at least for those still titillated by dreaming about empire (and, to judge by the shelves of bookshops in London, a great many still are) – to sift the diamonds from the sand, to examine yet another niche and nook of what seems the insatiable British appetite for Matters Colonial, to parse in some detail the British urban legacy as it exists to this day in the faraway. And also to try to see beyond an imprint that was once writ large, and much rhapsodised about, in marble, memorials and manhole covers.

Tristram Hunt, the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, turns out to be very much the man for the task. He is an able educationalist and a trained historian, a man brimming with pedigree, cleverness and made-for-television good looks. To give him extra chops, he also had a grandfather who was born in that most imperial outpost, the south Indian hill-station of Ootacamund, a place of eucalyptus jungles where snooker was invented and where nut-brown colonels still ride to hounds, chasing jackals.

For his sturdy new book, with its useful maps and illustrations and a style and tone that manage to be enjoyable yet authoritative, good for the academy and for casual bathtime wallowing, Mr Hunt has opted to look closely at ten post-imperial cities. All of them are British inventions, now grown large, solid and mature. All share a self-confident belief: that it is quite unthinkable any of their number might ever dim or wither, no matter the tides of human history that sweep around them. Some, we gather here, are doing well enough to justify this notion; others, not so much.

All of these cities, with the exception of Delhi, are ports (which allows us to wonder whether the rising tides of global warming will one day do for them instead). Three of them (Bombay, Hong Kong and Melbourne) were on Mr Kipling’s exceedingly fine list of a century ago.

The rest – Boston, Bridgetown, Dublin, Cape Town, Calcutta and, most interestingly of all, Liverpool – have been cleverly selected, seemingly to demonstrate the essence of what I take to be Hunt’s thesis: that the British origins of the more potentially successful of these places are slowly being erased and obscured by layer upon layer of architecture and attitudes of their own making; and that this, in terms of the cities’ various futures, turns out to be of considerable benefit.

The choice is simple. To continue to bask in the refracted glory of empire, to be too wedded to the comforts of nostalgia, is to risk sharing in the ultimate destiny, if not entirely unhappily, of half-forgotten towns such as Hobart. On the other hand, those cities that manage forcefully to cast off their origins seem more destined to enjoy sustained prominence, success and the hope of a long-range measure of significance. To become cities of the future world.

Take the pullulating immensity of Calcutta. All of her grand and mouldering memorials, all of those mansions and barracks and churches and government buildings still dominate the city, and in doing so they help to define her. Calcutta today in consequence is something of a mausoleum, a heaving hothouse of a museum, a place unable or unwilling to break free of her shackles as the one-time capital of imperial India.

But then, for contrast, look west across the subcontinent and consider Bombay. Here, though India’s infuriatingly leaden bureaucracy manages to keep the city’s full potential in check, there is the gleam and glitter of the new. There is Bollywood, there is gossip, there is gaudy fortune, excitement, brio. There is mercantilism being conducted at warp-speed. Granted, one can still trek dutifully up to see the burra sahibs’ houses on Malabar Hill or gaze with fond regret at Victoria’s Necklace of lights tracing out the beachfront. One may still take a passable tea in the old wing of the Taj hotel and you may pass – if you dare, at rush hour – through the majesty of VT, the greatest British railway station of them all. But all these confections now lie half hidden in the city, much as do the ruins of Rome or the Tower of London. They are structures that no longer dominate as once they did. They have lifted their impress from the minds and the affects of Indian citizens. Bombay has broken free from empire in a way that Calcutta, despite all its fiery Bengali bluster, manifestly has not.

Lately Hong Kong, too, has shaken free. “In stark contrast to the imperial riches of Calcutta, Dublin or Cape Town,” Hunt writes, “the British imperial footprint in Hong Kong is now limited to the Tea Museum at Flagstaff House . . . St John’s Cathedral, the Old Dairy Farm building, Government House, the LEGCO Building on Statue Square (previously Royal Square). The heart of activity is in the Central skyscrapers . . . the haggling bustle of the Chinese markets,” he notes. “The colonial sunsets of Somerset Maugham, veranda drinks and social faux pas on Victoria Peak are long gone.”

All this I found fascinating and refreshing, for I had feared the book would be just one more melancholy reflection on the passing goodness of British times. It is instead a keenly valuable portrait of cities that have shared in a unique common experience, but one that then recounts with enthusiasm how a few among them have decided to build on that past, to unshackle themselves from it, and to develop themselves in consequence, unburdened.

Liverpool was Hunt’s boldest choice. It was once one of the greatest of the British imperial port-cities, a place whose fortunes ebbed and flowed and finally declined with the fortunes of the empire that she served. Today, however, all has changed, and quite suddenly. Liverpool is poised to become the British city most firmly linked, if plans materialise, with something that locally would have been quite unimaginable just a few years ago: with the world’s rapid shift of interest towards the Pacific region and, more specifically, to China.

One symbol could say it all. The Three Graces – that great wall of Merseyside waterfront buildings that was echoed almost a century ago with the construction of the Bund in Shanghai – are perhaps soon to be joined by an immense new structure. It is to be the Shanghai Tower, 55 storeys of Chinese-financed glass and steel that will stand as a stark and highly visible reminder of how the world order has changed, and will continue to change. And to be built in Liverpool, of all places.

Importantly, most of Liverpool now seems quite happy to accept this change – suggesting that this once-grimy, ironbound British metropolis of the past is fast unleashing herself from empire and is joining Hong Kong and Bombay and Melbourne and my own neighbour-city of Boston in demonstrating what post-imperial success can look like.

Tristram Hunt has performed a signal service in demonstrating the benefits that can accrue to those cities of empire that dare to look beyond all their years of colonial history. He has also, if perhaps unintentionally, offered something of a road map, making one wonder just what might happen if we tried similarly to unlatch Britain, the mother country, from the long imprisonment of her own imperial history. Although Rudyard Kipling might well turn in his grave, it is perhaps worth looking at these cities of tomorrow, at grandly swelling places such as Bombay, Melbourne and Hong Kong, and Liverpool, and wondering if as a country we should soon attempt to follow in their footsteps.

Simon Winchester’s most recent book is “The Men Who United the States”, newly published in paperback by William Collins (£9.99)