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

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)

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era