Flawed but Thrilling Anatomy of Empire

This study of empire building is imaginative and vivid, but has a loose grip on detail

Books History
The Empire's lynchpin: An English grandee in an Indian procession, c. 1825-30, by an anonymous Indian artist (credit: Getty)

The great sprawling beast known as the British Empire is almost impossible to categorise. Spreading over four centuries in time, and over a quarter of the world’s surface in space, it is naturally a favourite subject for modern historians.

Tristram Hunt adopts an original and inventive approach to tackling empire. He investigates ten cities, all of which reveal interesting aspects of the empire. There is, one can detect, a slight bias in the selection of the cities. Nearly all of Hunt’s cities are ports. Boston, Bridgetown, Calcutta, Bombay, Liverpool, Hong Kong and Cape Town were all thriving harbour towns which saw an immense commerce carried through on sailing ships to enrich urban traders.

So inevitably Hunt’s book regales us with tales of commercial enterprise. Some of this enterprise was tarnished by such barbarities as the slave trade and the brutal exploitation of an urban proletariat. In this vein, Hunt frequently quotes Marx, and, as a reviewer, I was surprised to see Karl Marx’s name appear no fewer than seven times in the text, while John Stuart Mill, undoubtedly one of the Victorian empire’s greatest intellectual influences, doesn’t make an appearance at all. Great military heroes of empire, such as Kitchener and Gordon, are also noticeably absent.

The strength of the book lies in the highly imaginative and vivid portrayals of urban life. This is a book which is experienced though the life on the streets, in the buildings and across the physical layout of large urban centres, where jostled men and women of different races and creeds. As a historian Hunt is long on imagination and colour. The character of puritan Boston in the 1650s, the squalor of mid-19th-century Bombay and the genteel plantation society of Bridgetown are all brought to life.

A slight drawback to all this imagination and colour is a somewhat loose grip on detail. As another reviewer has rightly pointed out, the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, not 1844. This might be a minor oversight, but when you see a map purporting to be of 1760s Bridgetown, complete with a monument to Nelson and a Trafalgar Square, you begin to ask questions about the production process of the book. It is quite true that the plantation owners of the West Indies were known for their shrewd foresight but I think that it would be too much to credit them with having erected a monument to Nelson when the great sailor was barely ten years old.

All this is perhaps merely the buzzing of flies around a noble house. Hunt’s book is readable and engaging. Its scope, in terms of time and geography, is vast. It touches on so many issues relating to race, capitalism, religion and urban society. It is a work of great ambition and is certainly an original contribution to a well-worn subject.

As befitting a historian of imagination and literary skill, Hunt intersperses some references from contemporary novels into his historical descriptions. Thus William Jardine, the Scottish entrepreneur who founded Jardine, Matheson & Co, the Hong Kong trading house, is described by Benjamin Disraeli in his 1845 novel Sybil: “A Scotchman, richer than Croesus, one McDruggy, fresh from Canton, with a million opium in each pocket, denouncing corruption and bellowing free trade.”

Jardine, an enterprising Scot who went to China and then made a fortune selling opium, is as archetypal figure of the Hunt view of empire as any other. Above all else, Jardine was a moneymaker. He used opportunities in China and Hong Kong to press a ruthless case for drug dealing. All of this fuelled the indignation of Karl Marx, who was always eager to see the ironies and contradictions of capitalism. The sight of British gunboats being used to force the Chinese to buy opium off British traders provoked howls of derision from the young Marx.

The particular object of Marx’s scorn was Sir John Bowring, a disciple of Jeremy Bentham and laissez-faire economics. Bowring, in that typical mid-19th-century way, combined a strong commercial instinct with a powerful brand of evangelical Christianity. The somewhat absurd aphorism “Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ” has been attributed to him. You don’t have to be Marx to see the irony of Bowring clutching the Bible in one hand and forcing opium down the throats of the Chinese with another.

As if conscious of an undue emphasis on trade and commerce, Hunt slips in a chapter on New Delhi towards the end of his wide-ranging book. This concentrates on the administrative aspects of empire. Lord Curzon, as Viceroy of India, is described in all his pomposity and grandeur. To Curzon, India was the “lynchpin of British imperial hegemony around the world”. He implicitly believed in Britain’s imperial destiny, to which he saw India as the key. “If we lose it (India) we shall drop straight away to a third-rate power”. Hunt perhaps follows Lord Curzon in the belief that India was the central fact of the British Empire. It is striking that no fewer than three of his ten cities — Calcutta, Bombay and New Delhi — are in India, and a case could have been made for the inclusion of Khartoum, Cairo or even Lagos as illustrative cities of empire.

But all this is to cavil. The range of references is impressive. Hunt’s line of attack is a very credible attempt to capture the spirit of empire in a single readable volume. He ends up in Liverpool, describing the urban unrest there in the early 1980s. This is clearly a nod to the well-observed notion that the Empire, with its consequent mass immigration into Britain, ended up affecting the home country as much as the colonies were affected by Britain. It was a two-way process, so the sight of black youths rioting in Toxteth in 1981 is seen by Hunt as an appropriate conclusion to the imperial story. 

Despite the references to Marx, Hunt’s progression through ten imperial cities seems to confirm the notion of history as being nothing more than “one damn thing after another”. His book, however, is energetic and sensitive, without drawing any big conclusions. At the end, one becomes mindful of the old, rather cynical saying that the two greatest legacies of the British Empire were afternoon tea, and a vulgar expression not used in polite company.