Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ten Cities that made an Empire by Tristram Hunt

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Ten Cities that made an Empire
Tristram Hunt, Allen Lane, 514pp, £25.00 

These days Tristram Hunt is probably best known as Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for Education. He considered putting himself forward for the Labour leadership election, but was unable to garner enough support from fellow MPs. Of the 'Blairite' right, he has thrown his support behind Liz Kendall. Who knows whether Labour will in fact opt for the leftist Jeremy Corbyn, and in all likelihood consign itself to electoral oblivion? As an historian Hunt knows full well that no institution is bound to last for ever. The impregnable seeming British Empire had its rise and fall. It remains to be seen whether the British Labour Party has a future, or will soon be consigned to history. If the worst comes to the worst politically, at least Hunt will be able to return to his old day job, so it's just as well that he continues to publish historical works. And very good ones at that.  

Horace Walpole affected amazement at how in founding world-spanning empire, 'a peaceable, quiet set of tradesfolks' had somehow become 'heirs-apparent of the Romans'. It kind of just happened, who knew how? But, contra Walpole, it took considerable effort, ingenuity and brute force to create, develop and sustain the British Empire. The distinctive feature of Hunt's account of this story is that he shows the effect of empire on ten key cites and explains how those cities in turn helped shape the direction of British imperial expansion. A chapter is devoted each city; Boston, Bridgetown, Dublin, Cape Town, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Bombay, Melbourne, New Delhi and Liverpool.

As the Empire touched on these cities it transformed their buildings and streets and impacted upon both the colonised and colonists. Hunt introduces us to tales of ambitious empire builders, audacious land grabs, rapacious traders and well-meaning social reformers. He guides us though the burgeoning cities of empire, with all their grime and grandeur. The author is not one to moralise, but the less savoury aspects of empire are laid bare, the barbarity of the slave trade, the casual racism endemic in British Raj, Hong Kong and the Opium Wars and so on. While the empire may have bestowed benefits on the lands it colonised, there was always a price to pay. A salutary reminder that 'British Values' haven't always been all love and light.  

The British Empire was touted as the one on which the sun never set. But the sun did eventually come down on the Empire and when it did, that had just as much an effect on Liverpool as an imperial port, as it did New Delhi. But Liverpool, which fell so low during the 1980's as a result of imperial decline is now being transformed once more as a result of massive Chinese investment in its infrastructure. A case of reverse colonisation, perhaps? Payback time for 'borrowing' Hong Kong.

Hunt writes well, packing in a mass of detail, but without leaving the reader feeling overwhelmed by the fast-paced narrative. His city-by-city approach to the story of empire enables him to blend intimacy with the big picture. The work is a reminder of the historic importance of world-shaping cities. In his book, Center Church, Tim Keller notes, "In 1950, New York and London were the only world cities with metro-area populations of over ten million people. Today, however, there are more than twenty such cities — twelve of which achieved that ranking in the last two decades — with many more to come." [Keller, Timothy; Keller, Timothy (2012-09-04). Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Kindle Locations 4259-4260). Zondervan. Kindle Edition. The emergence of global cities]. 

Keller reminds us that ministry to these global city ministry is of strategic importance for world mission. "If Christians want to reach the unreached, we must go to the cities. To reach the rising generations, we must go to the cities. To have any impact for Christ on the creation of culture, we must go to the cities. To serve the poor, we must go to the cities." [Keller, Timothy; Keller, Timothy (2012-09-04). Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Kindle Locations 4514-4516). Zondervan. Kindle Edition]. The mission of the Church is not neo-imperial adventurism, however, but that of proclaiming the world-changing good news of Jesus to the people of all nations.  

Pride of man and earthly glory,
Sword and crown betray His trust;
What with care and toil He buildeth,
Tower and temple fall to dust.
But God’s power, hour by hour,
Is my temple and my tower.

*I am grateful to the publishers for sending me a complementary review copy. 

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