Cities of Empire: The British Colonies and the Creation of the Urban World

Cities of Empire: The British Colonies and the Creation of the Urban World

by Tristram Hunt

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Cities of Empire: The British Colonies and the Creation of the Urban World by Tristram Hunt

An original history of the most enduring colonial creation, the city, explored through ten portraits of powerful urban centers the British Empire left in its wake

At its peak, the British Empire was an urban civilization of epic proportions, leaving behind a network of cities which now stand as the economic and cultural powerhouses of the twenty-first century. In a series of ten vibrant urban biographies that stretch from the shores of Puritan Boston to Dublin, Hong Kong, New Delhi, Liverpool, and beyond, acclaimed historian Tristram Hunt demonstrates that urbanism is in fact the most lasting of Britain's imperial legacies.
Combining historical scholarship, cultural criticism, and personal reportage, Hunt offers a new history of empire, excavated from architecture and infrastructure, from housing and hospitals, sewers and statues, prisons and palaces. Avoiding the binary verdict of empire as "good" or "bad," he traces the collaboration of cultures and traditions that produced these influential urban centers, the work of an army of administrators, officers, entrepreneurs, slaves, and renegades. In these ten cities, Hunt shows, we also see the changing faces of British colonial settlement: a haven for religious dissenters, a lucrative slave-trading post, a center of global hegemony.
Lively, authoritative, and eye-opening, Cities of Empire makes a crucial new contribution to the history of colonialism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805096002
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 11/25/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 544
Sales rank: 257,551
File size: 15 MB
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About the Author

Tristram Hunt is the author of Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels and Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City. One of Britain's leading young historians, he writes regularly for The Guardian, The Observer, and The Times, and has broadcast numerous series for the BBC. A lecturer in history at the University of London, Hunt represents Stoke-on-Trent in the British Parliament, where he serves as the education spokesman for the Labour Party.
Tristram Hunt is the author of Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels and Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City. One of Britain’s leading young historians, he writes regularly for The Guardian, The Observer, and The Times, and has broadcast numerous series for the BBC. A lecturer in history at the University of London, Hunt represents Stoke-on-Trent in the British Parliament, where he serves as the education spokesman for the Labour Party.

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Cities of Empire

The British Colonies and the Creation of the Urban World

By Tristram Hunt

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2014 Tristram Hunt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9600-2



'A City upon a Hill'

As evening fell on 16 December 1773, with thousands pressed into the square pew boxes and overflowing balconies of the whitewashed Old South Meeting House, brewer and politician Samuel Adams stepped forward to announce that 'he could think of nothing further to be done – that they had now done all they could for the Salvation of the Country'. The wealthy Boston merchant John Hancock agreed, erupting in frustration: 'Let every man do what is right in his own eyes!' Fifteen minutes later, the war whoops began.

It was the signal the 'patriots' had been waiting for. Secreted across Boston – in living rooms and parlours, workshops and shipyards – men had covered their faces, donned disguises and readied their weapons. Men like James Brewer, a pump- and blockmaker, whose wife had blackened his face with burnt cork; the blacksmith's apprentice Joshua Wyeth; the carpenter Amos Lincoln; the boat builder Samuel Nowell; and the lemon importer Edward Proctor. Anxious about what the ensuing hours might bring, these 'Sons of Liberty' steeled themselves for a potentially deadly clash with British troops.

Dressed as Mohawk Indians, they gathered together a hundred strong outside the Meeting House, then surged south-east through the narrow Boston lanes, shouting like Indians and whistling like boatswains, along Milk Street and Hutchinsons Street, and down to the docks, where the Dartmouth, the Eleanor and the Beaver sat at anchor alongside Griffin's Wharf. The crowds followed in a torchlit procession, before coming to a stop at the waterfront, silent as they watched the 'Mohawks' board the ships, brush past the crews and uncover their cargo.

The night's quiet was shattered by the sound of axes heaving into wooden crates, the fixing of tackle and hauling of chests – and then the splash of tons of tea leaves cascading into the waters of Boston harbour. For hour after hour – within sight of the 64th Regiment stationed at Fort William, and in easy range of the guns of Admiral John Montagu's flagship, HMS Captain – the Mohawk stevedores unloaded the valuable cases of black and green Bohea, Singlo, Hyson and Congou tea. 'We were merry in an under tone,' Joshua Wyeth recalled, 'at the idea of making so large a cup of tea for the fishes.' Over 340 chests, containing over 46 tons of tea priced at almost £10,000, were dumped into Boston harbour.

As they fell, the splintered crates and sodden tea leaves formed an eighteenth-century oil-slick rising and falling with the Boston tides, lapping the Dorchester coastline all the way down to the British soldiers stationed at Fort William. The Atlantic currents never took the tea leaves back to Britain, but they had no need to. News of the 1773 'Boston Tea-Party' soon reached London – and Westminster's response to this audacious assault on British property would set in train the events of the American Revolution.

Today, over 230 years later, Boston, Massachusetts is still defined by that revolutionary moment. It is the city of the 'Freedom Trail' where, beginning at Boston Common under the golden dome of the State House and snaking all the way up to the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, you can walk the story of liberation, pursued by historical re-enactors. And be it Paul Revere House, Old North Church or USS Constitution – 'Old Ironsides' – the urban narrative is powerfully consistent: here was a city which stoically laboured under the heel of British colonialism until the greed and arrogance of the occupiers finally forced the citizens to turn freedom-fighters.

The reupholstered Faneuil Hall is branded 'Cradle to Liberty'; the Boston Historical Society exhibition at the Old State House is a Whiggish tale entitled 'From Colony to Commonwealth'. At the Museum of Fine Arts, that heritage of freedom is reaffirmed with its magnificent collection of John Singleton Copley portraits, depicting the likes of Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and John Hancock in suitably heroic poses. Adams, caught in the aftermath of the 1770 'Boston Massacre' (the fatal shooting of five Bostonians by British soldiers), is especially striking, as he points melodramatically to the 1691 Massachusetts charter, every inch the wronged constitutionalist.

Implicit within the history is a residual anti-British sentiment which has become an important facet of modern Boston's identity. Mass Irish immigration to Massachusetts in the aftermath of the mid-nineteenth-century Great Famine helped to cement an implicit antagonism towards the redcoats and lobsterbacks across the pond. It certainly did no harm for city politicians to play to anti-British populism, and few managed it more successfully than the Kennedy clan. Even as US ambassador to Great Britain, stationed in London in the run-up to the Second World War, Joseph P. Kennedy, the grandson of Irish emigrants, could barely suppress his distaste for the UK. Much of that prejudice cascaded down the generations, and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy's support for Sinn Fein always worked well with his Irish-Catholic Boston base. In less salubrious parts of South Boston there were often nickels and dimes to be found in pub collection tins for NORAID and 'the cause'.

But turn east from the Old South Meeting House, under the dreary skyscrapers of modern 'Washington Street' towards the Old State House and a different Boston peeks out of the past. There, either side of the eighteenth-century balcony from which the Declaration of Independence was read in July 1776, stands a glistening, golden lion and a rearing, silver unicorn. The coat of arms of the British royal family was ripped down in the aftermath of Independence but replaced in 1882, and it is that crest which highlights the hidden history of imperial Boston. For this city, right up to the moment of revolution, was renowned as one of the most ardently British and comfortably colonial of imperial satellites. Its birth and growth signalled the coming of the British urban footprint across the globe, whilst its unexpected rebellion in 1773 marked the first great rupture in the imperial story. There is no stop along the Freedom Trail for the less straightforward elements of this history of colonialism: before it became the revolutionary citadel of 1773, Boston was a fiercely royal city, a true Protestant redoubt. You would not know it from the John Hancock Tower, Franklin Street or Congress Street, but in the bones of Boston can be found some of the earliest traces of a British imperial identity.


Modern Boston's origins do not begin with its namesake in Lincolnshire, but rather in the Stour valley, that Arcadian stretch of 'Constable country' running through Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex. In the early 1600s, this was a place of piety and godliness, of strict worship and careful magistracy, where drink and 'rough sports' were banned and preaching and prayer encouraged. Among the governing East Anglian merchant, legal and landowning classes, the call to Reformation had been answered most purposefully. They would come to be known as the Puritans – Protestants who focused on the pure word of Christian faith drawn from the pages of scripture, considered themselves in a much more personal relationship with God and eschewed what they regarded as the rituals, hierarchies and idolatry of the Church of England. Their mission was to lead England out of the lingering, crypto-Catholic darkness which had corrupted the Anglican church since the Reformation of 1534. Among the islands of godliness lining the Stour valley was, for example, Colchester in Essex – described by one admirer in the late 1590s as a 'town [which], for the earnest profession of the gospel, [was] like unto the city upon a hill; and as a candle upon a candlestick'.

This was the stern spiritual environment in which the future governor of Massachusetts John Winthrop was brought up. His father, Adam Winthrop, had been a small-holder, lawyer and squire of Groton Manor, Suffolk – as well as a committed supporter of the Puritan cause. His son proved equally strict in his piety, as a barrister at Gray's Inn, and then a middling landowner and magistrate. Yet all around him, from the 1610s, Winthrop spied evidence of God's displeasure at work. The dual curse of erastianism (state interference in ecclesiastical matters) and Arminianism (which rejected strict Protestant doctrines of predestination) was undermining the true church, whilst the authorities appeared ever more indulgent to the unChristian pastimes of the 'rude sort'. On the European Continent, a great struggle between true religion and popery, the forces of light and dark, had opened in 1618 with the start of the Thirty Years' War, but Britain, under King James I and VI, was reluctant to intervene. The godly saw ahead of them a fearful Counter-Reformation, coordinated by the Catholic Spanish empire, threatening the very survival of Protestant England, and yet few in the Stuart court seemed to appreciate the eschatological immediacy.

By 1628, in his pamphlet Reasons for the Plantation in New England, Winthrop was dismissing England as 'this sinful land' which was growing 'weary of her inhabitants, so as man which is the most precious of all Creatures, is here more vile and base, than the earthe they tread upon'. With his family's personal salvation at risk, Winthrop started to contemplate an Exodus. He need not have chosen America. Plantations had already emerged by the late 1500s as far afield as Ulster and Bermuda, with the dual ambition of profit and Protestantism. Land was carved out from the wilderness or expropriated from indigenous residents, handed over to enterprising colonial settlers, who then 'planted' labourers on to the fields and farmed it for profit. It was an early form of colonialism usefully combining systems of patronage with the informal extension of state power. Winthrop himself had numerous family ties to Ireland and, in the early 1620s, was considering emigrating to his brother-in-law's plantation at Montrath, in County Laois, in the middle of Ireland. At the time, the main possibility across the Atlantic was Jamestown, Virginia, settled in 1607 (christened in honour of Queen Elizabeth I, the 'Virgin Queen'), and, after its conversion to a royal colony in 1624, a model of loyal Anglicanism. Alternatively, there was the struggling colony of Plymouth, founded in 1620 by the 'Pilgrim Fathers', who had fled religious persecution in England first to the Netherlands and then to America, determined to separate themselves from the corrupt, decaying Old World. These struggling outposts formed part of a broader, incremental 'New England' society of European colonists encompassing Cape Ann, Rhode Island, parts of Connecticut and New Haven.

It was this wooded, storm-battered littoral of the eastern seaboard of America, with its promise of religious freedom and personal salvation, that offered the greatest hope for England's Puritans during the anxious Stuart years. In 1623 a 'Council for New England' had been established to promote the creation of further colonies, and, as one of the first histories of Boston recounts it,

On the 19th of March, 1627–8, Sir Henry Rosewell and Sir John Young [Puritan landowners and colonists], with their associates near Dorchester, in England, purchased of the Council for New England a patent for that part of the country situated between three miles to the northward of the Merrimac River and three miles to the southward of the Charles River, and in length from the Atlantic Ocean to the South Sea. Under this charter, 'the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England' commenced the settlement of the Massachusetts colony.

Like the Virginia Company, the Massachusetts Bay Company, formed in 1629, was a joint-stock corporation which received its rights to settle and trade in America from the Crown. But the vital difference was that the Massachusetts Bay leaders moved the location of their patent from London to New England, allowing them to build a self-governing commonwealth, over the sea, free from day-to-day royal interference. For the Council for New England was composed of a well-connected network of Puritan merchants and divines, who were keen to exploit Atlantic fishing opportunities but also to promote colonialism as a safe haven for true religion. In time, it was hoped the exercise of pure Protestantism in America would inspire and rescue the English church from its present woes. God's will had revealed itself: here was the perfect vehicle for Winthrop to escape Old England for New. He invested heavily in the Massachusetts Bay Company before, in October 1629, being elected its governor.

As his ship Arbella set sail out of Southampton for Cape Ann harbour in the spring of 1630, Winthrop took the opportunity to preach a lay sermon, 'The model of Christian charity', to his fellow passengers. He took as his text the Book of Matthew, 5:14–16:

Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

Aboard the ship's deck, the governor set out his ambitions for the colony and its elect membership, 'a company professing ourselves fellow members of Christ'. Central to Winthrop's vision of his prosperous, godly commonwealth was the seventeenth-century notion of a Covenant with God: 'We are entered into a covenant with Him for this work.' As a body of pilgrims dependent upon God's grace for their survival, they had to agree to work together, live together and worship the same God together. The colony, as an exemplary Christian community, was the corpus through which God could be most perfectly served. If the Lord 'shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then he hath ratified this Covenant ... and will expect a strict performance of the articles'. If they achieved the purpose for which God had planned, 'We must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill; the eyes of all people are upon us.' Long before any notion of America's manifest destiny, the city of Boston had been marked out for special purposes. 'This Year [1630] it pleased God of his rich grace to Transport over into the Bay of the Massachusets divers honourable Personages, and many worthy Christians,' recalled Nathaniel Morton, the secretary of the Colony of Plymouth, 'whereby the Lord began in a manifest manner and way to make known the great thoughts which he had of Planting the Gospel in this remote and barbarous Wilderness.'

Unfortunately, the Protestant Wind was not as benign as they had hoped, and it initially deposited the Arbella in Salem, which, according to the deputy governor Thomas Dudley, 'pleased us not'. They found the colony there in a 'sad and unexpected condition', with its dwindling residents barely able to make it through the winter. So they moved from Salem to another settlement at Charles Town and then, searching for a decent water supply, crossed the Charles River to join the reclusive Puritan William Blaxton (or Blackstone) in the Indian settlement of Shawmutt on the land known as Trimontaine, because of its three peaks. In September 1630, this settlement upon three hills was renamed Boston in honour of their brother and fellow pilgrim Isaac Johnson of Boston, in the county of Lincolnshire, who had died in Salem.

The advantages of the place were immediately apparent. 'His situation is very pleasant, being a Peninsula, hemmed in on the South-side with the Bay of Roxberry, on the north side with Charles-River, the Marshes on the back side being not half a quarter of a mile over; so that a little fencing will secure their cattle from the wolves,' was how William Wood described it in an early brochure, New England's Prospect.

This neck of land is not above four miles in compass; in form almost square, having on the south-side, at one corner, a great broad hill, whereon is planted a fort, which can command any ship as she sails into any harbour within the still Bay. On the north side is another hill, equal in bigness, whereon stands a Windmill. To the north-west is a high mountain with three little rising hills on the top of it, wherefore it is called the Tramount.

Winthrop set to work on his Garden of Eden, keen to find God's favour in the enterprise. 'Plantations in their beginnings have work enough ...' he wrote in a letter, 'there being buildings, fencings, clearing and breaking up of ground, lands to be attended, orchards to be planted, highways and bridges and fortifications to be made, and all things to do, as in the beginning of the world.' The Genesis analogy seemed apposite since, by the time Winthrop began tilling the soil, Massachusetts must have felt like a virgin landscape thanks to the decimation of the native Indian population. Indeed, he predicted as much in his 1629 Plantation pamphlet: 'God hath consumed the natives with a great plague in those parts, so as there be few inhabitants left.' The arrival of European settlers had indeed sparked an epidemic of smallpox, measles and influenza among the coastal Algonquian societies against which they lacked any immunity. By 1633 settlers already outnumbered Indians in the Massachusetts Bay area, and by 1700 the native population was reduced to about 10 per cent of what it had been before European contact. 'So if we leave them sufficient for their own use, we may lawfully take the rest, there being more than enough for them and for us,' concluded Winthrop.

With minimal Native American resistance to Winthrop's initial plans, the first identifiable outlines of Boston came into being. The lands and islands of the outer and inner harbours became populated with grazing cattle and sheep, with farmlands and orchards. It was hard, dangerous work. In December 1638 there was 'so great a tempest of wind and snow all the night and the next day, as had not been since our time'. As a result,

Five men and youths perished between Mattapan and Dorchester ... Anthony Dick, in a bark of thirty tons, cast away upon the head of Cape Cod. Three were starved to death with the cold; the other two got some fire and so lived there, by such food as they saved, seven weeks, till an Indian found them, etc.


Excerpted from Cities of Empire by Tristram Hunt. Copyright © 2014 Tristram Hunt. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi
List of Maps xvii
Acknowledgements xix

Introduction 3
1 Boston 19
2 Bridgetown 64
3 Dublin 104
4 Cape Town 141
5 Calcutta 183
6 Hong Kong 223
7 Bombay 261
8 Melbourne 303
9 New Delhi 345
10 Liverpool 382

Bibliography 417
Notes 445
Index 485

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