Did Britain make the modern world?

The British empire has receded into history. Yet despite its difficult legacy, says Tristram Hunt, the cities that the empire helped forge are fast becoming the economic powerhouses of the 21st century... 

This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

On 30 June 1997, the United Kingdom’s 99-year lease on Hong Kong’s New Territories came to an end. With it died the final embers of the British empire. At the stroke of midnight the Union Jack was lowered to the strains of God Save the Queen, the Hong Kong police ripped the royal insignia from their uniforms, and Chinese troops poured over the border. Britain’s last governor, former Conservative party chairman Chris Patten, recorded the final, colonial swansong in all its lachrymose glory: its “kilted pipers and massed bands, drenching rain, cheering crowds, a banquet for the mighty and the not so mighty, a goose-stepping Chinese honour guard, a president and a prince”.

Steaming out of Victoria Harbour, as the Royal Marines played Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory, aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia, “that night we were leaving one of the greatest cities in the world, a Chinese city that was now a part of China, a colony now returned to its mighty motherland in rather different shape to that in which it had become Britain’s responsibility a century and a half before”.

In London, the atmosphere was altogether shriller. “The handover of Hong Kong to China strikes many westerners as a disgrace and a tragedy,” thundered The Economist. “Never before has Britain passed a colony directly to a communist regime that does not even pretend to respect conventional democratic values.” Historian Paul Johnson concurred: “The surrender of the free colony of Hong Kong to the totalitarian communist government is one of the most shameful and humiliating episodes in British history.”

A few brave commentators suggested there might be a more complex prehistory to this handover. Indeed, Martin Jacques thought the ceremony showed, “no sense of contrition, of humility, of history. This was British hypocrisy at its most rampant and sentimental.”

But there was no such nuance from Britain’s politicians. The diaries of Alastair Campbell, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s director of communications, describe the scene among the UK delegation preparing for the ceremony. “When someone referred to the Chinese as the ‘Dewhursts of Peking’ there was a mild laugh around the table. I looked at Chris Patten a bit bemused. ‘Dewhursts as in butchers,’ he said.” In his own memoirs, Blair recalls of the ceremony “a tug, not of regret but of nostalgia for the old British empire”.

As Great Britain’s formal empire has finally receded into the distance, the 21st century has witnessed an agonised public debate about the legacies and meaning of that colonial past. Famously, in his 2003 book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, the historian Niall Ferguson made a stirring and influential case for the British empire as the handmaiden of globalisation and force for progress. “No organisation in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And no organisation has done more to impose western norms of law, order and governance around the world,” he wrote.

Since globalisation and the modern world were, for Ferguson, a ‘good thing’, this also meant the British empire – for all its messy crimes and misdemeanours – was equally praiseworthy. “Without the spread of British rule around the world, it is hard to believe that the structures of liberal capitalism would have been so successfully established in so many different economies around the world”. Much of the chaos of the 20th century was, he suggested, a product of the decline of transnational empires.

Ferguson’s trenchant thesis provoked a furious reaction among commentators who sought, by way of contrast, to cast British imperialism as a very bad thing. In the context of political opposition to perceived American imperialism at the turn of the 21st century, discussion about the British empire (particularly on the political left) was reduced to slavery, starvation and extermination; loot, land and labour. In the words of the leftwing author Richard Gott, “the rulers of the British empire will one day be perceived to rank with the dictators of the 20th century as the authors of crimes against humanity on an infamous scale”.

And much of Gott’s case has received official endorsement in recent years with a series of public acknowledgements by European governments of colonial crimes. In 2004 Germany apologised for the massacre of 65,000 Herero people in what is now Namibia; in 2008 Italy announced it was to pay reparations to Libya for injustices committed during its 30-year rule of the north African state; and in 2011 the Dutch government apologised for the killing of civilians in the 1947 Rawagede massacre in Indonesia. Then, in 2013, the United Kingdom government (having apologised for the Great Irish Famine of 1845–52 and expressed official regret over Britain’s role in the Atlantic slave trade) was forced by a high court judgment to announce a £20m compensation package for 5,228 Kenyan victims of British abuse during the 1950s Kenya Emergency or Mau Mau Rebellion.


Queen Victoria on a window at the parliament buildings in Bridgetown, Barbados, a hub of the imperial slave trade. (Bridgeman)

The danger now is that, as the legacy of empire moves into the realm of official apologies, law suits and compensation settlements, the space for detached, historical judgment has perceptibly narrowed. For the history of empire is always more complicated than the simple binary of ruler and ruled – as episodes such as the loss of America in 1776, the tortured psychology of the settlers of the White Dominions, or the endlessly unclear place of Ireland within the British imperial imagination demonstrate. What is more, as Linda Colley has suggested, “one of the reasons why we all need to stop approaching empire in simple ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing terms, and instead think intelligently and enquiringly about its many and intrinsic paradoxes, is that versions of the phenomenon are still with us”.

In my book, Ten Cities That Made an Empire, I argue that urban history offers a vehicle for a more balanced and reflective history of the British empire. I have charted the changing character of British imperialism through the architecture and civic institutions, the street names and fortifications, the material culture and ritual. And it is the very complexity of this urban past that allows us to go beyond the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cul-de-sac of so much imperial debate. The history of colonialism covered by my research suggests a more diffuse process of exchange, interaction and adaptation.

The historian John Darwin has described empire as “not just a story of domination and subjection but something more complicated: the creation of novel or hybrid societies in which notions of governance, economic assumptions, religious values and morals, ideas about property, and conceptions of justice, conflicted and mingled, to be reinvented, refashioned, tried out or abandoned”. This nuanced account of negotiation and exchange is nowhere more obvious than in the advanced intellectual and cultural environment of the British imperial city – in the Indo-Saracenic architecture of Bombay, the east African mosques of Cape Town, or the Bengali Renaissance that British scholarship helped to foster in Calcutta.


Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, accepts a folded Union Jack at Government House during ceremonies to mark the end of British rule over the colony, 30 June 1997. (Corbis)

The history of these cities reveals how the justifications and understandings of imperialism changed across time and space. As the Indian scholar Partha Chatterjee has written, “empire is not an abstract universal category… It is embodied and experienced in actual locations.” The shifting justifications and contested understandings of empire shaped the design and planning, the ethos and infrastructure, the rhetoric and politics of Britain’s colonial cities. The manner in which settlers and indigenous residents interacted and the way in which those dynamics shaped the fabric and artefacts of the city allows for a more accurate account of the day-to-day realities of imperialism. Urban history helps to move us beyond casting the indigenous victims of colonialism as just that – passive recipients of metropolitan, European designs in which they had neither voice nor influence.

Working chronologically and then (broadly) geographically from west to east, I have traced the history of these cities, their ruling ideas and their place within the story of British imperialism. The story begins in Boston as the entry-point into the first British empire, which stretched along the Atlantic seaboard of America, and the remarkable cultural affiliation that existed between the mother country and Massachusetts right up to the American Revolution of 1776.

Bridgetown, Barbados exemplifies the importance of the slave trade in the financing both of British imperialism and then industrialisation during the 17th and 18th centuries. Dublin is the third city of this Atlantic triangle, highlighting the complex place of Ireland within British imperial history as well as London’s late 18th-century ambition to unite the British Isles before embarking upon its grander global ambitions.

Any such aspirations depended upon the ability of the Royal Navy to see off competing imperial powers, and the fight against the Dutch to take the city of Cape Town is a microcosm of the broader, geopolitical struggle that the forces of western Europe played out across the high seas. With the capture of Cape Town, Britain’s ‘swing to the east’ was secure, and Calcutta, the capital of British India, next introduces the East India Company and the beginnings of the Raj. If Calcutta signified mercantilism then Hong Kong was a testament to free trade, standing as a monument to the new ideologies of laissez-faire, and the instrument of Britain’s ‘informal empire’ in China.

For all the lofty rhetoric, however, Hong Kong’s finances were dependent upon the distribution of opium across the Middle Kingdom. To begin with, the poppies came from Bengal, until the advent of Malwa opium brought the city of Bombay into the drug economy. Opium and then cotton production turned Bombay into one of the first industrial cities of the British empire and, accompanying it, all the attendant problems of urban sanitation and mass immigration. The history of Victorian Bombay chronicles the mid-19th‑century relationship between colonial modernity and industrial capitalism.


The Old State House in Boston, which was the seat of Massachusetts General Court for much of the 18th century. Ports like Boston were critical to the empire’s development, as they provided the urban infrastructure from which to ship riches back to Britain. (Rex Features)

Melbourne was another port in that global, commercial nexus: the development of the ‘Queen-city of the south’ signals the emergence of finance-capital in British imperialism and highlights the very different place the White Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) had within the colonial firmament. The colony of Victoria was one strand of a “crimson thread of kinship” (a term coined by the Australian statesman Henry Parkes) uniting the Anglo-Saxon family.

By contrast, the Edwardian Raj was about power and authority and no city in the world symbolised this imperial sensibility with more grandeur and world-historic self-regard than New Delhi. It was built as a monument to eternal imperial governance – and yet, barely finished, it became the capital of an independent India. 

My research has also taken in the end of empire and the harrowing effect that decolonisation had on a colonial city within the British Isles. Few places prospered more aggressively from Britain’s imperial markets and global reach than Liverpool, and no city suffered more wretchedly from the end of empire. The Janus face of empire, its dual ability both to enrich and undo, is only now being overcome along the docks and wharfs of an otherwise often silent river Mersey.


The Royal Liver Building, one of Liverpool’s most distinctive landmarks. “Few places prospered more aggressively from Britain’s imperial markets and global reach than Liverpool, and no city suffered more wretchedly from the end of empire”. (Corbis)

In one sense, an account of imperialism pursued through urban history is obvious. While colonisation might have begun as a rural pursuit, primarily involved in the extraction of mineral or agricultural wealth from foreign lands, it could not prosper without the development of an urban infrastructure to ship the riches back home. Initially, this meant the establishment of ports – such as Bridgetown for sugar, Boston for fisheries or Melbourne for gold – and the emergence of more complicated economies around them, from ship-building to financial services to foodstuffs, leisure and retail. Nine out of ten of the cities I have examined began their imperial lives as port economies.

Most of them also attest to the defining attributes of colonial cities, as first set out by the urban historian Anthony D King: power primarily in the hands of a non-indigenous minority; the relative superiority of this minority in terms of technological, military and organisational power; and the racial, cultural and religious differences between predominantly European, Christian settlers and the indigenous majority. In these terms, a history of British imperial cities could be matched by an account of their German, Spanish or, most usefully, French counterparts – with the development of, say, Pondicherry, Casablanca or Saigon offering equivalent insights into French imperial development.

Yet, whether it is Hong Kong or Mumbai, or indeed Shanghai or Dubai (two cities not included in this study), it is notable how Britain’s imperial cities currently play a far more significant role in world affairs than those of any other former European power. At the peak of British imperial dominion, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the economic and cultural driver of empire was a chain of major colonial cities – Bombay, Singapore, Melbourne. The advent of the steamship and telegram network, the cutting of the Suez canal and increase in shipping, the acceleration of global trade in the lead up to the First World War, and the role of these cities as entrepot and export hubs gave them a powerful, semi-autonomous place within the imperial hierarchy as engines of global growth. Funds from London, Paris and Berlin finance houses were sunk into major infrastructure schemes – docks, railways, trams – as well as used to open up the colonial hinterland.

Today, a hundred years on, the world is witnessing a remarkable revival of the global city-state. Not only does the majority of the world’s population now live in urban areas (with tens of millions – across Africa, China and India – accelerating the rate of urbanisation each passing year), the top 23 ‘megacities’ contribute by themselves some 14 per cent of global GDP. Urban theorist Saskia Sassen has identified the ‘global city’ – those  that function as “command points in the organisation of the world economy”; provide “key locations for specialised service firms”; and operate as “sites of production, including the production of innovations… and markets for the products and innovations produced” – as the economic powerhouses of the modern era. And, rather like the port cities of the European empires, they operate increasingly outside the traditional framework of the nation state.


An engraving for the British weekly newspaper The Graphic shows the entry of the Prince of Wales into Calcutta in 1876. (Bridgeman)

We in the west live in an increasingly post-colonial era, yet that does not mean that empire as a global force has ended. While the formal dominion of the old European empires has faded, competing nations have emerged to fill the vacuum. In the 21st century, it is China and India who are on the rise, dictating a broader pivot in world affairs from the Atlantic to the Pacific. An uneasy transition has taken place, from a decaying colonial legacy to the assertive impact of emerging nations in former cities of empire.

The city – be it Hong Kong, Bridgetown or indeed London – is once again the backdrop for the power struggles of empire. The myriad ways in which cities restore or erase, condemn or commemorate their colonial pasts and reflect the imperial present constitute another stage in the compelling history of empire, beyond the predictable confines of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Tristram Hunt MP is a historian, author, broadcaster and politician who is currently shadow secretary of state for education. He was previously a senior lecturer in British history at Queen Mary, University of London.

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