There are a multitude of ways in which historians – alongside them, economists, geographers, cartographers, social scientists – have tried to reckon with the achievement of the British Empire, a subject that remains for many of us one of very great interest, at least if the term is used in a proper way. Thus, the word “achievement” is not meant here as some sort of patriotic reinforcement to Tory Home Counties triumphalism, but simply the plain measure of historical record: the fact that, for well over 200 years, a small cluster of islands lying off the northwest Eurasian landmass exercised political, cultural and economic power out of all proportion to its size. No Indian railway lines criss-crossed northern England; no Nigerian gunboats sailed up the Clyde; no West Indian polity built church schools in Glamorgan for Sunday services. From about the 1650s onwards, in some ways before, all flowed in one direction until, of course, the tides began to turn after 1900.
The islanders left behind many intriguing signs of their outsized role, and sometimes it’s still hard to grasp this remarkable story, except perhaps in anecdotal and antiquarian ways. An American colleague of mine at Yale measures it through his schoolboy postage-stamp collections of imperial coronations and jubilees; another (this seems truly idiosyncratic, unless you happen to have been in the West Indies during the days of a Test match) through the spread of cricket. One of my personal favourites is through tracing the multitude of quiet, modest Commonwealth war graves and memorials  scattered across 153 countries. There are thousands of sites, often, as at El Alamein, kept in lovely, watered condition even in the midst of dusty urban sprawl.
And then the story could be measured and told via the many British overseas ports, cities and towns, as has been done in Tristram Hunt’s attractive new book, Ten Cities that Made an Empire. The author, a Labour MP and a history lecturer at Queen Mary College, London, takes 10 of the most important and colourful cities within the old empire, explaining how they came about, what they became, and the role they played in the larger system. It is a great idea, and Hunt achieves his purpose superbly, with panache and in fine style.
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