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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 As another reviewer has rightly pointed out, the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, not 1844.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.

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