JLF 2016: Tristram Hunt on the hubris of British empire

  • KumKum Dasgupta, Hindustan Times, Jaipur
  • Updated: Jan 24, 2016 15:32 IST
Tristram Hunt (L) and Swapan Dasgupta (R) during the session Cities of Empire at Jaipur literary festival 2016, in Jaipur on Saturday (HT photo)

Since the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 and the last days of Empire, Britain’s colonial past has been the subject of debate. With ‘Ten Cities That Made An Empire’, British Labour Party politician, historian, and broadcast journalist Tristram Hunt has gone beyond the now-familiar debate about the empire being good or bad and taken a fresh approach to the legacy of Britain’s empire.

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Through an exceptional array of first-hand accounts and personal reflections, he portrays the imperial cities of Boston, Bridgetown, Dublin, Cape Town, Calcutta (Kolkata), Hong Kong, Bombay, Melbourne, New Delhi, and 20th century Liverpool. Their architecture, culture, and society balls; the famines, uprisings and repressions that coursed through them; the ghostly bureaucracy which ran them, and the British supremacists and multicultural trailblazers who inhabited them.

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Speaking at a session on the book at JLF on Saturday, Hunt said that Calcutta symbolised the beginnings of the British empire’s journey from a naval empire to a landmass empire. “All the arrogance and hubris of an imperial project can be seen in Calcutta,” he said. Bombay started as a port but the American civil war made it an industrial giant and it became the empire’s first industrial city.

“New Delhi was an intensely modern project… the most modern up-to-date theorem of town planning, transport management, landscape architecture and city beautiful styling were transplanted on to one of the most ancient sites of India. Again, the hubris of imperialism created a modern-day Versailles,” Hunt said.

In response to a British-Asian member of the audience who wondered why Indians saw the Mughal Empire as good and the British Empire as bad, senior journalist and political commentator Swapan Dasgupta quipped that the Mughal empire had been given the ‘ISI’ stamp of being a good empire. “The British Empire is yet to get that. There is lot of political grandstanding on both empires. If I say that some parts of the Mughal rule was not all that good, I will be branded as communal. The view that all was not good with the Mughals made us change the name of Aurangzeb road,” he remarked.

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