21 million people visited the City of London in 2019. They came to this architecturally diverse square mile to see some of the most iconic landmarks that represent London. St. Pauls, the Tower of London, Leadenhall Market, the Millenium Bridge, all a short stroll from each other in one of the town's premier tourist districts. It has been the backdrop for countless movies and is a pop culture visual reference. However, many do not know about the history of the vastly influential square mile, which is actually older than London itself.
The Financial Capital of Britain
It was founded by the Romans, maintained by the Saxons, and by the establishment of the City of Westminster by the Normans, it had already been a functioning entity for centuries. It has its own mayor, own laws, own police force and even its own identity. Separated now only ceremonially from the rest of London, The City has become synonymous with being the banking centre of the entire nation. Stroll through the streets and you can see where the Bank of England (and every other major financial and insurance institution in Europe and much of the world) have made their home.
Spoils of Empire
The City is intentionally special. It was built to be impressive and a show of British power, splendour and wealth. It represents
Britain and funds it. The City is cleaner than the rest of London and its history is put on display next to its modern architectural skyline. You can stand contemplating the drama and aggressiveness of the Lloyds building, then turn a corner and marvel at the conventional and classic splendour of Leadenhall Market. It represents Britain and its imperial legacy. It funded it as well.
The East India Company was set up amongst its dingy alleys. Exchange Alley is where the first stock market was established, and the first place in Britain to sell tea. The City created so much money for Britain that it had to basically invent modern capitalism to keep up with it.
Of course, this makes the City the arena in which British colonialism played out.
Everything that the opulence of The City represents also represents everything that was cutthroat, scheming, and morally bankrupt about the British empire.
It was the East India Company of Leadenhall Street' whose control of taxes in Bengal led to a famine that killed over 10 million people in the Indian subcontinent. They also manufactured a bloody drug war that crippled the Qing Dynasty in China to get a better price for the tea they created a demand for in Britain. It was from the City of London that the Guinea Company, with its Royal Charter, sent out ships in the 1600s to eventually ship more African slaves to the Americas than any other company in history. It was also in the church of St. Mary Woolnoth that John Newton preached for the abolition of the slave trade.
The colonial legacy lives on to this day, even though the empire officially ended, The City and Britain as a whole are still living off their former glory. Anyone travelling to London owes it to themselves to explore the square mile that made Britain. All of Britain.
Guest written by Jonathan Casewell