Before he set out to write history, Thomas Babington Macaulay created it, as legal member of the Supreme Council of India. But the same emotional trait that endeared him to the British public and its ruling class—a cocksure belief in his conclusions—marred his ethnocentric Feb. 2, 1835 “Minute” on education on the subcontinent.
The son of a former governor of Sierra Leone, the 35-year-old Macaulay hadn’t planned on extensive foreign service. But as he considered the career alternatives available to someone with his background—a law practice that he had dropped in favor of the far more interesting pastimes of politics and writing, along with a family business whose reverses had forced the sale of a Gold Medal he had won at Cambridge—he suddenly found that the chance to effect international change dovetailed nicely with a salary that would allow him to devote more of his energy to writing.
For Macaulay personally, the most significant result of his four years in India (1834-1839) was the income he put aside that eventually enabled him to embark on his epic History of England from the Accession of James the Second. For Indian colonists and their descendants, the most important consequence was his advocacy of a Western education (including study of the English language). Both results were highly problematic.
In a prior post, I noted that Macaulay, for all his prejudices, was an extraordinarily vivid historian. He was also a highly influential one: The famous third chapter of his History, a survey of English society in the year 1685 that analyzed such matters as population, cities, classes and tastes, pioneered a form of social history that provided a model for Henry Adams’ History of the United States in the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and, at greater length, Frederick Lewis Allen’s account of the Roaring Twenties, Only Yesterday.
But Macaulay’s interest in social history and mores really did not extend much beyond the Mediterranean SEa. He did not have the boundless curiosity of a Montaigne or Sir Richard Burton in learning about unfamiliar races or nations.
Although Macaulay quietly rejected the fierce Evangelical piety of his father, he did not dispense with one of the principal consequences of that faith: the urge to spread the benefits of Western (and, to be precise, British) civilization abroad. By his lights, he wanted to help colonials—and, to be fair, he genuinely foresaw a day when India would be independent.
But it never seems to have bothered him that, from a position of power, he would be forcing millions of people to learn a language not their own. He was not responding to an Indian plea that English be taught, but superimposing it from without.
Indeed, in the unlikely phenomenon of British Orientalists—a group of British East India Co. bureaucrats trained in the local languages and culture of the subcontinent—an alternative existed that took full cognizance of the ancient religious and cultural traditions of classical India.
Somehow, Macaulay didn’t get their message. He responded in his “Minute” with the kind of sweeping, cast-all-doubt-aside statement that has made his History suspect in our time as an unbiased source: “I have never found one among them [Orientalists] who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”
That kind of statement makes Macaulay practically a bull’s eye for those academics who deride Dead White European Males.
As in his histories, the politician-bureaucrat sought, in Indian law and education, “uniformity where you can have it; diversity where you must have it; but in all cases certainty.” To replace what a number of observers at the time felt to be an inefficient welter of legal rules on the subcontinent, he drafted the Indian Penal Code, which was finally enacted in 1862, three years after his death.
I would be the last to argue against a system simple and logical to use. The problem comes when the proponent of a system can’t imagine another lying outside his own experience.
That was precisely the case with Macaulay. Peter Gay’s Style in History (1974) summarizes pretty neatly the problems that so many historians of our day have had with the man nicknamed “The Beast” (for his ugliness) by fellow Cambridge students: “He professes to detest—and, worse, he really detests—what he is too limited to grasp: the subtler points of philosophy, the mysteries of poetry, the sheer historical interest of personages or causes he does not find sympathetic.”
At the same time, several huge problems exist when Macaulay’s “Minute” and the circumstances surrounding it are examined:
*He did not know Sanskrit. Indeed, his opportunity to learn the language was lost when his Sanskrit-English dictionary fell overboard in his voyage to his new assignment, forcing him to learn Portuguese.
*His perspective was that of the ruler, not of someone seriously interested in a different culture. His arrival in India was quite agreeable: Not only did he receive a 15-gun salute when he set foot on the beach, but, he also noted, “I traveled the whole four hundred miles between this (Ootacamund) and Madras on men's shoulders.” He read European classics avidly during this time. Indian arts, science and theology? Not on his radar.
*His policy pronouncements had practical consequences. Governor General William Bentinck accepted Macaulay's contentions, writing a year later that "the great object of the British Government ought to be the promotion of European literature and science among the natives of India." As a result, two Orientalists retired from the Committee of Public Instruction, shifting the balance toward the Anglicists who favored English instruction.
A people that sees its language extirpated is halfway toward having not just their heritage but also their existence discounted and even annihilated. Macaulay may have found such receptiveness to his blithe dismissal of Indian languages and customs because the British government had already been doing so closer to home, in Ireland. For six centuries, one of the aims of British policy was to destroy the Irish language, which the occupiers of the island widely regarded as a bulwark of attachment to all things Irish.
In our own lifetime, other intellectuals have elicited opprobrium for remarks as ill-considered as Macaulay’s about ethnic or racial groups’ cultural achievements. Novelist Saul Bellow got into some trouble for a 1988 interview with The New York Times Magazine in which he asked flippantly, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I'd be glad to read them." Samuel Eliot Morison arrogantly wrote, in The Oxford History of the American People, that the Famine Irish contributed “surprisingly little to American economic life, and almost nothing to American intellectual life.”
But the difference with Macaulay was that his views would not only inform internal policies in a single colony, but also foreign policy across the Atlantic, by two statesman enthralled as much by his worldview as his writing style. Winston Churchill used Macaulay’s rhetorical devices in the speeches and other writings that won him a Nobel Prize for Literature. Theodore Roosevelt was even more enthusiastic, hailing Macaulay’s “eminently sane and healthy mind” as well as his “wholesome spirit and knowledge of practical affairs.” In a private letter, he noted: “Of all the authors I know[,] I believe I should first choose him [Macaulay] as the man whose writings will most help a man of action who desires to be both efficient and decent, to keep straight and yet to be of some account in the world.” Hyperkinetic TR read Macaulay’s immense History all the way through a number of times, including during the 1904 election.
Another aspect of Macaulay appealed to these two leaders, however: his justification of a worldwide imperium centered on an Anglo heritage and democratic values. Even before his projection of American power beyond North America, T.R. had written The Winning of the West. Churchill, highly reluctant to see India become independent, called his own epic narrative A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.
Those who argue that British imperialism was a net plus to colonial peoples can point to the economic advantage they hold in a world where the de facto language of international commerce is business. (English has also became the language of choice in communicating scientific discoveries, as discussed in Michael D. Gordin’s article “Absolute English” for Aeon.)
But such a view is morally myopic, failing to recognize that the element of self-interest that has obtained in imperial enterprises even more than in normal international affairs. Across the maddeningly diverse Indian subcontinent, Macaulay believed, the only hope was in “an enlightened and paternal despotism.” Time has proven how easily paternalism can shade into dominance when it comes to a “backward” colony and its allegedly “civilized” conqueror.
In an 1833 speech in Parliament, Macaulay hailed Britain’s “pacific triumphs of reason over barbarism,” in an “imperishable empire of our arts and our morals, our literature and our laws.” Our…our…our…our. Might made right, especially to deal with subjugated people on “our” terms.
Edward Said’s controversial 1978 study, Orientalism, surely overstated the case when it claimed that “every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was… a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.” But Macaulay, through his “Minute” on Indian education, provided the late Columbia University scholar with one of the most devastating bits of evidence in his indictment against the West.