REVIEW: Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain by Catherine Hall (Yale University Press, 2013)

I have recently been reviewing Catherine Hall’s Macaulay and Son: architects of imperial Britain for the journal History. As usual, you will have to wait for them to publish the formal review, but as has become my recent habit, I have drawn out the aspects most relevant to followers of this blog here. I’m afraid it turned out to be rather long, but you can skip to the end for a final verdict!

Cover ImageThe Macaulays were an imperial family in the most profound sense – despite relatively limited time in the colonies themselves. They embodied, created and mediated the ideological underpinnings of early nineteenth-century imperialism – from evangelical empire to liberal imperialism.

Zachary Macaulay was most famously Governor of Sierra Leone from 1794-99, and was thereafter a key part of the Clapham Sect’s anti-slavery campaign. His son Thomas Babington Macaulay (referred, brilliantly, by Hall as ‘Tom’ throughout the book) is most famous to imperial historians as the author of a ‘Minute on Education’ in India in 1835. The ‘Minute’ espoused the creation of ‘a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect’ – a cadre of ‘brown Englishmen’ who could mediate between the British and the mass population. Tom was of course even more famous for publishing The History of England in five volumes (one published posthumously) between 1848 and 1859.

As architects of empire they were engaged in creating ‘sites for demarcating difference’ (p. xx), and in mediating Britain’s imaginative and literary engagement with empire. Through their writings and their imperial careers, both Zachary and Tom Macaulay came to recognise the importance of ‘difference’ in their divergent, but interconnected, ideas of imperial responsibility. For both, difference was cultural (rather than explicitly racial), and was something that could theoretically be overcome. But equally for both, the shortfalls between ideal and practice were key, and shaped the way they structured their imperial discourses in the heart of empire.


The famous Wedgewood anti-slavery image, succinctly demonstrating the tensions between evangelical universalism, and ideas of racial and cultural hierarchy.

The famous Wedgewood anti-slavery image, succinctly demonstrating the tensions between evangelical universalism, and ideas of racial and cultural hierarchy.

Zachary’s imperial vision was a universalist one, based upon his evangelical faith. But his vision was compromised by his strict paternalism, meted out in the case of Sierra Leone while he was Governor there, which also flowed directly from his strictly evangelical belief in familial hierarchy – here mapped onto the hierarchies implicit in cultural, spiritual and indeed racial difference. For Tom, the realities of his experiences in India hardened his understanding of colonial difference, something that was carried through in his History through its treatment of Ireland, but also through the unacknowledged absence of colonial history in his books, which took for granted the wealth and power generated from the American and Caribbean colonies, Atlantic mercantilism and the slave trade. Indeed, Tom Macaulay’s total refusal to engage with the history of the slave-trade and slavery are seen in Hall’s narrative as a conscious rejection of his father’s authoritarian evangelicalism and compulsive obsession with the anti-slavery campaigns of the early nineteenth century. Macaulay’s rejection of anti-slavery as important, his personal rejection of faith and spirituality, and his insistence on a secular vision of liberal imperialism were all a conscious effacement of his father’s dogmatic and sometimes emotionally destructive influence upon his early life.

Biography, intimacy and affectivity

Indeed, Hall’s critical biographical approach to the lives of the Macaulays allows us a unique insight into their world of imperial-nation-making, and to the importance to family to these self-consciously ‘public’ men. Tom Macaulay’s life in particular was structured around the shifts and changes in his domestic and affective relationships, primarily with his sisters Hannah and Margaret (ten and twelve years younger than him). Tom, Hannah and Margaret all adored one another, forming a smaller intimate family unit after the death of their parents. The domestic scene was a critical support to Thomas Babington Macaulay: public man. With his sisters he found a home in which to enjoy ‘the pleasures of domestic life without its restraint’ (according to Margaret) – ‘sexuality, children, financial responsibilities’ (according to Hall, pp. 119-20).

Hannah (Macaulay) Trevelyan

Hannah (Macaulay) Trevelyan

For the sisters too, Tom provided  a window into the world ‘bringing new ideas and knowledge and connections into the house, important excitement and variety’ (p. 115). For evangelicals, domesticity was crucially important, centring and modelling good behaviour removed from the temptations and trials of the public world, which must themselves be dutifully navigated. But an intimate home life such as that enjoyed by Tom, Margaret and Hannah had its own temptations – namely putting love of family above love of God. ‘“As the time is short’, wrote Hannah in 1830, ‘we should idolise nothing on earth – I felt there was one I idolised, one I loved more than God, one on whom I depended alone for happiness, & in one moment we might be separated for ever. And yet I cannot endure the thought of ever loving him less than I do at this moment, though I feel how criminal it is”’ (p. 121).

Nonetheless, Margaret married in 1832, leaving their domestic circle for the more ‘natural’ domesticity of marriage and children. ‘This loss was felt by Tom Macaulay as an absolute loss’ (p. 125), such that he wrote of Margaret as if she had died, and did little to spare her conflicted feelings. A year later in 1833 he was offered a place on the Supreme Council of India. Such a post would solve all of the family’s financial difficulties, Zachary’s colonial investments having crashed in the 1820s, but what of his increasingly important relationship with his remaining Hannah? He insisted that she go with him, emotionally blackmailing her to leave the sister who had abandoned them (in his formulation). The irony here was that it was in India that Hannah met her future husband, George Trevelyan; the point is that Tom Macaulay’s emotional world was intimately bound up with his natal family, and that though he did not himself marry and have children, his public life was nonetheless facilitated by the emotional work of his sisters – and particularly the Trevelyans, whom he adored, and whose son of course went on to write his first biography in 1876.

Architects of empire

The Macaulays engagement with imperialism was both practical and ideological. Individual members of the family spent time in the colonies – experiences that would shape their mediation of colonialism to the British public. Zachary was a plantation book-keeper and under-manager in Jamaica – ‘one of the lowliest employees on an estate, supervising the enslaved in the fields, keeping the keys for the stores and attending the boiling house and distillery in the crop season’ (p. 3). Later he was more famously Governor of Sierra Leone, the so-called ‘Province of Freedom’ for recaptured slaves. His time there did not fit up to either his or the settlers’ expectation, but it was a role he had seemingly been fit for due to his own evangelical conversion and increasing ties with the social and political agenda of the Clapham Sect. His settlement in Africa was forestalled by his intended wife’s refusal to move there in 1795/6. Gradually Zachary came around to the idea that ‘Selina should not be expected to share in “the unpleasantness of our unquiet and restless state”’ and thus ‘gradually abandoned the idea of permanent settlement for himself’ (p. 37). Selina Mills’s refusal to enter the colonial frontier did not stop her playing a crucial role in forming and facilitating an imperial home for husband and children, and Zachary later praised her attention ‘”to the implantation from the earliest dawn of reason, of those principles of piety, truth, reverence, love, devotion, and all kindly affections”’ (p. 91).

Fort William, home of the Governor-General's Council in India, painted by William Wood in 1828.

Fort William, home of the Governor-General’s Council in India, painted by William Wood in 1828.

From a very young age, Tom Macaulay was socialised into an imperial world – through the direct contact with empire experienced by many of his relatives (uncles, cousins, friends and neighbours), by his own imaginative engagement with their imperial exploits (in India in particular, where his Uncle Colin was a general in the Indian army), and of course through the anti-slavery activities of his father. He famously spent time in India from 1834-1838, a time that codified his understanding of colonial difference.

It is no coincidence that Tom decided to write his history while in India – rather it reflected his homesickness for England (note: England), and the sense of alienation expressed in his increased articulation of Indian difference. Faced with what he perceived as the extreme and problematic differences between Indian and English culture, and equally importantly suffering the grief of his sister Margaret’s death (in 1834), he sought to reconstitute himself as an Englishman, and a liberal imperialist, through his history writing – co-constituting the imperial nation and the imperial man. Macaulay’s personal and professional activities in India and upon his return were about forming and performing the politics of difference – ‘the gap between imperial men and their colonised others’ (p. 258). ‘That space of difference structured the national history that he set out to write’ (p. 258). Macaulay’s History was as much about empire as about England – and as much about his journey to become an imperial man, as to become an historian.

*    *    *

Imperialism thus inflected both the personal and the professional lives and scholarly outputs of both Zachary and Tom Macaulay. The Macaulays – father and son –inhabited and constructed a spectrum of imperial discourse that moved between Christian universalism and liberal imperialism, but which at both ends relied implicitly upon ideas of difference, hierarchy and superiority. Hall’s book makes a powerful argument for once again positioning Britain and empire within one ‘analytical frame’, but also, of particular resonance with this blog, of bringing together the public and the personal – the professional and the familial. Macaulay and Son reconstructs the dominant political discourses of the imperial centre, but as it planned to do all along, it also decentres that history, taking the forum of high political discourse and placing it firmly in the family, in the colonial periphery, and in the emotional and affective worlds of white public men. One has the feeling of Hall tying together all of her previous works and situating her histories firmly in the unreconstructed heartland of traditional history. That she has done so by deconstructing the life of Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose History was a fundamental part of the Whiggish construction of history that social, feminist and postcolonial writers have rallied against over the last forty years is not only a delicious irony, but is in fact the whole point of the book itself. Macaulay and Son is thus a powerful engagement with what it means to write history, and a meta-narrative of how history writing has been transformed. Macaulay’s feelings on writing history may well chime with our own: ‘“What labour it is to make a tolerable book”, he wrote wearily on one occasion, and “how little readers know how much the ordering of the parts has cost the writer”’ (p. 276). Reading a book like this reminds us of why we write history in the first place.

– Emily Manktelow

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