Thomas Babington Macaulay: a resurrection

Last Updated: Thu, Nov 15, 2012 19:40 hrs

“If you’re an Indian reading this book in English, it’s probably because of Thomas Macaulay,” says a blurb on the cover of the smartly produced volume that is billed as the first general biography of a man who made incalculable contributions to the shaping of modern India. This refers, of course, to Macaulay’s controversial Education Minute, in which he advocated British support for English-language education to create “a class [of Indians] who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”.

But enticing the reader with the bait of “Macaulay’s children” does little justice to the rest of his prodigious legacy, which Zareer Masani details in his beautifully written portrait of a brilliant, opinionated, patronising, infuriating, yet strangely likeable Macaulay. Just as Napoleon’s military conquests overshadowed his contributions to modern France – the Code Napoleon, the Bank of France, the baccalaureate examination and the departmental system, among others – so too has the furore over Macaulay’s propagation of English overshadowed his other achievements, like his seminal role in drafting the Indian Penal Code, creating the Indian Civil Service, legislating a free press, and effectively nationalising the East India Company.

Mr Masani’s skill as a historian, which is evident from his marshalling and interpretation of material, is complemented by a simple, readable writing style that draws skilfully on the illustrative anecdote, the telling quote. Given Macaulay’s superlative command of the language, and the trove of speeches, interventions, ripostes, comments, letters and documents, which Mr Masani has mined, he has wisely chosen to use Macaulay’s own words extensively, with Mr Masani’s own presence light and skilful. Through most of the book, the author is barely perceptible; this self-effacement is his greatest triumph.

Arranged chronologically, the book describes a self-made man from a modest background who overcame his ordinary looks (a political periodical of the time described him as “an ugly… splay-footed, shapeless little dumpling of a fellow, with a featureless face”) to journey – apparently unstoppably – to becoming a cabinet minister and among the most respected intellectuals of his time. In successive chapters, the author traces Macaulay’s meteoric journey from child prodigy and debating wunderkind, to the House of Commons as the foremost Whig hatchet man in parliamentary debates, to his arrival in India to earn a financial buffer. Here, Macaulay would earn the undying hatred of modern Indian language nationalists as a member of Lord Bentinck’s council in what the author terms “the most radically reforming Governor-Generalship in the history of the British Raj”.

Never one to mince words, Macaulay’s contempt for Indians, and especially Hindus, is conveyed in overtly racist terms that Mr Masani assures us was the norm for those colonial times. “There never, perhaps, existed a people so thoroughly fitted by nature and by habit for a foreign yoke,” he declares about the people along the Lower Ganges. “The physical organisation of the Bengalee is feeble even to effeminacy. He lives in a constant vapour bath. His pursuits are sedentary, his limbs delicate, his movements languid…. His mind bears a singular analogy to his body. It is weak even to helplessness for purposes of manly resistance….”

This scorn for Indians is matched by Macaulay’s disdain for the early British administrators, who he terms “rapacious, imperious and corrupt”. He believed in good governance and upliftment, even if that generated Indian demands for European institutions and privileges. “To have found a great people sunk in the lowest depths of slavery and superstition, to have ruled them as to have made them desirous and capable of all the privileges of citizens, would indeed be a title to glory all our own,” said Macaulay, thinking way ahead of his British contemporaries.

Adding to the book’s readability are colourful vignettes of colonial life, from large breakfasts that included “plenty of eggs, mango fish, snipe-pies and frequently a hot beef-steak, in addition to coffee and toast”, to five- to six-hour meetings during which Macaulay would pen letters home in his characteristic hyperbole: “Sir Charles is alternately yawning and punning. The Commander-in-Chief has gone into the antechamber to take a cup of coffee. One of my colleagues is writing a note, and another is drawing a man and a horse on his blotting paper… I cannot employ the next hour better than in writing to you.”

The book also provides a splendid window into the heyday of Pax Britannica when “Victorian Britain imagined itself on the threshold of a new Elizabethan age”, with Britain dominating the world not just militarily but also in science, technology and medicine, much like America today. London, which grew six-fold in the 19th century, was then a squalid construction site with “heavy and foul-smelling” air redolent with “the stench of huge amounts of raw sewage dumped straight into the River Thames”.

This book ought to be read widely. Mr Masani has given us a revisionist view of a much-vilified man, who has been judged for almost two centuries largely on the basis of a solitary document. Macaulay now emerges as a flawed genius, far ahead of his time in recognising phenomena like globalisation and soft power. Ironically, his extraordinary ability as a wordsmith may have also been his undoing, causing him to overstate arguments and bludgeon opponents into perpetual animosity.

Zareer Masani
Random House India;
269 pages; Rs 450

More from Sify: