Introduction by FWP

Once again, dear reader, Project Gutenberg has widened my horizons. Its enticing plain-vanilla text of Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, Volume 1, by Sir George Otto Trevelyan (1838-1928) [site], was what got me started. Sir George was Macaulay's nephew, and had full access to his letters and private papers, as well as ready and candid cooperation from his family and friends. He had ample material to work with, and through his commentary, interspersed with Macaulay's own letters, he painted us a detailed picture of the life of this Victorian gentleman and Parliamentarian and reformer and essayist and scholar-- who was the son of a passionate Evangelical and anti-slavery crusader, and was extraordinarily devoted to his family. In addition to volume 1 of this valuable, letter-filled biography, Project Gutenberg has also provided us with many volumes of Macaulay's own works [index].

All this wealth of free, convenient, universally available material inspired me to dig deeper into the life of a man who is often treated with a kind of knee-jerk hostility by modern students of South Asian literature and culture. Such hostility isn't surprising; until recently, I felt it myself. After all, someone who could argue (despite, or because of, his ignorance of any South Asian language) that "a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia" would seem to be our natural enemy. His (in)famous "Minute on Education" is well worth reading in its entirety, if you aren't already familiar with it. Its practical effects have been incalculable. Over the last two centuries South Asia has been so shaped by widespread (and steadily increasing) access to the English language and English education, that it's hard even to imagine what its history would have been like without it.

Nor was that the only European-chauvinist, racialist, British-colonialist remark he made in the course of his career. His worldview was based on the notion of distinct, biological-cum-cultural "races": he wrote of "the proud and ostentatious Mahommedans," "the timid, supple, and parsimonious Hindoos," and "men of English breed, the hereditary nobility of mankind." (These examples are drawn from his essay on Clive.) But of course, everybody he knew thought in these "racist" terms: they were part of the current "scientific" theorizing of the day-- and of a number of days thereafter. (For just a few of many such examples, compare the unselfconscious "race"-based theorizing, a half century later, by Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan in his two anti-Congress essays; and-- a whole century later-- by Iqbal in his speeches, and by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar in "The Annihilation of Caste" and elsewhere.) Moreover, Macaulay, like everybody else he knew, thought that women too were almost a kind of separate "race," with a naturally different, somewhat lighter set of intellectual tastes: in a letter to his sisters, for example, he spoke of his pride in having written the new Indian Penal Code: "It will have no interest for ladies. But I hope that it will not do me discredit among people who take note of such things" (Letter of 13 December 1837).

Yet it's impossible to dismiss the man so easily, any more than easily to dismiss his father, Zachary Macaulay, an Evangelical missionary in Africa and a lifelong crusader against slavery. Zachary's son saw himself as carrying on his father's social-reformist projects, though with  less religious zeal and a broader humanism. Even his irritating lifelong determination to westernize (or rather anglicize) the Indians through English education was his way of opening to them what he saw as the full cultural, literary, humanistic, and legal benefits of English civilization. He meant to give them the best and most beautiful gifts that he possessed-- gifts that he felt they badly needed. Armed with English education and habits of mind, they would obtain English freedoms: they would learn to appreciate, and then to demand, and then to participate in, government by laws rather than by "Oriental despotism." They would, in effect, join the "race" of Englishmen.

One observation by Trevelyan (from the 1832-34 chapter) lingers in my memory:

The attitude of his own mind with regard to our Eastern empire is depicted in the passage on Burke, in the essay on Warren Hastings, which commences with the words, "His knowledge of India--," and concludes with the sentence, "Oppression in Bengal was to him the same thing as oppression in the streets of London." That passage, unsurpassed as it is in force of language, and splendid fidelity of detail, by anything that Macaulay ever wrote or uttered, was inspired, as all who knew him could testify, by sincere and entire sympathy with that great statesman of whose humanity and breadth of view it is the merited, and not inadequate, panegyric.
Indeed, a very good thinking and discussion point, a flag that Macaulay would surely have been happy to nail to his own mast, as Trevelyan so firmly does on his behalf: "Oppression in Bengal was to him the same thing as oppression in the streets of London." This is the other side of the infuriating emphasis on English for everybody, anglicization for everybody-- he means also that there should be equal justice for everybody. When the English are unjust and oppressive to the helpless, they are more culpable than anyone: "A war of Bengalees against Englishmen was like a war of sheep against wolves, of men against daemons," he says of the early days of the Company (in his Hastings essay); and here the Bengalis are imagined as men, and the Englishmen, precisely because of their "superior intelligence and energy," as demons. No doubt the ideal of universal, culture-blind, Anglicized justice for all is naive, inadequate, ill-conceived in many ways; but it's not the worst ideal that a person could have, and his life and work show that he took it seriously. It's also an ideal that leads directly-- though not necessarily immediately-- to independence for India.

Plenty of objections can be-- and were-- raised against his approach; but in his day it was considered, by him and by others, to be a liberal and progressive one, and it's certainly clear that he meant it that way. His legislative projects in Calcutta included increased freedom of the press (which worked to the benefit of the civil rights of everybody), and uniform access to the civil courts-- which worked to the benefit of the Indians, ending certain special privileges of the English settlers, and thus making him a target of intense anger, and even a few death threats, from many Englishmen in India. His final project was a whole new Penal Code that he himself proposed, and then volunteered to write-- a code that virtually ended both slavery and the death penalty, and was in many other ways more progressive than was even recognized at the time. The Trevelyan biography gives more information about all these matters. And the "letters to Margaret," with their various anecdotes about his relationships with his servants, show him as a fundamentally kind and humane person, with a strong sense of fair play. (Indeed, he seems dismayed to discover that his behavior toward servants is considered unusual, since he thinks it's no more than common human decency, and thus should be the norm.)

In addition to all these piquant complexities, the man can write. His "letters to Margaret" are vivid and charming, and our knowledge that they were written to a beloved sister already dead can't fail to lend them a mood of poignancy as well. His two famous essays devoted to Clive and Hastings are not only informative and thought-provoking (as well as just plain provoking!) and extremely discussable, but also forceful, elegant, and a pleasure to read. I hope others will find them as captivating (and at times infuriating) as I have. Macaulay, with his views and his writing and his great literary and cultural (and legislative) influence, is part of the heritage of all of us English-speakers. He himself loved and cherished English, and thought of the language and its literature as a deeply transformative culture-bearer. His "English" legacy is a powerful heritage: despite its deep flaws, it's shown itself capable of remarkable human-rights achievements over time. It's worth exploring, and worth grappling with; it deserves more than the facile, fashionably anti-colonialist response that it so often receives.

Fran Pritchett
June 2005

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