Macaulay: Britain's Liberal Imperialist by Zareer Masani

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Macaulay: Britain's Liberal Imperialist by Zareer Masani

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the early Victorian politician turned imperial administrator and reformer in India and eventually noted historian.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: December 2014
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099587026

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If Thomas Babington Macaulay is remembered at all today, it is probably for the historical writings to which he devoted himself during the last few years of his life. Yet earlier in his career, he was also a Member of Parliament, a government minister, and served for some years in India, playing a major reforming role as a member of the governor-general’s council.

In the 21st century, the very terms ‘imperialism’ and ‘British empire’ are all too often tainted with a bitter flavour. It is thus only appropriate that the latest biographer to try and rescue him from obscurity, and pass an even-handed judgment on him, should be the son of an Indian politician himself.

Macaulay was a complex combination of intolerant reactionary yet, as the sub-title of this new book suggests, also an enterprising liberal reformer. To some he is anathema as the man who introduced the English language as a medium for learning in India, in the process creating a class of westernised Indians who are sometimes scathingly referred to today as ‘Macaulay’s children’. Was he simply a thick-skinned cultural imperialist, intent on imposing British values and standards on the people of another country out of mere superiority, or was he at the same time a genuine moderniser, an enlightened father figure basically intent on helping them to improve themselves? While he has his detractors, there are still those who revere his memory, not least some people from India today who regard him as their bold liberator from the caste tyranny that was so prevalent on his arrival in the country. We are reminded at several points that he was an early champion of British-led liberal interventionism throughout the world, an ideological precursor of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

Macaulay’s early years were unexceptional. In the opening pages, Masani introduces us to the precocious child prodigy who gazed out of his cot at the chimneys of a local factory, and reputedly asked his father whether the smoke was coming from the fires of hell. He was a gifted linguist, with a lifelong passion for classical literature. Though he studied law as a young man, he showed more interest in a political than a legal career. Entering Parliament in 1830, he quickly established himself as a radical, strongly pro-reform and keen to remove discrimination from groups such as Jews. After the passing of the Government of India Act in 1833, he was sent out to serve on the Supreme Council for four years.

For all his reforming zeal, Macaulay was unimpressed, even impatient with the Indian way of life. When he found temporary accommodation soon after his arrival, he wrote disparagingly of being billeted in a narrow hot dungeon, with no garden, where he was ‘surrounded by native huts, deafened with the clang of native musical instruments and poisoned with the steams of native cookery’. As the author remarks, what would he have made of the British passion for curry house and the introduction of Indian classical music into concert halls 150 years later? He also admits that by today’s standards Macaulay was ‘a cultural racist’, but in this he was no better or no worse than most of his 19th-century contemporaries, strongly convinced that their own culture, religion and values were far superior to those of others. Nevertheless his record was a good one. He strove hard, and with some success, to create a more egalitarian legal system for India, introduced a new education system, campaigned for equality before the law to all colonial subjects, and to harmonise laws that had previously varied considerably from province to province. The new and more liberal legal code which he devised was ready to be applied in 1837, but it was too forward-looking for the more conservatively-minded of his colleagues and was not enacted for another twenty years or so, long after he had gone.

Although he was nearly forty when he returned to England, the rest of his life seems to have been something of anti-climax. He was elected as a Member of Parliament again, and served in the cabinet as Minister for War and then Paymaster-General. It was however an undistinguished career, and as the author notes, he was respected but not really liked, on account of ‘his plebeian origins, combined with his garrulous ways and unattractive appearance’. The Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, made Queen Victoria giggle when he suggested that he ‘resembled a book in breeches’. Ill-health brought a premature end to his life at Westminster, and he spent his last years working on the history for which he is perhaps best remembered today. The author devotes what I would have thought surprisingly little attention to this important aspect of his life.

This is good, crisp, very readable biography of a man who for all his faults achieved a good deal for the people whom he strove to serve. It is perhaps a little on the dry side, but Macaulay comes across as a rather dry character. He had a close relationship with his sisters, Hannah, who died young, and then Margaret, as well as his nieces. A crusty lifelong bachelor, he seems to have lacked any other emotional attachments. However, as a public servant he deserves his place in history, and Masani has done his sometimes misunderstood subject justice.

For a more general overview of India, may we also recommend The Story of India by Michael Wood.

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