Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Macaulay and Son

Architects of Imperial Britain


Catherine Hall


New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012

Hardcover. xxviii+389 pp. ISBN 978-0300160239. £35.00


Reviewed by Geraldine Vaughan

Université de Rouen


Was John R. Seeley really the founder of modern imperial history? Or have historians ‘absent-mindedly’ regarded him as such up until now? Catherine Hall in her new brilliant opus, Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain (2012), offers to revisit Thomas Babington Macaulay’s construction of an imperial vision in his writings and his best-seller The History of England. By exposing that ‘Tom’ (as his family called him and as Hall does) was ‘one of the most influential proponents of liberal imperial discourse’ [xiii], Catherine Hall brings the empire home again.

The book explores the lives and Weltanschauungen of the renowned Evangelist and abolitionist Zachary Macaulay and of his son, Tom Macaulay. Throughout the book are also present the women of the family, with domestic goddess Selina and Tom’s favourite sisters, Margaret and Hannah. Yet the book is not a biographical project, rather it encapsulates ‘the character and spirit of an age’ ([262] – which was Tom’s definition of a ‘perfect historian’).

Chapter 1 examines the career of Zachary Macaulay (1768-1838), the son of a Scots Kirk minister in Inverary. Zachary embraced a Scottish imperial career which took him to Jamaica working as an undermanager on a plantation from 1784 to 1790. This move to the West Indies reflects Scotsmen’s involvement in the empire – a subject explored in recent historiography (e.g. John M. MacKenzie and T.M. Devine, Scotland and the British Empire, Oxford History of the British Empire series, 2012). Hall demonstrates the implications of Zachary’s Jamaican experience back home. He was involved in imperial affairs back in London as he was appointed Secretary of the Sierra Leone Company and also active in the management of the Church Missionary Society [Chapter 2]. Hall’s analysis of Evangelical culture is most subtle – in particular, the importance of atonement associated with the duty to ‘cleanse’ home and the colonies from sins such as slavery [91]. Nevertheless, Hall reminds us that, even as committed abolitionists, Evangelicals sternly believed in inequality as a natural order.

In chapter 3, the reader dives into the Evangelist upper middle-class milieu of late 18th-century Clapham, and discovers a close-knit community where the Macaulays evolved alongside the Thorntons and the Wilberforces. The Christian Observer (1802) offered its readers an Evangelical digest (with articles on history, literature and theology) and conveyed the idea that there was only one true (white and British) civilisation. In this chapter, Hall also offers her readers some psychoanalytic interpretations of the Macaulay family members’ psyche which are not as always as convincing as the rest of her arguments. When Hall writes that Tom “was no longer His Majesty the Baby” when his sister Selina was born [94], it remains difficult to evaluate the importance of this event on Macaulay’s future writings.

Chapter 4 concentrates on the book’s main protagonist, Tom Macaulay. Hall exposes how Tom was the typical middle-class Liberal man, critical of some aspects of the aristocracy and fearful of the ‘mob’. He embraced a public career although he felt more at ease in the ‘domestic circle’. As opposed to his father, he developed the idea that Protestantism would no longer be the key to national belonging. His secular vision of the English / British ‘nation’ was inclusive of Catholics and Jews [153]. To be a patriot was therefore disconnected from being a Protestant. Moving from ‘home’ to the colonies [chapter 5] in the early 1830s was key to shaping his understanding ‘of the homely nation and its history’ [201]. In June 1832, Tom was appointed a member of the Board of Control, of which he became Secretary in December that same year (a lucrative position which brought him £1,500 per annum). He moved to India in 1833, a key year both in metropolitan and imperial history. Hall brilliantly shows how the introduction of the West India, East India Company and Irish Church Bills triggered major debates in the UK. Was coercion right for Ireland? Was apprenticeship the true way to emancipation? The controversies in Parliament surrounding these issues show once again that no nineteenth-century history of Britain can be thought of and written without simultaneous perception of domestic and imperial issues.

Tom’s vision of India before he left in 1833 was influenced by James Mill’s History of British India (1818) in which the colony was depicted as ‘a stagnant society, fixed in timeless barbarism’ [208]. Mill’s opus symbolised the shift from eighteenth-century Orientalist perceptions of India to the ‘Anglicist’ vision which stated that a new system of Western rule should be imposed. In 1834, Tom was appointed President of the Committee of Public Instruction by Governor Bentick. Hall demonstrates that the insistence of the use of English in the famous 1835 Minute on Education created the ‘space of difference’ between the British rulers and their Indian subjects [229].

The final chapter [chapter 6] takes a closer look at ‘The history man’. Hall accounts for Macaulay’s conception of English history, a history recounting moral, cultural and political ‘progress’. Tom Macaulay perceived secular changes such as the development of literacy and the press as being critical to this civilising process [277]. Three major aspects of Tom’s History of England are tackled by Hall, namely class and gender; the Scottish and Irish cases and the issue of Empire. Recounting the failure of the Darien scheme, Tom demonstrated how Scotland’s imperial destiny was tied to England’s after the Union (1707). The United Kingdom was analysed as an incorporating rather than an assimilating union. Ireland in Tom’s History was described as a kind of colony peopled by a strange race whom he called indifferently Celts or Papists.

What clearly emerges from Hall’s superb study is the generational passage from Zachary Macaulay’s religious perception of imperial issues to Tom Macaulay’s secular and ‘cultural’ understanding. The racial issue was central to Tom’s writings but Hall shows the high degree of fluidity in the conceptions of race and nation within nineteenth-century Liberal thought. There was definitely a ‘space of difference’ between home and the colonies – in Tom’s conception of history for instance, India and the West Indies were stuck ‘in the waiting room of history’ and needed to ‘progress’ on the Western model. In the end, both the father and son’s trajectories encapsulate the fundamental need to rethink British (or English?) history within both a domestic and an imperial frame.


Cercles © 2013

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.