Updated: June 21, 2011 12:07 IST

How important was Macaulay?

Krishna Kumar
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OEB: Bok Review: Macaulay The Tragedy of Power. _ by Robert E. Sullivan.
OEB: Bok Review: Macaulay The Tragedy of Power. _ by Robert E. Sullivan.

Individuals matter, but the extent of their importance is debatable. It is widely believed that if Macaulay had never come to India, or if he had not served the East India Company, India's system of education would have been different from what it is. By attributing to Macaulay a superhuman causality, this view makes education under colonial rule look rather too simple. In this volume, historian Robert E. Sullivan devotes no space whatsoever to question this popular wisdom. Rather, he appears to derive from it a rationale for his study of Macaulay's life and personality.

Sullivan stays well within the orbit of received wisdom on colonialism in the early 19th century when the educational history of India was supposedly shaped by the outcome of the so-called controversy between the Anglicists and the Orientalists. The controversy is believed to have been settled by Macaulay's minute. This document gained notoriety for its explicit articulation of contempt for India's traditions of knowledge and culture. The unabashed racist tone of this document makes it a darling of every guidebook writer for the Bachelor of Education degree.

Once you have read this note, you need not bother to grapple with the political economy of colonisation. You feel blissfully free to believe that the system of education under the colonial rule would have energetically cultivated India's indigenous languages and discouraged the use of English if Macaulay had never come to India or written that hateful note. Sullivan's treatment of Macaulay will give a further lease of life to this myth.

Sullivan starts his introduction to the volume by regretting what he terms the demotion of Macaulay from being considered an eminent Victorian. He notes that the Latin inscription below Macaulay's statue in Trinity College, Cambridge, gives him the credit for reforming “the letters and laws of India.” Sullivan says: “The tribute sounds like imperial hyperbole until you hear the voice of a fluent English speaker in a call centre in what was recently Bangalore and consider that in 1835 Macaulay, not yet 35, was instrumental in launching English as the subcontinent's shared language.”

We can well imagine why an Indian publisher has so promptly reprinted this ponderous book, first published — surprisingly, without much editorial attention being given — by Harvard University Press. The vast and strenuous effort that has gone into its making is not easy to appreciate unless one shares Sullivan's premise that Macaulay did indeed leave his personal stamp on India by shaping its system of education and by preparing an early draft of the codes of civil and criminal procedures.

The author has not succeeded in his attempt to make the reader feel fascinated by Macaulay as a person. Is it because the scholarly effort put in to build an image of Macaulay as a great, though tragic, thinker and public figure is not good enough, or is it because the method and style are so unattractive? Perhaps, it is both.


The tragic greatness Sullivan attributes to Macaulay is hardly convincing. The evidence he advances to support his view that Macaulay left important and lasting legacies lacks plausibility. For instance, he cites Nehru as an example of “the success of Macaulay's much-deprecated project of ‘forming a class 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'.” Even Nehru's worst critics would find it untenable. That Sullivan regards a statesman and freedom fighter of the stature of Nehru, who spent more than a decade of his political life in British jails, as an example of Macaulay's legacy should suffice to indicate the quality of historical sense underpinning this work. As for Macaulay himself, he remains a dated historical figure, afflicted by the contradictions typical of many of his contemporaries, between visions of liberal reform and the impulse to conquer and kill. It is good for him that he wrote a multi-volume history of his own country which is currently desperate to find material that might inspire its youth — including the progeny of immigrants from the former colonies — with nationalistic fervour.

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