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was a phenomenal Victorian best-seller which shaped much more than the literary culture of the times: it defined a nation's sense of self, charting the rise of the British Isles to its triumph as a homogenous nation, a safeguard of the freedom of belief and expression, and a central world power. In this book Catherine Hall explores the emotional, intellectual, and political roots of Thomas Macaulay’s vision of England, tracing the influence of his father’s career as a colonial governor and drawing illuminating ...
was a phenomenal Victorian best-seller which shaped much more than the literary culture of the times: it defined a nation's sense of self, charting the rise of the British Isles to its triumph as a homogenous nation, a safeguard of the freedom of belief and expression, and a central world power. In this book Catherine Hall explores the emotional, intellectual, and political roots of Thomas Macaulay’s vision of England, tracing the influence of his father’s career as a colonial governor and drawing illuminating comparisons between the two men.
The Making of an Abolitionist
The stories of Macaulay senior and junior cross nations and continents: their family was indeed an imperial family. Macaulay senior was born in Scotland, spent six years in Jamaica and eight years in Sierra Leone before settling in England. Three of his brothers spent time in India, including Colin who served at Seringapatam, was imprisoned by Haider Ali for four years and later became Wellington's aide-de-camp in Indian campaigns. Another brother was a naval captain, while yet another was employed by the Sierra Leone Company. They came from a long line of Presbyterian ministers of very modest means, and like so many Scots found empire to be a very successful way of making a living or even a fortune. Numerous cousins and other relatives worked across the empire. Zachary Macaulay's journey across the empire, from Scotland to the Caribbean and West Africa, was critical to his formation as a particular kind of man, an Evangelical and an abolitionist. His imperial encounters across place and time shaped his understanding of the world.
From Scotland to Jamaica
Zachary, the third of twelve children, was born in 1768 in the Western Highlands of Scotland at a time when much of that country was still seen by polite society as uncivilised. His father, the Rev. John Macaulay, was a Calvinist and the Church of Scotland minister in Inverary. His mother was a Campbell. The family moved to Cardross on the banks of the Clyde when Zachary was six, a place later described by him as 'the wilds'. Scotland in the 1760s was far from its full economic and political transformation and its 'assimilation' into England, later to be so powerfully evoked by his son in the History. With twelve children the sons had to seek their fortunes, and Zachary's older brothers, Colin and Aulay, went into the army and the Church. As the oldest boy left at home Zachary was involved in the education of his younger siblings, and as he said himself in the autobiographical fragment that he wrote when he was in Sierra Leone in 1797, this experience gave him habits of authority, self-confidence and impatience, not to speak of a dogmatic and magisterial style in writing and speaking. His account of the self was written with hindsight, from the perspective of a man of twenty-nine with extensive public responsibilities in an 'infant colony', one who had found a new meaning to life through Evangelical Christianity and who was conducting a courtship. He was both reinterpreting a past and imagining a future. Lines from John Newton, the reformed captain of a slave ship, provided his epitaph:
Thou didst once a wretch behold
In rebellion blindly bold
Scorn Thy grace, Thy power defy
That poor rebel, Lord, was I.
Writing as a reformed 'rebel', a 'wretch' who had been born anew, he narrated his early life through the tropes of spiritual rebirth and antislavery sentiment.
At nine a serious accident to his right arm had required many operations and together with his blindness in one eye meant that he was more bookish and adult centred than other children. His father, in the tradition of ministers of the Church of Scotland, had a good library, including Latin, Greek and French texts, and the boy loved to read, finding that he had an 'insatiable appetite' for books. At fourteen he became his 'own master by being removed from the control of my Father and Mother' and sent to Glasgow to pursue a mercantile career, a disappointment to him since he would have liked to have continued his education. Free from parental supervision, which also meant no kindly watchful eye, he 'was continually laying the plan of wonderful adventure', but managed to do well in his work. He mixed, however, with bad company, from the men at the counting house who drank wine, to the women who encouraged him to pore over 'such abominable, but fascinating works as are to be found under the head of novels in the catalogue of every circulating library'. Then there were the students who were studying with Scottish Enlightenment thinkers and 'made a cruel use of their influence'. Hume, the religious sceptic, became his oracle and 'to profane the sacred name of God' his pleasure. There was no family in Glasgow, he later regretfully remarked, especially no Christian women, to keep him on the straight and narrow. He got into 'bad habits' and realised he must extricate himself 'from the Labyrinth in which I was involved', a labyrinth the nature of which can only be imagined but which was presumably connected to adolescent desires. Meanwhile, however, he had learned much of the methods of a merchant house, lessons that were to stand him in good stead. He was intending to go to the East Indies, but a relative offered him patronage in Jamaica, an offer that came to nothing. Jamaica was a familiar spot for Glasgow merchants with their multiple connections to sugar and slavery and was widely regarded as a place for a Scot to do well.
He set out for Jamaica at sixteen, and arrived without money or 'single friend to whom I could turn for assistance'. Just as in Glasgow there was no alternative family, no replacement for the moral compass provided by the manse, only the drinking companions who encouraged different values and identifications. Jamaica in 1784 was enjoying great prosperity. Planters were accumulating huge fortunes; there had been no major rebellion of the enslaved since 1760; and the uncertainties associated with the American War of Independence had lessened. Jamaica was not yet identified, as it came to be, as the iconic site of Britain's 'national sin': the slave trade and slavery. According to George Otto Trevelyan, Thomas Babington Macaulay's nephew and first biographer, the Rev. John Macaulay, Zachary's father, saw nothing to condemn in 'an institution recognised by Scripture' and Zachary himself was not predisposed against slavery on his arrival in the Caribbean. As yet there was no significant movement in the metropole against the trade which was widely seen as a major source of national wealth.
He stayed there for six years working as a book-keeper, an under-manager on a plantation, one of the lowliest employees on an estate, supervising the enslaved in the fields, keeping the keys for the stores and attending the boiling house and distillery in the crop season. 'The managerial hierarchy that developed in Jamaica was the basis of social order', and the book-keeper ranked low amongst white colonists. The position was one which James Stephen, the man who was later to become one of Zachary's closest associates and friends in the struggle against slavery, vividly described from his own observations in the Caribbean:
The Overseers, as the subaltern white agents of the Sugar Planters are called in the Leeward Islands, or Bookkeepers as they are preposterously named in Jamaica, are, I think, of all human beings in point of employment the most to be compassionated or despised; compassionated if they cannot, and despised if they do not desire to abandon their odious situation. They are in the middle rank among the administrators of that cruel private despotism under which the poor negroes groan, being placed immediately above the black drivers, and below the Managers, called in Jamaica the Overseers. Over the former, they have the same unlimited power, practically at least unlimited, as the managers, or the Proprietor himself, when present, and of course also over the poor human herd who are driven to their labours: but they are servilely subordinate to the Managers; men whose minds for the most part are steeled against every humane and liberal feeling.
They were the superintendents, he continued, of excessive labour and vile punishments. A strong constitution was essential for they had to be out in the sun, visit the sick house, be satisfied with coarse food. It was a position, he noted, 'commonly filled by hardy young men from Scotland and Ireland taken from the ranks of life not much above the lowest and who are prepared by early habit to sustain well every physical hardship.'
Zachary, writing his account of his young manhood after his conversion to Evangelicalism, represented Jamaica in what was already by the late 1790s the familiar language of abolitionism. Jamaica was a degraded society, Britons became corrupted by the excessive powers they wielded, enslaved Africans were passive victims of a cruel system. The sins were those of the white man. His own experience had been salutary. As a youth, scarcely a man, seeking employment on the island, he had been humiliated and rebuffed as a subordinate. But he already knew his own capacity for business. He recounted his problems with white superiors and the contempt he felt for many white West Indians. He felt 'the miseries of dependence on the proud and unfeeling', and frequently experienced 'the stronger passions of indignation and resentment' when treated coldly by men whom he thought his educational inferiors. His new life
waged war with my taste and feelings, and was alien from all my former habits. My office was laborious, irksome, and degrading in a degree of which I could have no previous conception, and which none can imagine fully who, like me, have not experienced the vexatious, tyrannical, pitiless, and capricious conduct of a Jamaica overseer.
His servile subordination to the overseer was painful but he had no choice, so 'cheerfully submitted to all the severe toil and painful watchings which were required of me'. This humiliating subservience was bad enough. Far worse was the exposure to the everyday brutalities of the plantation, both the sight and 'the practice of severities over others', a horrifying experience for which nothing had prepared him. 'The very recollection' made his 'blood run cold'. His mind had at first, he recorded, been 'feelingly alive to the miseries of the poor slaves'. 'I not only revolted at the thought of myself inflicting punishment upon them, but the very sight of punishment sickened me.' But this was an impossible position to maintain. In a society in which the enslaved had been commodified constructed as objects to be bought and sold, men, women and children with black skin and bodies unlike those of their white masters and mistresses feelings of pity or sympathy could not be tolerated. Macaulay found himself 'bound, if I would not forfeit the regard of all who were disposed to serve me, even to give no vent to those feelings which would have seemed to reproach them with cruelty'. Feelings that were deemed inappropriate for a white man had to be controlled. He resolved 'to get rid of my squeamishness', and found that he succeeded beyond his expectations. He wrote to a friend at home:
The air of this Island has some peculiar quality in it, for no sooner does a person set foot on it than his former ways of thinking are entirely changed. You would hardly know your friend, with whom you have spent so many hours in more peaceful, and more pleasant scenes, were you to view me in a field of canes, amidst perhaps a hundred of the sable race, cursing and bawling, while the noise of the whip resounding on their Shoulders, and the cries of the poor wretches, would make you imagine some unlucky accident had carried you to the doleful shades.
Writing in the mid-1790s, at a time when he was fully committed to the struggle to abolish the slave trade and only too aware of the horrors of slavery, he reflected on the 'terrible caprice and tyranny of one who, unawed by the fear of God, exercises an absolute dominion over his fellow-men'. Living in Jamaica, however, 'as soon as I was master of my business, I began to like my situation'. His 'outward conduct' was rather sober and decorous in comparison with the vulgarity of the planters, but in substance his habits were the same. 'I was quite assimilated to my neighbours', he concluded, subject, like them, to base passion. 'The contagion of a universal example must indeed have its effect', he reasoned. He had been 'assimilated' to the culture of the West Indies. His innate capacities, as he later characterised them, those universal human attributes that allowed him to distinguish between good and evil, were blocked by his environment. Slavery was degrading both to the enslavers and the enslaved.
In his discussion of abolitionist narratives, Marcus Wood has drawn attention to the focus on the sufferings of the feeling white man. Zachary's sufferings were associated both with his own subordination to cruel white overseers and his exposure to their bestial treatment of 'poor negro wretches'. Yet, he later reflected, he himself had been unable to reform the 'mischievous habits' of the enslaved. Shocked as he was by the cruelty of slavery, he had nevertheless felt it imperative to assimilate himself to its practices to become a white man in the model of the white West Indian. His 'habits and dispositions' became fundamentally the same as theirs. Only his rather 'sober and decorous' manner retained the trace of his upbringing in the manse. Like John Newton, however, he had come to recognise his sin and must expiate it, the double sin of man's original fall from grace: his own wretchedness as a 'rebel' who refused the gift of salvation, and the sin of having colluded with a system that denied others their position as sons of God. And there had been one saving grace in Jamaica he had grasped that his education stood him in good stead. His capacity for reason gave him a confidence that enabled him to speak up on behalf of oppressed others albeit young white inferiors subject to the whims of their employers. This capacity to speak for others became a critical part of his identity as an abolitionist.
In 1789, the year of the French Revolution, another relative offered Zachary a position 'at home' and he left Jamaica. Familiar only with Scotland, this was his first encounter with England. Both his parents had died and he went to stay with his older sister Jean who had married an enthusiastic Evangelical, Thomas Babington, a friend of William Wilberforce. Anglican Evangelicals were inspired by the absence of 'real religion'; they sought a faith that informed everyday practice and would infuse political and social worlds with ethical values. Their sense of moral crisis, already profound in the 1780s, was to be greatly magnified by the French Revolution and the fears it generated of radicalism and revolution in England. Babington, from an old gentry family, and Wilberforce, the scion of a wealthy Hull mercantile dynasty who had established his place in national politics as a young man, were key figures in what came to be known as the Clapham Sect. Macaulay stepped into the heart of this network of Evangelical families and friends. They were to be his closest associates for the rest of his life.
His new brother-in-law had inherited estates in Leicestershire which had been in his family since the sixteenth century and his home, Rothley Temple, was a 'picturesque and interesting mansion of great antiquity'. He was a paternalistic landlord, guided first and foremost by religious and moral considerations, a man who impressed by his character rather than his achievements. Aulay Macaulay, Zachary's older brother and a curate in Leicestershire, was a friend of Babington's. They had travelled together to Scotland, visited the family manse, and Babington had been charmed by Aulay's younger sister. Immediately after their marriage Jean had been dispatched for six months with Babington's mother to stay with the Gisbornes, a leading Evangelical family. Babington, Gisborne and Wilberforce had all been at St John's, Cambridge together. Thomas Gisborne, married to Babington's sister Mary, was a great admirer of Adam Smith, and the author of the influential manual Enquiry into the Duties of Men in the Higher and Middle Classes of Society, a handbook of Evangelical manhood. A few years later he published An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex, which stressed the natural differences between the sexes but combined this with an emphasis on the level of refinement appropriate to polite and domesticated societies. Jean, brought up in 'the wilds', was to be educated out of her 'Scotticisms', as they were called, and taught how to be the wife of an English gentleman. She was encouraged by her husband to 'improve your pronunciation and manner of reading' as well as her writing. The Enlightenment concept of 'civilisation' in a commercial society required women to be capable of participating in polite society and conversation. Jean needed to be prepared for her new life and after six months with the Gisbornes she was declared 'capable of taking the head of her own house'. Rothley Temple, under the watchful eye of its benevolent patriarch, was to become an exemplary Evangelical household, widely believed to provide the model of domestic felicity in Hannah More's immensely popular novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife. It was the Rothley Temples of this world that were to act as bridgeheads for the moralisation of English society a key part of the Anglican Evangelical project.
Excerpted from Macaulay and Son by CATHERINE HALL Copyright © 2012 by Catherine Hall. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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