Emperor of the modern Indian mind? Review by Shaniyan

Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power, By Robert E. Sullivan, Orient Blackswan.

The power to control language offers far better prizes than taking away people’s provinces or lands or grinding them down in exploitation. The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.
– Winston Churchill, 1943

Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power, By Robert E. Sullivan, Orient Blackswan.

The power to control language offers far better prizes than taking away people’s provinces or lands or grinding them down in exploitation. The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.
– Winston Churchill, 1943

Thomas Babington Lord Macaulay (1800-1859), a historian par excellence in Victorian England, who rose to fame, power and wealth during his time in England and in many parts of Europe and the US, has finally met his match in Robert E. Sullivan who had laid bare his upbringing, his charisma, his complex character and the reasons for his ultimate oblivion, thanks to his access to Macaulay’s diaries, journals and letters. An outstanding scholar, Sullivan presents a 615-page biography of Macaulay, divided into 12 chapters, with 87 pages of closely packed references, and a 24-page index. Regrettably, there is no bibliography. On the 150th anniversary of the death of Macaulay, Robert Sullivan offers a portrait of a Victorian life that probes the cost of power, the practice of empire, and the impact of ideas.

The author points out in the preface that his object was to study “the tragedy of the power that killed him (Macaulay) and confounds us today”. Whether the object is fulfilled or not is a moot point, but what emerges from this study is Macaulay’s “dualness in outlook and amorality in politics”. Truly, this study presents Macaulay as a crypto-imperialist, too bookish a scholar, who is ever ready to bend his knees to seek power and authority for the enhancement of his literary and political career. The author’s breathtaking and wide-ranging efforts to deal with Macaulay’s multifaceted personality tend to make this biography diffuse, and relegate analysis and reflection to the background. His personal life in India is sketchily described and also casts a shadow on his relationship with his sisters.

Historian A.J.P. Taylor observed that those who criticize Macaulay either do not care about liberty, or they think it can take care of itself. Macaulay was a good deal more sensible. Not only did he regard liberty as supremely important, but he knew that it needs ceaseless defending. Karl Marx dismissed him as a Scottish sycophant. Thomas Carlyle called Macaulay vulgar, intrinsically common, the sublime of commonplace, an author without the slightest tincture of greatness or originality or any kind of superior merit.

Macaulay was an inviting target because of his popularity as one of the supreme masters of the English
language. He was lucid—no one ever strained to understand him. He told a compelling story. He portrayed
unforgettable characters. He provided details appealing to the senses. He offered striking illustrations drawn from his encyclopedic knowledge of history and literature of ancient Greece and Rome, Italy, France, and England. Said A.J.P. Taylor: “Start off on any page, in the middle of a paragraph, and it is impossible not to read on . . . he remains the most readable of all historians”. After faulting Macaulay on a number of points, Lord Acton urged a friend: “Read him therefore to find out how it comes that the most unsympathetic of critics can think him very nearly the greatest of English writers”.

Winston Churchill was among those inspired by Macaulay. At age 13, Churchill memorized the 1,200 lines of Macaulay’s heroic poem "Lays of Ancient Rome". A little later, he was thrilled when a friend read to him aloud from Macaulay’s History of England. At 23, Churchill read Macaulay’s History and essays for himself—12 volumes—and found Macaulay crisp and forcible. Churchill acknowledged that in his own writing, he affected a combination of the style of Macaulay and Gibbon.

Macaulay did a prodigious amount of research. He pored through archives in England and Holland. He acquired a vast collection of document transcriptions from France, Spain and the Papacy. He examined transcriptions of French diplomatic dispatches collected by Charles James Fox who had contemplated a history of late seventeenth-century England. Macaulay read diaries, pamphlets, broadsheets, ballads, and newspapers of the period. Novelist William Makepeace Thackeray marveled that he used to read twenty books to write a sentence; he traveled a hundred miles to make a line of description. Too much learning leads to weariness of spirit. It seems that learning swallowed and drowned Macaulay, which incapacitated him from forming his independent judgment. He knew no Indian language, nor did he mix with Indians like Heber and William Jones did. His Educational Minute of February 2, 1835, was too sweeping. Gandhiji called it “notorious”.

Who was Lord Macaulay? When Hastings, Wellesley, Cornwallis and Curzon have faded into the dim past of history, even the boulevards bearing their names in Delhi have been rechristened, why does Macaulay, a man who held no high office and commanded no armies, surface so frequently in our laments on the state of education in India. Macaulay came to India in 1834 to be a legislative member of the Council of India; according to biographical notes his intention was to ‘achieve financial independence’. He stayed only till 1838, but in writing his famous ‘minute’, a year after his arrival, he ensured that he would be with us even a century and a half later. The statue of Lord Macaulay at Trinty College, Cambridge bears the inscription on
the pedestal which reads in part, "Baron Macaulay of Rothley, India litteris et legibus emendanda’’.an acclamation for reforming laws and letters in India in Latin

Macaulay confronted the Orientalists in India on the committee with many overstated and sometimes offensively worded sentences. His ‘minute’ has often been selectively quoted to highlight statements which appear to epitomise the arrogance of a colonising power. He states infamously: ‘I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.’ Much later in his ‘minute’, Macaulay makes his most widely quoted proposition: ‘We must at present do our best to form 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.’

These two extracts of Macaulay’s ‘minute’ have been held, for much of the 20th century, as being the root cause for many of the ills that affect our educational system, including the ever-increasing divide between the institutions of higher education and the mass of people who may aspire to a better future. This was exactly the thesis that James Mill had propounded in the first volume of his History of British India, which Macaulay uncritically accepted and used for the condemnation of Indian literature and culture.

Even in today’s context Graddol’s English Next India has been vigorously promoted in India by the British Council in an attempt to secure British influence over Indian education. Graddol collected and processed a large amount of information about Indian society and the economic, linguistic and educational problems and challenges it faces. The complexity of the issues is presented lucidly. However, Indian scholars figure only very selectively, and their views are generally not cited explicitly. The report is not an academic study with exploration of the substantial literature on language and educational policy. What is drawn on and presented are glimpses of the issues, inevitably in a selective fashion. Graddol’s study, funded and published by the British Council, does not directly declare who commissioned the work or what mandate he was given. Macaulay’s legacy lives on through the British Council in India.

Macaulay was right to say that people thrive when they are free. He insisted that government intervention would make millions miserable—and it has. He believed that by telling a simple, stirring story in bold colors, he could help win the hearts of people—and he did. Long after the most fashionable pundits are forgotten, readers will be thrilled by Thomas Babington Macaulay’s extraordinary eloquence for liberty.

England or Great Britain may have forgotten Macaulay now; there is, however, a special reason why Macaulay will always have a special place in India. With the confused state of India’s traditional sciences and Civilization in China in 7 volumes and with the slow death of local languages amongst the youth, we can ask ourselves a very pertinent question:

Are we all Macaulay’s children?

The author has been an academic researcher in oriental history, economics and strategic studies, and now dabbles in corporate strategy and finance.

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