The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power

By Partha Chatterjee | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
For the Happiness of Mankind

THE BLACK HOLE OF CALCUTTA would probably have been forgotten had it not been for the essayist's skills of Thomas Macaulay (1800–1859).

Macaulay was of Scottish descent, but his family was Anglican and lived in London. His father, Zachary, was a leading Evangelical missionary, a member of the so-called Clapham sect, and a close associate of William Wilberforce in the antislavery movement of the early decades of the nineteenth century. Thomas distinguished himself as a student at Cambridge, was then called to the bar, and soon emerged as a notable writer by virtue of a forceful criticism of James Mill's utilitarian theories of government—a youthful exuberance that later somewhat embarrassed him.1 It was said of him that he was, from a young age, hostile to abstract and speculative thinking. A critic of Macaulay has remarked: “In every academic system there is the inherent danger that amongst its prizemen it may produce scholars of wide reading, tenacious memory, and correct expression who may be fundamentally unintellectual. I hope it is not disloyal to add that this is a danger to which Cambridge scholarship, with its fine traditions of soundness and accuracy, is especially liable.”2

Macaulay was elected to Parliament in 1830. Looking for a position with a decent salary, he sought an appointment in the East India Company, and in 1834 became a member of the governor-general's council and president of the Law Commission. He was in India for only four years, but left a profoundly lasting impression on the structure of colonial education and law in British India.

Returning to England in 1838, he began a literary career as an essayist and historian that would earn him great fame as well as adulation as a Victorian liberal. His History of England, appearing in five volumes between 1848 and 1855, was a publishing sensation, and has become a prime example of the Whig interpretation of history.3 Macaulay's literary and historical essays, first collected in a volume in 1843, were also widely read. “It is doubtful indeed whether any collection of essays has had a greater effect upon the critical standards of ordinary English readers than had Macaulay's, both for his own and for succeeding generations.”4

Of course, later critics have been largely dismissive of his literary merits, pointing to the very fact of his popularity and influence as evidence that he

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