Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Macaulay, "Lord Clive" and the Imperial Tradition

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Macaulay, "Lord Clive" and the Imperial Tradition

Article excerpt

This paper examines Macaulay's review article "Lord Clive" as part of the historiography of British India. Along with "Warren Hastings," it was an expression of his version of the history of British India, which had been given blood and sinew in the contemporary battles about the management and reform of Indian society that were a very real part of Macaulay's political life. This paper also attempts to show how controversial Macaulay's choice of Clive as a hero for the reformers was, and to explain why he presented Clive and the founding of the British empire in India in the way that he did.


Within a few days of Thomas Babington Macaulay's review of Sir John Malcolm's Life of Robert, Lord Clive (2) appearing in the Edinburgh Review, (3) Henry Brougham, the prominent Liberal MP wrote to its editor, Macvey Napier, to complain. "I am amazed at Macaulay praising Clive so immeasurably," he wrote, "[h]e was a great, but a very bad man. All men know he was a robber, publicly, and a cruel and bloodthirsty man." (4) Brougham's jealousy of Macaulay's influence may explain his motives in writing, but few would have disagreed that Clive was an odd hero for a periodical like the Edinburgh Review to celebrate. His reputation for avarice and corruption had been established in many works such as the Life of Clive (1778) published under the pseudonym "David Carciolli" and the most respected general history of the subject, James Mill's History of British India (1817). And this might explain why the British, as Macaulay observed, had been so indifferent to the history of the founding of the British empire. (5) As a boy, Macaulay himself had even shared this loathing of "the rapacious Clive." (6) Why, it is reasonable to ask, should Macaulay, whose Indian thinking was so coloured by the evangelical influences of his youth and the utilitarianism of Mill, choose to honour the common villain of these two schools of thought? This paper answers that question, but first of all, one must ask why previous commentators have not looked in detail at the nature of the connexion between Macaulay's imperial politics and his imperial history. There are three main reasons.

In varying degrees, many scholars are still haunted by Walter Bagehot's notion of Macaulay as a man who resisted experience, who was more affected by the world of books than the world around him. The devotion of his leisure hours in India to the study of the Greek and Roman classics coupled with his Minute on Indian Education's pronouncement that "a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia" appear to offer ultimate proof of Macaulay's disdain for the history and culture of South Asia. (7) Macaulay's immersion in books was actually a conscious strategy for dealing with what was for him the double tragedy of December 1834, when his sister Hannah, who kept him company in India, became engaged, and he received news of his sister Margaret's death during childbirth. On his arrival in India at Madras in June 1834 he had undertaken a "grand tour" of Southern India, visiting the ruins of Tipu Sultan's capital at Seringapatam, and confessing in a letter to his sister Margaret

   It was the scene of the greatest events of Indian history.
   It was the residence of the greatest of Indian princes... I
   remember that there was, at a shop window at Clapham
   a daub of the taking of Seringapatam, which when I was
   a boy of ten, I used to stare at with the greatest interest. I
   was delighted to have an opportunity of seeing the place.
   And, though my expectations were high, they were not
   disappointed. (8)

He also visited the Nawab of the Karnatak, made famous, he noted, as the subject of one of Edmund Burke's finest speeches. (9) As his choice of sights shows, it was the history of the British in India that fascinated him. His enthusiasm was such that he even considered learning Hindustani and Persian. …

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