Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain

John MacKenzie on a biography exploring the lives of two members of the same Scottish family - and how they shaped the British empire


Reviewed by: John MacKenzie
Author: Catherine Hall
Publisher: Yale
Price (RRP): £35.99


The Macaulays, father and son, did not do self-doubt. At least in their public lives, both Zachary and Thomas were certain of some immutable laws, but the certainties that they held differed.

Both men divided the world into civilisation and barbarism, with England representing the acme of civilisation. For Zachary, Christianity was the principal criterion, the motive force which impelled him to work ceaselessly for his anti-slavery campaign and for the Christianising of the world.

For Thomas, the principal markers of civilisation were cultural, the worship of progress as represented in liberal freedoms in politics and society. One was a Tory; the other a Whig. But both were deeply anti-radical, conservative in their convictions about the dangers of revolution and deeply attached to necessary (as they saw it) social and racial hierarchies, as well as strictly gendered divisions of labour and functions.

Catherine Hall has cleverly brought their lives and their work together, uniting them in ways seldom recognised before. They were, she argues, architects of imperial Britain. Zachary, the Scottish son of a Highland minister, was indelibly influenced by his youthful experience on a plantation in Jamaica which served to convince him of the absolute necessity of the abolition of slavery. Still a young man, he became governor of the freed slave settlement in Sierra Leone, where his ideas about Christianity and the need for strict controls upon society were formed and played out. Back in London, he built up a patriarchal family which he ruled as autocratically as he had the west African settlement.

Zachary worked tirelessly for several causes, including the Church Missionary Society, the African Institution, and the Anti-Slavery Society. He was a leading light of the Clapham Sect of Church of England reformers, connected with all its key figures. He had relatives in India and elsewhere and was at pains to place younger kinsfolk in positions overseas.

His son Thomas operated on a broader canvas. Something of a child prodigy, he swiftly established himself as a ‘golden boy’ in both his oratory and his writing. In parliament from a young age, he became a junior minister, closely involved in campaigns for the 1832 Reform Act. His reward was to join the Governor-General’s Council in India, where he adopted and led the more ethnocentric, even arrogant, approach to Indian cultures. The celebrated Education Minute (which extolled the virtues of a western education in English) and the Indian penal law code are regarded as his principal monuments for the development of British authority in India.

But after his return to Britain, he set out consciously to turn himself into the leading historian of the age. Convinced that men of affairs made the best historians, he constructed a multi-volume history of England which charted the progress of the English to their position as the most powerful and civilised country on earth. Hall’s considerable achievement is to bring together intellectual, social and political history into a satisfying conjunction. She also devotes attention to Thomas’s inner life, particularly his extraordinarily intense relationships with his sisters.

The two Macaulays were architects of empire in another way. People trained in imperial service in the late 19th century were, in many respects, brought up on their principles. Thomas Macaulay became one of the two most widely read historians – the other being Edward Gibbon – and British attitudes to empire were indelibly forged in their twin visions. This is a remarkably valuable and eminently readable book.


John MacKenzie is professor emeritus at the University of Lancaster and the editor of Scotland and the British Empire (OUP, 2011)