Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain

Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain
Catherine Hall
Yale University Press   361pp     £35.99  

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This book breaks the traditional genres of history writing and that proves to be a very good thing. Rather than write about a single life Catherine Hall weaves the tales of historian-statesman Thomas Babington Macaulay and his abolitionist father Zachary into a single study. But, even then, this is more than a bi-generational biography; Hall uses her subjects, like all the best biographers, to cast new light on the national, imperial and international histories of the times in which they lived. Although Hall’s hefty volume gives Thomas’ celebrated History of England the attention it deserves, she offers so much more, analysing familial relationships, evangelical society, political culture, colonial scheming and complex, subtle but ever-present bigotries.

Adopting a thematic, partly-chronological approach, Hall successfully feeds readers the background information they need while preserving her focus in each particular chapter. By introducing ‘Tom’ in a chapter on the Macaulay clan’s domestic relations, the transition from one subject to another seems smooth and logical, not forced. Besides family records and private papers, Hall illustrates the text with original material from varied episodes in her subjects’ lives. Given their broad interests, she draws on a wide range of discrete historical literatures, synthesising recent research on the Sierra Leone colony and Zachary’s troubled governorship of it and harnessing work on political culture and gendered citizenship to inform Tom’s response to Chartism, electoral reform and the spectre of revolution.

In the very finest sections Hall channels the diverse expertise accumulated throughout her whole career to paint Zachary’s interconnected notions of civilisation, domesticity, race, gender and Scottishness or Tom’s universalist, hierarchical, orderly reformism. It is hard to imagine anyone else fusing these themes so richly or successfully and the book creates an impression that it is the capstone to a lifetime’s scholarship bridging history and sociology, the study of gender and empire, or cultural and materialist approaches to discovering past societies.

For historians of British imperial rule this work demonstrates how many different currents, interests and enterprises could mix, compound and react within the lives of one father and son. Hall offers some interesting arguments on why Thomas Macaulay kept England’s colonies at a safe distance in his History of metropolitan liberties and he seems typical of many Britons who retreated to the mindset of a Little-Englander with remarkable ease. By reading across the empire, from education and mission in India to abolition and commerce in West Africa, Hall’s approach provides rare breadth by putting the experience of domestic and overseas anxieties back in their contemporary contexts. In particular, by looking at the importance of God’s Providence to Zachary – and its apparent unimportance to Thomas – Hall knits together broader expectations of British glory with concerns about imperial decline. In finding epochal differences in the attitudes of father and son, however, Hall possibly underplays their different social positions – as self-improving convert and establishment poser, respectively – when drawing sharp contrasts between Georgian and Victorian views of race, empire and humanitarianism.

The real strength of Macaulay and Son lies in its ability to range so surely from fascinating detail to confident argument. Hence we might follow Zachary’s visit to see Saartjie Bartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus’, who was displayed as an exotic African beauty in London, or spy Thomas skipping an invitation to visit a biscuit factory, at one point, because he had no interest in industry or those mechanics employed by it. Alongside these vignettes the book also proffers Hall’s assessment of changing attitudes to the Anglicisation of India and the growing toleration of non-conformists in British political life. Given Thomas Babington Macaulay’s concern for the popular dissemination of good history writing, it is appropriate that a book about him and his father proves so accomplished at introducing and advancing the history of Britain and the British Empire.

Richard Huzzey is author of Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain (Cornell University Press, 2012)

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