Recalling Thomas Macaulay's English legacy

Thomas Macaulay Thomas Macaulay wanted as many Indians as possible to be given a Western education

"If you're an Indian reading this book in English, it's probably because of Thomas Macaulay," says the front cover blurb on a new biography of a man who foisted the Queen's language on India.

I am a "Macaulay's child" - usually a pejorative term for an Anglicised Indian - who went to an English medium school, read Dickens and Greene and listened to The Beatles and Stones.

It sounds a bit fey to attribute all this to a man who took on the Orientalists and won the argument for making English language education the basis of 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".

But, as Zareer Masani writes in the biography, history has proved Macaulay right.

More than 60 years after independence, English has become a passport to upward mobility in the wildly aspirational former colony, and more Indians are learning the language than ever before. As Masani points out, India has endured linguistic division of states and language riots, but English medium schools thrive in towns and villages today.

Masani's admiration for Macaulay, a complex man of protean talents - historian, statesman, scholar, poet, essayist, parliamentarian, colonial administrator, intellectual - is evident in this highly engaging book.

But he's also careful to point out that Macaulay was racist, harboured prejudices about native Indians and customs and, despite being a linguist, did not attempt to master any Indian language. "Macaulay was notoriously dismissive, if not downright hostile and contemptuous, about native Indian, and particularly Hindu, customs and religious superstitions," writes Masani.

Macaulay spent four years in Calcutta, the imperial capital that was at the centre of an intellectual and cultural renaissance, but very little of that is mentioned in his writings.

He grumbled about the heat, public entertainments in the city - "vile acting… viler opera-singing… and things which they called reunions" - and "dull" formal dinners peppered with "deplorable twaddle". The life-long bachelor also had a misogynist streak - he found the lawyers and civil servants he knew in Calcutta had "disagreeable wives". He steadfastly believed that India was not ready for self-rule, and what it could really "have [is] the next best thing - a firm and impartial despotism".

Yet, in what was the first imperial education policy in British India, Macaulay aggressively pushed for English as the medium for as many Indians as possible to be given a Western education.

Masani finds this vision "more egalitarian and inclusive" and less elitist than his arch critics who wanted to promote English among a small elite. Macaulay took a personal interest in running five new English medium schools which opened in Bengal, a year and a half after the reforms began in 1835 - in a single town in Bengal, he wrote, 1,400 boys were learning English. He disliked an excessively pedagogic approach to teaching English - "Give them Jack the Giant Killer and Tom Thumb", he wrote, "and then let them have Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver".

By 1838, when he returned to Britain, Macaulay's reforms had led to the setting up of 40 English medium schools in Bengal which were open to all, quite revolutionary in a society "where lower castes had been strictly forbidden to study". Later, in 1853, his father Charles Trevelyan told a parliamentary committee that some Indians now spoke purer English "than we speak ourselves". More than a century and a half later, many of Macaulay's children can still make the same claim and some of the world's finest writers in English are Indian.

Macaulay: Pioneer of India's Modernisation by Zareer Masani is published by Random House India

Soutik Biswas Article written by Soutik Biswas Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

Why so many Indians flock to gurus

As long as belief in magic and miracle survives and times remain uncertain, India's gurus are assured a place in the sun, writes Soutik Biswas.

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The information is quite interesting to take note of but my knowledge of english self aquired with a direct absorb from the thoughts of my MOTHER to know about the GLOBE prior to my birth and knew the UNIVERSE a little later with a part of my MOTHER accompanied me.The knowledge beyond it was self earned.Therefore I never ever read any BOOKS to aquire knowledge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Well india was never a country in first place it was a bunch of states operating independently & after 1947 most of them were forced to join the un-natural union of India so the linguistic & cultural differences will stay there,imagine in 1 so called country peoples cant even undrstand each others language, n English is the basic medium of communication which is anothr factor to keep India intact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Nice comments over here, but as a racist Macaulay's education inflicts the similar conflicting ideas in present day India as it did class wars in UK in its victorian era, Its' pity that once most advanced civilization on earth has to turn on savages for the education systems as it's own. Most of Macaulay's system education which is western in thought has produced more pseudo-intellectuals than

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Macaulay's English literacy (NOT education) helped/help a small fraction of Indians to behave &/or pretend to become Brit (now American) to please our past (or present) masters to become "successful" & "elite"- that has nothing to do with talent or any other virtue of human kind.
    Many Indians accept English rule & language when they compare it with Muslim invasion, its culture & language!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    You probably don't realise, being a self-professed 'outsider', that India has seen horrific & deadly language riots in her history in opposition to Hindi being imposed as a 'national' language on non-speakers of Hindi. English is a useful compromise in a land of many tongues & has little to do with servility anymore. In fact, recent trends show an Indianisation of the language that is unique!


Comments 5 of 50



  • photo of patient zero, two year-old Emile OuamounoPatient zero

    Tracking first Ebola victim and and how virus spread

  • A young Chinese girl looks at an image of BarbieBarbie's battle

    Can the doll make it in China at the second attempt?

  • Prosperi in the 1994 MdSLost in the desert

    How I drank urine and bat blood to survive in the Sahara

  • Afghan interpetersBlacklisted

    The Afghan interpreters left by the US to the mercy of the Taliban

  • Flooded homesNo respite

    Many hit by last winter's floods are struggling to pay soaring insurance bills

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.