Every so often a little gem does the rounds over the internet, and, like any other meme, gets passed from person to person like a virus until it enters into the public imagination as a statement of fact. This is why we are taught that it is important to check and verify our sources. The little gem to which I am referring is the quote attributed to Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay (1800-59), where he references the need of Britain to break the backbone of India in a speech to the British parliament at Westminster. As succulent as this quote is, it is more than likely of a spurious provenance. Macaulay was in India serving on the Supreme Council on the date on which this speech was meant to have been given, and no citations of it can be found in the parliamentary records. Therefore the historian must discount this quote as source material. It is sad to lose such a smoking gun, but this by no means demands that we do not see the British imperial project as a desire to break the back of subject nations. The misery we see in the world today was not a mere by-product of empire. It was the intention of empires.

No empire can exist for long, and certainly not to the global extent of the British Empire, unless the intention to destroy the culture of the conquered nation is built into the very plans of imperial expansion. Lord Macaulay himself understood this well even when he was in India between 1834 and 1838. It was he himself who set up the British education system in India, not with the intention of bettering the fortunes of the Indian people, but to better the fortunes of England by the creation of a native class of imperial administrators. He knew that native culture and education, which existed long before the arrival of the British East India Company, could only foster a sense of resistance within India to foreign domination. It was for this reason that the British set up schools for Indians where British ideals and values would be extoled over and against traditional Indian culture. The social inequality which this gave rise to is still very much a part of modern India. What we have in this spurious quote, whilst perhaps not the verbatim words of Macaulay, is a crystallisation of how empire works and how it was seen to work even in the early nineteenth century.

Jason Michael
Blog Author


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