Baron Macaulay's Legacy

Post-colonial nations that accepted new learning did better.

So far in this series, we've been exploring the intersection between education and culture.  Most people get a large chunk of their culture from the education they receive, both formal and through being immersed in whatever customs their family follows at home.

It takes a deal of doing to permanently change a culture from without, but it can be done; Alexander the Great's conquering armies spreading Greek culture from Greece all the way to India comes to mind.  In the previous article in this series we discussed the nineteenth-century controversy over what language to use in the Indian education system.  Should students be taught in Sanskrit, Arabic, or English?

Baron Macaulay made a convincing case for English.  He noted that Indian students would pay for the privilege of being taught in English whereas the government had to pay students to study in either Sanskrit or Arabic - everyone knew that English was going to be the money language.  That is the same argument that American opponents of bilingual education make to this day.

What Happened?

Following the leadership of Baron Macaulay, the British Raj changed the Indian education system to operate in English.  This made all scientific, technical, and cultural English writings available to any Indians who found entry into one of the British schools.  Especially bright students were sent to England's top universities to be educated alongside England's own elites and returned to occupy responsible high-level positions in business or politics.  Technically-literate Indian workers helped build railroads, water plants, and sewer systems without which large cities become essentially unworkable.

History shows that no nation can become wealthy without large cities since concentration of numerous skills makes innovation easier and productivity higher, but cities are unhealthy without sophisticated water management technology.  With greater education and modern technical knowledge came other beneficial cultural changes: the colonial government ended feud-based wars between Indian states and put a stop to widow burning (suttee) in Hindu majority areas.

For nearly two centuries, the technical civilizing efforts of the British in India were respected - Karl Marx, a dedicated Eurocentric, talked about the liberalizing effect of European colonialism on tribal and feudal cultures.  The difference between civilization and barbarism was often even more obvious elsewhere than in India: as journalist Helen Andrews wrote, “When Englishmen first arrived in Mashonaland in the 1880s, the civilization they encountered there had not developed currency, written language, irrigation, beasts of burden, the plough, or the wheel.”

Despite the obvious ways in which India and other nations benefited, colonialism is in bad odor today.  It has become so politically incorrect that a group of scholars who wanted to discuss the benefits of colonialism had to meet in great secrecy to avoid being shouted out of their Oxford University venue.

No rational individual ought to attempt to claim that colonialism and imperialism was purely good or evil - there is abundant evidence for both the evils of colonialism and the benefits, though the two are not equally distributed.  In the current "woke" climate, saying that colonialism was anything other than pure evil is utterly unacceptable in our modern academies regardless of any facts.

A paper "The Case for Colonialism" by Bruce Gilley, an associate professor of political science at Portland State University, argued that

"'s high time to re-evaluate [the] pejorative meaning" of colonialism, since, by his accounting, "countries that embraced their colonial inheritance, by and large, did better than those that spurned it."

Inside Higher Ed reported that Third World Quarterly received a petition signed by more than 10,000 academics asking that the article be withdrawn and that the magazine apologize for implying that there might have been any positive results from colonialism.  The petition claimed that the paper "lacks empirical evidence, contains historical inaccuracies and includes spiteful fallacies. There is also an utter lack of rigor or engaging with existing scholarship on the issue."

How can academics, supposedly serious scholars dispassionately evaluating evidence, possibly claim that colonialism was purely evil and entirely devoid of benefit?  Indian nationalists are understandable and fully human in wanting to preserve their traditional Sanskrit and Arabic literature, but they do not reject the technology and science which were merged into their educational system by the British.

Although he's criticized as a colonialist cultural imperialist, Macaulay's efforts had overwhelming economic benefits which enrich Indians to this very day and which will continue to enrich their descendants for the foreseeable future.  English-speaking Indians staff call centers and write software for businesses all over the world - how much of this could be done in Sanskrit?

The Indian railroad system operates in English as do most nationwide enterprises.  The Indian economy has not expanded as rapidly as it might have because the government took control of far too much of the economy, but before the British left, they had educated enough Indians that they could operate and expand the railroads, sewer systems, and electric grid the British had helped build.

The Arc of History?

Vox admits that African incomes increased markedly during the colonial period starting from the base year 1885, but argues that the spread of technology and the rising incomes technology brings would have happened anyway.

Most of Africa spent two generations under colonial rule. This column argues that, contrary to some recent commentaries highlighting the benefits of colonialism, it is this intense experience that has significantly retarded economic development across the continent. Relative to any plausible counterfactual, Africa is poorer today than it would have been had colonialism not occurred.

History shows that none of this technical or economic progress was inevitable; in fact, many other post colonial nations chose another path that turned out disastrously.  Prof Gilley presents a number of examples such as the Guinea-Bissau guerrilla war against Portuguese rule, led by Amílcar Cabral.  The war killed 15,000 combatants out of a population of 600,000 and at least as many civilians, Gilley says, and displaced another 150,000.

Once "'liberation' was achieved in 1974, a second human tragedy unfolded, costing at least 10,000 further lives as a direct result of conflict," he says. "By 1980, rice production had fallen by more than 50 percent to 80,000 tons (from a peak of 182,000 tons under the Portuguese). ... Cabral's half brother, who became president, unleashed the secret police on the tiny opposition -- 500 bodies were found in three mass graves for dissidents in 1981. A tenth of the remaining population upped stakes for Senegal. The Cabralian one-party state expanded to 15,000 employees, 10 times as big as the Portuguese administration at its peak."

Ordinary citizens might be forgiven for asking, "When will the Portuguese come back?"

The Rhodesian transition from white rule to black rule in Zimbabwe is another example of colonization that did not work out nearly as well as in India.  Inflation destroyed the currency, agricultural output collapsed when experienced farmers were driven off their farms, and in 2018, CNN reported that Zimbabwe had declared a state of emergency because of a cholera outbreak:

Poor waste disposal systems and broken sewers which may have contaminated water sources in Harare [the nation's capital] have been blamed for the disease outbreak, the health minister said.  [emphasis added]

Cholera is an acute diarrheal illness that kills thousands of people worldwide each year.

In 2008, more than 4,000 people were killed in one of the worst cholera outbreaks to have hit the country, according to the World Health Organization.

Public finances were in such bad shape that the government launched a crowdfunding scheme to fix the sewers.  Cholera epidemics are a more visible result of water mismanagement than the lead found in American children, but it has the same root cause - mis-governance by technologically illiterate politicians.

What accounts for the difference between the long-term results of colonialism in India and Zimbabwe?  Mainly the passage of time.  The British managed the English-language instruction system in India from 1835 until Indian independence in 1947 - over a century, which is 5 or 6 generations.

In contrast, Rhodesia was founded as a personal project by Cecil Rhodes, a fabulously wealthy diamond seeker who earned enough money to fund Rhodes Scholarships, a program which continues to this day.  The Colonial period started when a British-based government was established in 1923.  Prime minister Ian "Good 'ol Smitty" Smith declared independence in 1965.  Under pressure from the British government, the country was turned over to Robert Mugabe in 1980.

The Indian education system was run by the British for 112 years; the Rhodesian system for 57 years, half as long.  That wasn't long enough to insert enough technological knowledge into a non-technical society or to change the culture sufficiently to be able to maintain modern infrastructure.

It's Not Colonialism or Cultural Imperialism, it's Technology

On July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy, sailed into Tokyo Bay and made the Japanese an offer they couldn't refuse - trade with us or we'll blow you to smithereens.  The Japanese quickly learned that the European great powers had easily overwhelmed the Imperial Chinese government, a much larger and supposedly more powerful entity than were the Japanese.  The powers-that-were realized that they had to focus on basic societal necessities such as modern armaments and the technology required to support them, to have any chance of avoiding the same fate.

The Meiji restoration of 1868 marked the defeat of the faction that wanted Japan to remain isolated, so there were no more obstacles to learning from foreign barbarians.  The Japanese learned Western technology so rapidly that they were able to crush the Imperial Russian Navy, generally considered to be a European Great Power, during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904 a scant few decades later.

When the decision to concentrate on Western learning was made and led by their own native rulers, it took the Japanese only 36 years to go from muscle-powered agriculture to defeating a European major power if you count from the Meiji Restoration.  Even if you count from Commodore Perry's wake-up call, that's still only a half-century.

From this quick tour through colonial-era history, we learn that:

  • Macaulay was correct in asserting that brown and yellow people could learn everything the British education system had to offer.  Indeed, Indians have made seminal contributions to mathematics as well as other areas of intellectual endeavor.
  • We know from the achievements of Dr. Ben Carson, Gen. Collin Powell, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Booker T. Washington, Dr. Ben Carson, and countless others that black people are also capable of learning in full equality with anyone else.  Indeed, Charles Richard Drew's experiments with blood transfusion and storing whole blood saved thousands of lives during WW II.  There is nothing about any particular race that bars them from participating fully in intellectual advancement.
  • Injecting meaningful amounts of technology into a non-technical society takes time.  The Indians had 112 years; 51 years was insufficient in Rhodesia.  The Japanese managed it in 51 years from their wake-up call because their rulers were motivated to avoid foreign conquest; being members of their own cultures may have made them more effective in ramming changes down the throats of their compatriots than outsiders would have been.  We saw something similar a century later: once the Chinese abandoned Communism, they managed their own transition in 30 years.
  • Education shortfalls can have drastic, deadly, and difficult-to-fix consequences such as lead in the pipes and gas explosions.  It's not enough just to build the modern infrastructure; a high-tech level of culture and education must continue in force in order to keep the technology operating properly.  There are cities in Africa which have been unable to maintain the perfectly functional and modern colonial infrastructure they inherited, and which have therefore regressed, because they did not put sufficient emphasis on modern education.

Baron Macaulay won his culture war so that the Indian education system was based on English, to the eternal benefit of the Indian people themselves long after British rule vanished from the scene.

Yet ironically, Macaulay did not actually practice what is today called Macaulayism, which seeks to replace indigenous culture with the culture of the colonizing power.  If you visit an Indian city, you'll find that it's nothing like a city in Europe.  Like the Chinese and Japanese, the Indians grafted western technology into their traditional culture without losing very much of it.

It's true that adopting technical education means that there's less time to study traditional Japanese, Chinese, or Sanskrit literature, but most Asians would agree that their increased lifespans, comfort, and their ability to repel hostile foreigners make acquiring technology a good tradeoff.  From the leaders' point of view, if their biologists can clone artificial organs to keep the leaders alive an extra decade or so, it will have been a great trade off.

Here in the United States, we've spent the last century in the throes of a somewhat similar educational culture war.  Unfortunately, its results have not been as positive as Baron Macaulay's: instead, it has resulted in our having a distinctly inferior education system when compared with international standards.  We'll take a look in the next article in this series.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

Speaking of Suttee...

Charles Napier, the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief in India, faced with local complaints about the abolition of Suttee, replied:

‘You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And we will follow ours’

January 7, 2019 8:31 AM

@Michael Greenberg - WOW! That comment is one of the reasons we segue into interesting areas of the arcane past. What a priceless addition to our bon mot collection! Thanks!

January 7, 2019 8:11 PM
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