Blog on McCaulay's English-language policy "minute"

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Aug 16 15:02:29 UTC 2007

The Story behind Macaulay's Education Policy: Part 1

Raima Sen, more popularly known as Moonmoon Sen's daughter, recently
gave an insight into the word "modern upbringing". She said that they
didn't do pujas at home, spoke English not Bengali and most of her
friends were Anglo-Indian. If Thomas Macaulay were alive today, Raima
Sen would be the kind of enlightened native he would want to be
working in the British Administration.

In 1834, there was a controversy in British India over the language to
be used for Indian higher education. On the one side there were the
British Orientalists who wanted to use Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic
and on the other side there were the Anglicists who had this Raima Sen
type scorn for Oriental languages and Indian culture and wanted to
enforce English. Macaulay landed in India at the height of this debate
and soon published [h]is famous Minute, which sealed the case for the
Anglicists. Macaulay thus became immortalized, with natives who
exhibit contempt for their culture being labeled Macaulay's Children.

The significance of Macaulay's Minute, the drama behind the decision
and the consequences of the decision can be understood better by
taking a look at the Orientalist-Anglicist controversy, the attitude
of English towards Indian culture, the role of Evangelicals in the
decision making process and asking the question: Who the heck was
Charles Trevelyan?

India before Macaulay

Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of India from 1773 to 1785
had a respectful view of India and wanted the Englishmen to learn the
language and culture and blend in. Hastings found the Calcutta
Madrassa for training Muslims in Islamic Law and Jonathan Duncan found
the Sanskrit College in Benares for the preservation and cultivation
of the Hindu laws, literature and religion. In the College of Fort
William in Calcutta, the employees of the East India Company had to
learn Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, six Indian vernaculars, Hindu, Muslim
and English law before being appointed as judges, officials and
administrators. The college had the patronage of Orientalists like Sir
William Jones, best known for his observation that Sanskrit bore
resemblance to Latin and Greek and James Prinsep, who deciphered
Asoka's inscriptions.

Sir Alexander Johnston, an Orientalist who had mastered Tamil, Telugu
and Hindustani and had learned Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist customs had
high regard for India and Indians. He told the Parliament that India
had been governed for two thousand years by the natives and they were
as competent as Europeans.  He asserted that Hindus had made the same
progress in logic and metaphysics by 1500 BC, possessed laws superior
to the Greek,  had knowledge of the numerical system and devised
astronomical tables of great worth by 3000 BC.  The Orientalists were
sure that a social change was required in India and that change would
come when Indian rediscovered the roots of their civilization.

The Anglicists consisting of Holt Mackenzie and Charles Trevelyan
(Thomas Macaulay's brother-in-law) argued that the aim of the British
should not be to teach Hindu learning, but useful learning and that
Hindu and Muslim literature contained only a small portion of any
utility. The Orientalists countered that the metaphysical sciences
found in Sanskrit and Arabic were worthy of being studied. As a
compromise, new colleges for teaching Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian
were opened and along with the Oriental subjects, science courses were
also taught.

While this debate was going on between the Anglicists and Orientalists
was going on, economic, political and religious reasons worked in
favor of the Anglicists. In 1827, William Bentinck, whose previous
avatar as the Governor of Madras came to an end with the mutiny in
Vellore, was sent as the Governor General of India. This time his
mission was to turn around the loss making British East India company
and one idea was to use more Indians in judicial and administrative
posts, reducing the burden on the English establishment. Thus arose a
need for a large number of Indians who could speak and understand
English. Bentinck also wanted to cut down on the translation of
English books into vernacular since it was more cost effective to
supply English books.

Even though the Anglicists and Orientalists disagreed on the language
to be used for higher learning, they agreed that it was in their
interest to extend the British political rule as much as possible. Sir
Alexander Johnston, the Orientalist who admired the Hindu logic and
metaphysics wanted the British to remain in India for a long time and
his plan was to appoint Indians to high positions, by which they would
become more attached to the British and would have a lot to lose by
over throwing their rulers. Charles Trevelyan, the leader of the
Anglicist lobby, was sure in the 1830s that one day the natives would
gain independence, but through education they would be fearful of
premature independence and would hold on to the British.

Besides these economic and political factors, an important role was
played by the Evangelicals and we will look at that in Part two of
this four part series.

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