75 years ago, Herbert Macaulay, one of the most iconic Nigerians of all time, died. Perhaps his greatest legacy was to establish a political party, Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), which became a vehicle for Nigerian nationalism.
‘I thought he was a white American.’ That is what a Nigerian born and raised young woman once told me about the man whose image once adorned the one-naira note, then later the one-naira coin. Sadly, Nigeria’s hyper-inflation means that such small denominations are rarely used nowadays and are not ubiquitously in the pockets and wallets of Nigerians. Like the one-naira note and one-naira coin, the memory of the man whose image is on both denominations has passed into obsolescence.
75 years ago, Herbert Macaulay, one of the most iconic Nigerians of all time, died. If he had been a citizen of a country other than Nigeria, he would be remembered today as a heroic ‘father of the nation’ figure such as George Washington, Gandhi, or Charles De Gaulle. A journal article does not permit sufficient space to do justice to a man as fascinating and pivotal as Herbert Macaulay. Due to word limitations, this article will focus on three aspects of Herbert Macaulay’s life: his political influence, quirks, and the legacy he left behind.
HERBERT MACAULAY’S ANTI-COLONIALISM
Herbert Macaulay was born on 14 November 1864 in Lagos (present-day Nigeria). His parents were the children of emancipated slaves who were born and raised in Sierra Leone before moving to Lagos to live in the land of their ancestors. Wherever his family set foot, they left indelible marks. His father, Thomas Babington Macaulay, established the first secondary school in Nigeria’s history (CMS Grammar School in Lagos), and his mother was the daughter of Samuel Ajayi Crowther; the first black Bishop in history. Macaulay attended the secondary school that his father founded and was a student there when his father died in 1878.
It is difficult to pin down Macaulay’s occupation given the vast number of different activities he dabbled in. Officially, he was a trained surveyor. In 1890, he won a government scholarship to study civil engineering and returned to Nigeria in 1893 as the first qualified African civil engineer in history. He then started working as a land surveyor in Lagos, but after being frustrated by the racism he experienced at the hands of white British administrators, and outraged that a white junior employee earned more than he did, he resigned in protest to set up his own engineering company. This seemed to be a turning point that transformed Macaulay from an employee of the British establishment to an opponent of it.
Macaulay later abandoned his traditional professional career to become a journalist and, in 1927, he bought the first daily newspaper in Nigeria: the Lagos Daily News. Starting a career in journalism paved the way for the activities that made him famous. Newspaper publishing gave Macaulay a platform to expose and attack the policies of the British colonial government. The newspaper propelled Macaulay’s name to prominence and contributed to activating nationalist and pro-independence agitation in Nigeria. Thereafter, he devoted much of the rest of his life to fighting against the British colonial establishment he once worked for. When not using his newspaper to criticize the colonial government, he was appearing in court in London to help native obas win a court case against the British government which had confiscated their property.
Macaulay’s actions attracted disapproving attention from British colonial authorities, but he was unwilling to moderate his criticism of them, despite threats of imprisonment. He remained such a thorn in the flesh of British colonial rulers that they enacted new penal laws because of him. The governor of southern Nigeria, Sir Walter Egerton, became so enraged by one of Macaulay’s scathing newspaper attacks that he took legal advice, and afterwards got permission from the Colonial Office to enact a Seditious Offences Ordinance in 1909 that prescribed imprisonment for publications that could incite contempt or hatred against the government. Unsurprisingly, Macaulay was convicted of sedition and imprisoned. Subsequent anti-dissent decrees that Nigeria’s post-independence military governments enacted (such as Decree 2 enacted by Major-General Buhari’s military government in 1984) were modelled on this British colonial ordinance under which Macaulay was imprisoned.
A MAN OF MANY CONTRADICTIONS
Macaulay’s criticism of Britain and constant clashes with the authorities kept his name in the headlines. Not that he needed the extra publicity. His flamboyance and eccentricity ensured that people would take notice of him wherever he went. In appearance, he ironically resembled those he campaigned against. He was not shy, and in attire resembled a Victorian gentleman. His trademarks were his handlebar moustache, and dressing immaculately in his starched white suit and omnipresent bow tie. At various points in time he proclaimed himself Nigeria’s Gandhi and was also nicknamed ‘The Wizard of Kirsten Hall’ (the nickname of his house in Lagos) for his mysterious ability to gain access to secret government files and leak them to the public. The ‘wizard’ nickname was not entirely fanciful as he did associate with magic. Although brought up in a Christian home, he was not shy of engaging in what is now called ‘jazz’ in modern Nigeria, and was a member of the association of babalawos (native supernatural doctors) in Lagos.
Although Macaulay was the archetype of the new educated elite in colonial Nigeria, it must be remembered that he was initially a creation of the colonizer. Thus, symptomatic of his many contradictions: although he was born into a family that was ensconced in the British colonial establishment, he ended up being an anti-colonial firebrand. Although he was the son of a Christian clergyman, he was a devoted practitioner of the supernatural arts that his religious father and grandfather held in disdain; and although he was once an employee of the British colonial administration, he later campaigned against his former employers.
HERBERT MACAULAY’S GREATEST LEGACY
Perhaps his greatest legacy was to establish a political party which became a vehicle for Nigerian nationalism. In 1923, Macaulay founded the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP). The NNDP later merged with other organizations to become the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC). Pro-independence Nigerians joined the NCNC, and the party set in motion the train that eventually carried British colonialism away. Macaulay’s pro-independence proteges in the NCNC included a young and telegenic politician named Nnamdi Azikiwe, who later became Nigeria’s first post-independence president.
In 1946 the NCNC began a nationwide tour during which Macaulay became seriously ill in Kano and was taken back to Lagos. He did not live to see an independent Nigeria. On his deathbed in Lagos, Macaulay’s last words were the touching epitaph: ‘Tell the National Council delegates to halt wherever they are for four days for Macaulay and then carry on…Tell Oged to keep the flag flying’. ‘Oged’ was Macaulay’s son Ogedengbe. Macaulay was buried at Ikoyi Cemetery in Lagos.
Yet Macaulay’s legacy did not die with him. His proteges such as Nnamdi Azikiwe concluded the Nigerian nationalist journey that he started. His great-granddaughter Dr Stella Adadevoh was a renowned doctor who detected that a foreign patient who travelled into Nigeria in 2014 was infected with the deadly Ebola disease. She quarantined the patient, treated him and alerted the authorities. Her actions prevented a public health crisis in Nigeria as had the patient been allowed to leave, he would have infected many people. Sadly, Dr Adadevoh herself died in 2014, after being infected due to being in close contact with the foreign patient she was treating.
Nigeria has never had a nationally accepted ‘father of the nation’ type hero partly because it does not tell its own story like America did with George Washington or India did with Gandhi. Despite its poisonous history, America projects a very romanticized version of its history worldwide. As a result, its founding fathers and major historical figures are household names worldwide. In contrast, Nigeria instead treats colonial foreigners such as Lord Lugard as its national founding figures. One of the sad consequences of Nigeria’s veneration for its former colonizers and neglect to chronicle and elevate the roles of its indigenous early leaders is that Nigeria often appears to be a country without indigenous heroes.
If Nigeria does not learn to tell the story of its own founding fathers and mothers, others will continue to write Nigeria’s history for it and displace pivotal figures from Nigeria’s history⎈
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