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I started reading an anthology called ‘The Oxford Book of Essays‘ and in that book there was an excerpt of an essay by Thomas Macaulay on Robert Clive. I loved this excerpt so much that I went in search of the whole essay. I found it online and it was around 120 pages long. It was a book-length essay. I just finished reading it.

First page of Macaulay’s essay

In his essay, Macaulay gives us an account of Robert Clive’s life. There are some sketchy details of his personal life, a little about his parents, a sentence about his marriage, but most of it is about his work during his time in India. Robert Clive came to India when he was seventeen years old. He worked as a clerk in the Madras office of the East India Company. He worked in the same position for around eight years. When he was twenty five, circumstances thrust him into the forefront, and he distinguished himself by performing amazing deeds and with one thing leading to another, this lowly clerk became the Governor of Bengal and laid the foundation for the British empire in India. It is an amazing, unbelievable story.

Thomas Macaulay was probably one of the three great British historians of the 19th century. The other two being Thomas Carlyle and Edward Gibbon. While Thomas Carlyle’s classic book on the French Revolution continues to be in print, it has been joined by other modern books on the subject. Edward Gibbon’s book continues to reign supreme as the definitive work on Roman history in English, as most historians feel daunted by the subject matter and have avoided coming up with a new interpretation of that time. Gibbon’s book has attained the status of a classic, as described by Mark Twain – always recommended but never read. Beautiful collectors’ editions of the book are available which are snapped up by young collectors to adorn their bookshelves. In contrast, Thomas Macaulay’s classic book on English history has long gone out of print. Today, Macaulay is regarded as a historian who wrote beautiful prose, but who propounded the imperialist point of view and so his books have fallen out of favour. To use a modern phrase, he has been ‘cancelled’. Which is a shame. Because going by the evidence of this essay, Macaulay is good, really good.

By the time Robert Clive died after moving back to England, he was regarded as a bad guy, as an employee of the East India Company who achieved great things and acquired great power, but who used that in unscrupulous and immoral ways to accumulate personal wealth. Macaulay tries putting things in perspective, by explaining both sides of the equation and lets us draw our own inference from it. It was wonderful to read. Macaulay’s prose proves that its reputation is not unfounded – it is beautiful to read. 19th century English prose, especially in the hands of great writers, is like Urdu. Every word, every sentence is beautiful, is a pleasure to read. We can experience that beauty in every page of Macaulay’s prose. It is sad that people don’t write like this nowadays. Even the best writers today write prose which is only a little better than mine. I’m just an anonymous guy who revels in his mediocrity. I can never write like Macaulay or Dickens or Eliot or Carlyle. If this is the best there is now, it is sad how things have sunk.

I enjoyed reading Macaulay’s essay on Clive. Macaulay has written more such essays. I am hoping to read them soon. I also hope to read his book on English history and find out whether it is really an imperialist tract, or whether it is really good, but it got ‘cancelled’ because people didn’t like Macaulay’s face or some aspect of his opinions and politics.

Have you read this or other essays by Thomas Macaulay? What do you think about him?

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