The Story behind Macaulay's Education Policy: Part 1

Warren Hastings

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 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.


  1. Macaulay’s Education Part 2: Religious Intolerance

    Charles TrevelyanWhile economic and political reasons were factors for introducing English education in India by the British,  less mentioned is the fact that most of the Anglicists were also Evangelicals who thought that the arrival of Engl…

  2. Macaulay’s Education Part 3: The Minute

    Thomas Macaulay Thomas Macaulay arrived in India on June 10, 1834, the same time Charles Darwin sailed the Pacific Ocean on HMS Beagle and one of his first acts as the legal member of the education council was his…

  3. The topic is very complicated. From one hand, people should keep their culture as this is what makes us humans. From the other hand, in the age of globalization, the culture differences tend to disappear, and it’s definitely good for everybody to know English. Not sure about teaching it to the children as their first language though…

  4. I think it was this book

    Clive, John. 1973. “Indian Education: The Minute” and “Indian Education: The Consequences”. Macaulay: The Shaping of the Historian , 342–426. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *