Too many people have forgotten about the one Naira coin, and the chap on that coin. This is a big disservice to Nigeria. Today’s History Class is going to be about that fellow, the one who has roads named after him in Lagos and Abuja, but who, sadly, is slipping away from our national consciousness.
Herbert Heelas Macaulay was born on 14 November 1864 in Lagos. He was the seventh child of his Sierra Leonean parents. His father, Tom Babington Macaulay, was the first principal of CMS Grammar School in Lagos. His mother’s father was Sam Ajayi Crowther.
Back then, Lagos was a segregated town. Europeans stayed in the best parts of town, migrants from Brazil and Sierra Leone stayed elsewhere, natives, elsewhere. Herb attended his father’s school, CMS, then Fourah Bay College in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He returned to Lagos in 1882 and got a job in the Department of Public Works. In July 1890, he left the Lagos Colony for Plymouth in England, to study Civil Engineering under G. D. Bellamy. He was there for three years.
When Macaulay returned to the Lagos Colony in 1893, he was appointed Surveyor of Crown Lands by the colonial government. However, he resigned five years later, because of what he termed “racial discrimination against indigenous civil servants by the European elite”. Following his 1898 resignation from the Department of Works, Herb Macaulay established his own private practice in Lagos. However, Macaulay’s venture was not a success, and faced with financial distress, he defrauded a family dependent, and was caught and sent to prison for two years. This prison stint, effectively barred him from ever running for public office under the colonial administration.
Upon his release from prison in 1908, Macaulay became more involved in the political arena, and began contributing a weekly column to the Lagos Daily Times. His articles were often critical of government policy, the liquor trade; the water-rate scheme; taxation; racial segregation; attempts to deny indigenous land ownership; and a free press.
In 1915, Macaulay led protests which became known as the water rate riots and also led agitation against colonial plans for land reform. His articles often skirted the edges of sedition, and finally, he crossed the line, giving the government the chance it needed to put him in prison again. This second visit to the jailers (for six months) involved the publication of a rumour concerning a plot to assassinate the exiled Eleko of Lagos.
After his release from prison, Macaulay took a somewhat more cautious line, but his writing remained highly critical. In 1921 he went to London with the Eleko of Lagos to act as his translator in the legal appeal of a local land tenure case. Macaulay proclaimed that the British colonial government was eroding the power and authority of the Eleko, who, he said, was recognized by all Nigerians as the rightful king of Lagos. This episode embarrassed the British and established Macaulay as a leading advocate of the rights of traditional leadership in Lagos.
A brief synopsis of the Oluwa Affair: the colonial authority had bought a large parcel of land(255 acres) from the Oluwa Family, and underpaid for it. Chief Oluwa sued for better compensation, and following that trip to London, on 14 June 1921, the Privy Council ruled in favour of Chief Oluwa. The Privy Council’s ruling said that communal land-ownership was legally recognized and that due compensation should be paid.
The Eleko Affair: Macaulay campaigned for the rights of traditional rulers within the colonial structure, and alleged that the colonists wanted to kill the Eleko. Again, the Privy Council, also on the same trip to London, ruled in favour of Macaulay’s side. These victories hardened political lines.
In 1922 a new Nigerian constitution was introduced providing for limited franchise elections in Lagos and Calabar. In 1923, he started the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), which contested the very limited elections of African members of the Legislative Council. The NNDP’s motto was “salus populi suprema lex”, “the safety of the people is the greatest law” and it called for universal compulsory education for Nigerians. NNDP candidates won all the elective seats in the Nigerian legislature between 1923 and 1938. But then in 1938, things changed.
The NNDP’s dominance was cut short in 1938 when the Nigerian Youth Movement beat them in the elections for the Lagos Town Council. Following that defeat, Macaulay, who up until the time was not too interested in politics outside of Lagos, adopted a more pan-Nigeria outlook. He saw prospects in Nnamdi Azikiwe’s NCNC’s struggle for independence for all of Nigeria, and by August 1944 had reached an agreement with Zik. Many of his own party members did not want to join forces with the NCNC, but he threatened to resign if they didn’t, so they played ball.
By the time Macaulay’s merger with Zik’s NCNC was complete in August 1944, Macaulay was already 80 years old and in failing health. In 1946, Macaulay suffered an acute attack of rheumatism during a tour of Kano, and was brought back to Lagos. Herbert Macaulay died, aged 82, on 7 May 1946.
Let us get one thing straight. Herbert Macaulay was no saint. He had an opportunistic streak. He was, in his time, certainly very controversial.
Obafemi Awolowo described him as “ultra-radical, intensely nationalistic and virulently anti-white”. Piers Brendon described Macaulay in later life as “an angry old man in a white suit and a white moustache that stuck out like cat’s whiskers”.
Fred Lugard, who was in many ways Macaulay’s greatest adversary consistently passed bitter comments about him and called him duplicitous. Macaulay was rumoured to have popped a bottle of champagne when he heard of Lugard’s passing in 1945.
Margery Perham, Lugard’s biographer, who visited Macaulay in 1931, described him as “one of the ablest Africans I have met, and at one both dangerous and pathetic”.
What is certain is that Herbert Macaulay was no saint. He did what had to be done, when it had to be done, and if needed, in a Machiavellian fashion. Macaulay once wrote a response to claims by the British that they were governing with “the true interests of the natives at heart”. Macaulay wrote: “The dimensions of “the true interests of the natives at heart” are algebraically equal to the length, breadth and depth of the white man’s pocket.”
My thoughts: it is tragic that a lot of young people do not know about Herb Macaulay. He was the kind of leader that Nigeria needs today. Macaulay, like any other human, had his weaknesses. When faced with financial ruin, he moved towards the dark side, but he redeemed himself. He also recognised the value of education, unlike a lot of the excuses for leaders that we have parading around these days. He also showed that he was flexible. For much of his life, Macaulay was concerned with Lagos. But when the moment was right, he became national.
Most importantly, the recognised the value of the law, and used it against the colonists to devastating effect.