Health & Lifestyle Politics

Herbert Macaulay : The father of Nigerian Nationalism

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Too many people have forgotten about the one Naira coin, and the chap on that coin. This is a big disservice to Nigeria. 

Herbert Heelas Macaulay was born on 14 November 1864 in Lagos. Macaulay belonged to a distinguished missionary family. He was one of the seven children of an Anglican Priest, Thomas Babington and his wife, Abigail Crowther Macaulay. He was the maternal grandson of Samuel Ajayi Crowther, first African bishop of the Niger Territory.

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.

Barred from elective public office, Macaulay made his mark in politics through journalism, political organisation and various advisory capacities. 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.

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.

Herbert Macaulay was no saint. He had an opportunistic streak. He was, in his time, certainly very controversial.

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.

But greatness did not stop with Herbert Macaulay, he is the great grandfather of Dr Ameyo Stella Adadevoh, the doctor who practically saved Nigeria from the deadly Ebola virus in 2014.