MEET HERBERT MACAULAY: THE FIRST NIGERIAN CIVIL ENGINEER AND HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST

 

In the hey day of the trans-Atlantic slave trade,  Ojo Oriare, a native doctor, who hailed from Oyo and his wife, Kilangbe, were captured and sold into slavery.

However, mother luck smiled on them as they were freed by the British anti-slavery squad and stayed for a while in Sierra Leone, where they gave birth to Thomas Babington Macaulay.

In those days, it was not uncommon to adopt absolutely new European names and do away with the original family names. This explained, in all probability, why Thomas Babington Macaulay did not adopt his father’s name, Oriare.

Babington Macaulay soon began to involve in missionary work and eventually became a missionary. With the increasing wave of missionary evangelism from Sierra Leone to other parts of West Africa, Thomas, as a Yoruba man, returned to his Yoruba native land and stayed in Owu before he finally settled in Lagos.

In 1854, Thomas married Abigail, the second daughter of Rt. Reverend Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the first African Bishop of England, after a wedding in Abeokuta.

The year 1857 was particularly significant in his life. That year, the Church Missionary Society (CMS), ordained him a priest of the Church of England.

Riding on the crest of this elevated attainment, he founded the CMS Grammar School, Bariga, on 6 June, 1859 and became its first principal. This was indeed a no mean achievement for an African, particularly at that point in time.

The significance of this achievement was that CMS Grammar School became the first secondary school in Nigeria, thus making its founder, Thomas Babington Macaulay, not only the first proprietor, but also the first principal of a secondary school in Nigeria.

In 1864, the Macaulays gave birth to Herbert, who later became not only the first professionally qualified Civil Engineer in Nigeria, but unarguably, the most renowned politician of his time, whose contributions to the nationalist struggle for independence during the colonial era was second to none. Macaulay came in as the fifth child of the family, with two other siblings after him.

After a parental tutelage by his mother, who groomed him in nursery education, Herbert began his primary school education at Breadfruit School, Lagos, after which he transferred to Faji School, also in Lagos, where he completed his elementary education. In October 1877, he enrolled for his secondary education at CMS Grammar School founded by his father, Thomas Babington Macaulay.

The plan for him was to go abroad for further studies immediately after secondary school, but his father died in 1879, two years after Herbert gained admission into CMS Grammar. As expected, this slowed down his educational career.

Thus, in September 1881, Herbert joined the Colonial Civil Service in the Public Works Department, where he worked as a clerical assistant. He was later promoted to the rank of a draughtsman and clerk of Crown Grants. He demonstrated an impressive level of competence and efficiency here that the colonial government decided to send him abroad for further training.

Thus, in July 1890, Macaulay departed for Britain on scholarship of the then Government of Lagos, to study Civil Engineering. He qualified in 1893 as the first Nigerian professional Civil Engineer. Indeed, the outstanding performance of Macaulay could not have been more amply attested to than in the words of G.D. Bellamy, his instructor in Plymouth, who described him as competent and hard working and his conduct perfectly satisfactory. Bellamy also recommended that he should be sent back to Britain for further training in Civil Engineering after he might have acquired some years of working experience at home. This, however, was not to be.

He arrived Nigeria from Britain in September 1893 and was immediately appointed a Surveyor of Crown Lands in Lagos. In November of the same year, he became an associate member of the Institute of Civil Engineers of Britain.

Unfortunately, the salary and condition of service attached to the post was not encouraging enough for the young man. Indeed, Macaulay’s salary scale of £90 to £150 a year became a subject of debate in the Legislative Council in Lagos, as Reverend James Johnson, an African unofficial member of the Legislative Council argued that the salary was low, compared with what European workers who were Macaulay’s junior were earning. But the Acting Governor, George Denton, emphasised that Macaulay’s salary was fixed not by his qualification as a Civil Engineer, but by the value of his work.

Unable to endure the injustice, which was symptomatic of the pronounced level of racial discrimination against Africans, Macaulay resigned from the civil service in September 1898, after a 13-year spell service. Following his resignation, he was  fired by the resolve to devote every ounce of his energy towards the liberation of his countrymen from the stranglehold of the British colonial overlords. He was 34 years old then.

In October 1898, he secured a government licence for private practice as a Civil Engineer and Architect. Unfortunately, his spell in private practice did not yield any meaningful professional fulfillment or financial success.

What further compounded Macaulay’s financial woes was the large number of children he had to cater for. These children were born by the various mistresses he had dated at one time or the other, following the death of his wife, Caroline Pratt, the daughter of an African Superintendent of Police. Since her death, Macaulay had chosen not to remarry but rather kept strings of mistresses from whom he acquired the sizeable number of biological children, whose upkeep had posed a considerable financial burden on him.

Unfortunately, his father’s property at 32, Kakawa Street and the landed property left by his mother near the Five Cowries Creek, including a house at 23, Odunlami Street, were far from being adequate in taking him out of his financial low tide.

However, in spite of his acute financial difficulties, Macaulay was extremely kind to beggars and those in need. His generosity to beggars and the needy in general was said to be legendary as he would do anything to satisfy their needs. This, coupled with the many children he had to cater for, often took a huge toll on his finances.

This was the reason why he was always in financial distress. This also explained why he was often taken to court by the colonial authorities over lateness in settling arrears of electricity bills.

Indeed, in 1913, Macaulay had to go to jail when it was discovered that he had converted the sum of £350, being part of proceeds from the estate of one Mary Franklin, to his personal use. The deceased, who died in 1912, had earlier appointed him as her Executor. He petitioned the then Governor-General, Sir Frederick Lugard, for prerogative of mercy, which he (Lugard) turned down.

It will be recalled that apart from the sizeable number of his children and the huge mass of the needy and beggars who he strained himself to cater for, Macaulay was also saddled with the burden of upkeep of his younger siblings and their families as well as the children left by his senior siblings, who had all died by 1931.

He was extremely kind-hearted and very caring and would always do his best to address the needs of the huge mass of the people who looked up to him, but this had always made him to borrow and run into debts on several occasions.

His friends, Dr. C.C. Adeniyi Jones and Barrister Eric Moore, both influential personages in the Nigerian public scene and Lagos in particular in those days, often stood as sureties for him anytime he sought for loans.

Ironically, however, Macaulay, in spite of these perennial financial difficulties, had often exuded good mien, mental and emotional stability throughout his life time.

One secret key to this might be his extraordinary passion for music which he indulged in for relaxation and recreation.

In those good old days, his Balbina Street residence was often an interesting attraction as crowds usually gathered there to watch him and his friend, Arthur Kirsten, a former German Consul in Lagos, revel in music, a passion very much after Macaulay’s heart.

Arthur Kirsten was a consummate pianist, while Macaulay was by every standard, an excellent player of the violin for which he actually received a certificate from the Musical International College, London. Apart from this, he acquired another certificate in music from Trinity College, London.

In the religious sphere, Macaulay could rightly be said to belong to the liberal school. This was because in spite of his background as the son of a clergy, he saw nothing wrong in the traditional African religion.

This, indeed, was understandable because those days were characterised by keen competition, rivalry, bad blood and enmity, which made living in Lagos dangerous. This scenario had often driven a lot of people to dabble into black magic and various forms of occultic practices.

For instance, his private papers discovered after his death, revealed that he had detailed instruction on the occultic usage of dice to forecast one’s luck; the interpretation of dreams, palm reading, protection against poison and what to do before sexual intercourse with the opposite sex and how to interpret the behaviours of crickets, dogs, black and white cats and peacocks, among others, in relation to one’s luck.

These papers also contained directives on the distribution of raw meat, cut into small pieces, to passersby and giving salt and sugar to beggars, instead of cash as a means of bringing good luck.

Also on matters of religion, Macaulay, as a matter of principle, was decidedly moderate and far from being fanatical.  For instance, in spite of his religious persuasion as a member of the Christian Anglican sect and indeed grandson of a prominent Christian missionary, he still identified with members of the Association of Traditional Religion Practitioners (Ifa priests) of Lagos, just as he also associated publicly with the Cherubim and Seraphim sect, among others.

He also saw nothing wrong with the traditional Yoruba deities like Ogun (god of iron and war), Sango (god of lightning) and Olokun (god of the sea), among others. And for those who criticised the Yoruba practice of worshipping images, he was often quick to remind them of the crosses, pictures and images seen in the churches.

He also saw nothing wrong in the Adamu Orisa Festival (Eyo), a traditional fiesta devoted to the worship of the spirit of the departed ancestors. And probably because of his background as grandson of a traditional native doctor, Macaulay was also versed in native treatment for quite a number of ailments, including fever, pile and rheumatism, among others.

This should really not have come as a surprise, considering the intrigues, conspiracies, suspicion, distrust, superstition and the fear of being poisoned or killed by other means, either out of envy or hatred or whatever.

From the fore-going, therefore, one could see how Macaulay’s world view was able to accommodate both the traditional and cultural values on one hand and the European values on the other and how, in spite of the severity of fate, the tribulations and vicissitudes of life, Macaulay not only gave joy to others through his music, but also demonstrated such power of courage that was rare to find in the annals of human endeavour.

This was aptly manifested in his fiery anti-colonial agitation and vitriolic criticism of its unjust policies in his drive towards the liberation of the Nigerian black and attainment of national self-determination.

It is true he was among the leading class of elites in the Lagos society of those days and well connected in influential circles too. He was nevertheless too independent, fiery, nonconforming and virulently critical, as to sit by the table and parley with the colonial powers that be. This was because, unlike his influential friends, Macaulay would indeed be the last to ever be considered for nomination into the colonial Legislative Council.

It therefore became apposite to emphasise in this respect that Macaulay never for once looked back as he utilised the newspapers to the maximum advantage in his criticis of government policies and championing of the cause of Nigerians.

In this respect, he wrote several articles in the newspapers, especially the Nigerian Chronicle, in which he expressed serious reservations on crucial policies as government’s water rate scheme, the discriminatory move in building a separate church for white officials of the colonial government and the trade in liquor.

He also came down hard on government’s expressed intention to curtail freedom of the press through a law proposed by Governor Egerton in 1909. It was indeed believed, and on a popular note too, that it was Macaulay’s criticism of government over the railway construction as expressed in a pamphlet published by him in 1908, that inspired the proposed law.

In 1927, Macaulay ventured into the newspaper industry through a joint ownership with his friend, Dr. John Akilade Caulcrick, a medical practitioner and politician. To this end, they bought the Lagos Daily News from its publisher, Victor Babamuboni, a Lagos-based printer and bookseller. The newspaper, founded in 1927, was indeed very popular and unique as the first daily newspaper in British West Africa which Macaulay was very active in the day-to-day editorial policy, while he put into optimum use, his unrelenting struggle against the government and his political opponents.

However, Macaulay was soon to incur the wrath of the government through a report carried by him in the newspaper that enemies of the deposed Esugbayi, the Eleko of Lagos, were planning to blow up the car which would be bringing him from exile in Oyo to Lagos.

The government, angered that such statement, was bound to have negative impact on public peace and instigate unrest, took both Macaulay and his partner to court for publishing false rumour and for this, they were found guilty. Caulcrick was sentenced to three months imprisonment with an option of £50 fine, while Macaulay, his friend and more active partner, bagged a six-month jail term without an option of fine. Thus,  Macaulay was clamped in jail for the second time.

But his imprisonment did not, however, sound the death knell of the newspaper, which indeed lasted till 1938, when it eventually disappeared from the public scene largely because of financial difficulties arising from the great depression of the 1930s.

Although the newspaper might have died, Macaulay had utilised it to the hilt in his acidic criticisms of government, caring little, if at all, for the law of libel as he insisted that he needed not be tried for libel in so far as he had spoken nothing but the truth.

Quite all along, a very important issue which had been of concern to Macaulay’s heart was the question of land ownership in Lagos. Macaulay was particularly agitated by government’s policy on land ownership, which, according to him, violated the essence of natural justice.

In this respect, he had always supported his viewpoint, with the postulation of Sir Thomas C. Rayner, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Lagos, that there was no land in British West Africa without an owner and that such was usually owned on collective communal basis rather than by individuals.

This, however, was contrary to the British  government’s belief that the system of land ownership had essentially changed with the annexation of Lagos. Government further argued that since those who owned the land would have received rent and tribute from those who occupied them, then they needed not be paid full compensation as owners in the event of their land being ultimately acquired by government. Macaulay was passionately against these standpoints.

This contentious point of law which had lingered for long was, however, put to test in a protracted legal battle between government on one hand and the family of Chief Oluwa, one of the White Cap chiefs, who belonged to the land-owning class in Lagos, known as the Idejo.

What triggered the tussle was the fact that government acquired 255 acres of land in Apapa belonging to the Oluwa family. It offered to pay the family compensation amounting to the rents received from the land.

To this, Oluwa insisted that government must pay him a substantial amount since they were taking over the land completely from him and his people. The government stood its ground and the matter went to court as Macaulay, who had never hidden his passionate dislike for the oppressive land law of the colonial government, threw his full blast support on Chief Oluwa.

For three years, between 1915 and 1918, the case dragged as the court ruled against Oluwa, but the Lagos chief, however, pressed forth and took the matter to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain, which was the highest Court of Appeal for the entire British Empire.

In 1920, as the matter was about to be heard, Chief Oluwa, being an illiterate, took Herbert Macaulay along to serve as interpreter and private secretary. The Eleko, Oba Esugbayi, gave Oluwa a silver staff to serve as a symbol of confirmation of his status as a proper Idejo chief of Lagos. The case transpired for 15 months during which Oluwa and his private secretary-cum-interpreter stayed in Britain.

On 14 June, 1921, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council issued its ruling in favour of Chief Oluwa. It averred in its submission that the principle of communal land ownership should be recognised and, therefore, directed the colonial government to pay due compensation to the owners.

Thus, in June 1926, the colonial government, complying with the earlier ruling of the privy council, paid the Oluwa family a compensation of £22,500. Out of this, Macaulay received £2,083 for his services and the rest were distributed among members of the Oluwa family.

One important consequence of this landmark case was that Macaulay soared in stature, fame and glory as his heroic exploit in the epic land case received rapturous commendation, not only within the country, but beyond the nation’s shores by the teeming lots of people who hailed him as a courageous freedom fighter, fiery critic and social reformer, who had made an indelible footprint on the sand of time.

Chief Oluwa’s victory, however, angered the anti-Eleko forces in Lagos, while it worsened the already strained relationship between government and the monarch. But this was not to say that Macaulay was a pathological hater of the British and would, therefore, never see anything good in them.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, if anything, he openly professed his love of the values of equity, justice, balance and fair play as enshrined in the British legal system. It remained boldly on record that during the second world war, Macaulay utilised every fora of public meetings to appeal to the teeming numbers of Lagos residents to contribute generously in support of the British cause. According to him, Britain was fighting for the enthronement of human dignity.

Also, when Germany was defeated, Macaulay openly congratulated the British government and its people. This, according to historians, was an indication that Macaulay was indeed an admirer of the British legal system but his main point of concern was that they should not impose the principle of justice and fairness associated with their tradition of liberal democracy on the Nigerian socio-political scene.

While in Britain for the Oluwa land case, Macaulay had seized the opportunity to make a case for the Eleko, who he described as the paramount king of Lagos.

The Lagos government was, however, angered that Macaulay had taken up the gauntlet to agitate on Eleko’s behalf before the British government overseas. But instead of taking steps to verify from the Eleko whether he had actually mandated Macaulay to speak on his behalf, they did not bother to ask and rather assumed he did.

Consequently, Henry Carr, following an order from government to deal with Eleko, instructed him to summon his town crier to traverse the streets of Lagos colony and announce to the people that at no time did he mandate to Macaulay to speak on his behalf during his current visit to Britain.

Initially, the Eleko was in a dilemma, but for fear of reprisal or being outrightly deposed, he did exactly as directed by Henry Carr, by announcing that he did not ask Macaulay to issue those statements on his behalf. He added that Macaulay, in doing what he did, was actually acting like a true patriot, even though he did not send him.

This did not go down well with the colonial authorities which insisted that Esugbayi should hit out harder on Macaulay. He, however, would not heed but demanded rather to be allowed to visit Britain in company of two lawyers to verify from Macaulay what he had actually said. The government would, however, have none of that as it promptly denied the Eleko of all official recognition and withdrew further payment of the compassionate allowance it had been paying since 1901.

However, this colonial high-handedness against the Eleko happened to excite acute anger in Macaulay, who on 21 January, published a pamphlet entitled Justitia Fiat.

In the pamphlet, he restated all the points he made in Britain in his plea for Oluwa and Esugbayi and requested to be tried at the appropriate court of law Macaulay expressed his readiness to bear whatever punishment that might be meted out to him if it was determined after a fair trial, that he had committed an offence by making such statement.

But Macaulay would not stop at that because as soon as he arrived Lagos from Britain, he stepped up his fight against Henry Carr, who directed the Eleko to disown him during his visit to London with Chief Oluwa in respect of the land case.

To this end, he published a pamphlet, entitled British West Africa: Transfer Or Retirement, Henry Carr Must Go. An Open Comment. In the strongly worded pamphlet, Macaulay demanded that Henry Carr should either resign or be kicked out, describing him as a misfit, who lacked proper grasp of the African native culture and traditional knowledge. But as was to be expected, Macaulay’s call was ignored by the colonial powers that be.

But contrary to Macaulay’s accusation against Henry Carr, a school of thought insisted that he should not be held culpable for whatever misgiving Herbert Macaulay might harboured. He was said to have only obeying instructions from the higher authorities and which became incumbent upon him to execute, whether or not he liked it. The only option left for him was to resign as there was a limit to how he could oppose the government while still in its employment.

In June 1925, Macaulay, the irrepressible anti-government critic, demanded public inquiry into the Eleko  issue with special focus on the connivance of the courts against the monarch. But rather than setting up the public enquiry into the matter, government responded by ordering the deportation of Esugbayi to Oyo.

Macaulay, in reaction, promptly asked his friend, Egerton Shingle, a celebrated lawyer, to ask the court for a writ of habeas corpus, which made it legally mandatory for an alleged offender, who is under detention, to be produced before a court of law for trial within 24 hours of issuing of the writ.

What Macaulay was insisting upon at that time was that a writ be produced to enable Esugbayi be brought to court for government to show cause why he should be deported and detained in Oyo against his will.

In 1926, Egerton Shyngle died in the course of the struggle and other lawyers took up the gauntlet, but unfortunately, all efforts were to no avail.

The matter eventually got to the privy council which ordered that the courts in Nigeria should re-examine the basis on which it had refused the writ.

Counsel for the Eleko had argued on that occasion that since the governor had withdrawn its recognition from him, from that moment, he had ceased to be a chief and it became legally unjustifiable by that token to deport him as there was no legitimate basis to have gone that length.

Added to this, they argued that Eleko had not breached any native law and customs, which essentially made him liable for deportation.

As the argument raged, the solicitor- general of the government seemed to have compounded the issue when he raised a point of law that no court of law in the country could entertain the case because the deportation order could not be questioned in the law court.

However, on 24 March, 1931, the Privy Council, in its landmark judgment, dismissed the argument as untenable and insisted that the court in Nigeria must define and clarify what was its proper position about native law and customs in matters such as this.

As the scenario played out, the teeming number of Lagosians and indeed beyond, who had been following the case had already resigned to another boring spell of endless legal stalemate which might drag on and on.

It was at this stage that Governor Donald Cameron dramatically came on stage and expressed, in a historic declaration that remained eternally etched in memory, that the deportation order on Esugbayi had been revoked with immediate effect, although he would be coming in the unofficial capacity of a private person and not as the Eleko. He was also granted a compassionate allowance of £240 a year, subject to good behaviour.

Lagos literally went wild with joy that was unparalleled. A tumultuous crowd of convivial jubilant Lagosians turned out en masse, defied the heavy rainfall and turned the streets into a carnival of singing and dancing.

Esugbayi was accompanied in lively fanfare by the teeming mass of admirers and well-wishers to the Iga Idunganran, the venerated palace of antiquity of his royal ancestors and the incumbent ruler of Lagos, where the legendary Herbert Macaulay and others were waiting to accord him a befitting welcome.

In all these, Herbert Macaulay stood out as the authentic hero, who grew admirably taller as his reputation, fame and prestige ballooned to an inspiringly greater heights.

He was feared, respected, loved, admired and held in great awe. People hailed him as the Wizard of Kirsten Hall and interestingly, he cherished that cognomen, but the one he seemed to cherish more was Ejo n’gboro (the Serpent in town), which cut across all strata of the society; the elites and, especially, the unlearned masses of his illiterate admirers, who held him in great awe, reverence and trepidation.

It was with this status that he formed the first political party in Nigeria.

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