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The Life of Zachary Macaulay

The Life of Zachary Macaulay

The life of Zachary Macaulay, from Uig News, 2007

Over the last few months, I have been so engrossed in the events of 25 years ago in the South Atlantic that I almost allowed 2007 to slip away without a mention of Zachary Macaulay, who had strong Uig connections. Earlier this year I saw the film Amazing Grace, released on the 200th anniversary of the Slavery Abolition Bill and expected to see the story of the men who worked so tirelessly to abolish the slave trade in 1807. William Wilberforce as leader did get due recognition, but Zachary, a vital member of the team, did not appear at all!

As a young man Zachary, with very little education and all of 14 years of age, started work in a merchant's office in Glasgow. He was very keen to learn, and fell in with a crowd who had a passion for debating all things topical. They met in various alehouses, and Zachary soon became an enthusiastic and excessive drinker. Despite being a diligent and gifted book-keeper, his private life eventually led to incidents that caused him 'personal embarrassment', the nature of which there is no record! As a result he felt he had to leave the area, and took a job at the age of 16 as under-manager of a sugar plantation in Jamaica.

The job in the West Indies exposed him to slavery, and it seems that he accepted unquestioningly the unpleasant facts of life as they were at the time. He spent almost 5 years in this employment before being tempted to London by the offer of a job with one of his uncles. He lived for a time with his sister, who had married Thomas Babbington, a wealthy man with an estate in Leicestershire. Through his brother-in-law he met the slavery abolitionists Henry Thornton, Granville Sharpe and William Wilberforce. The ideals and beliefs of these gentlemen caught his imagination, and totally changed his perception of his previous lifestyle. He was able to furnish these earnest young men with first hand accounts of the treatment of slaves on the plantations. He also met Selina Mills, the daughter of a Quaker bookseller, to whom he became engaged.

He eagerly accepted an invitation to visit the newly formed colony of Sierra Leone, where emancipated slaves were being provided with a safe place to settle. A company had been set up to provide them with employment. Zachary was soon elected as a council member, and later became Governor of the colony. He was only 26 years old, but despite his lack of experience and occasional bouts of illness, he managed the colony through a very difficult period. At one time there was all out attack by French pirates on Freetown the capital. By the time he relinquished the Governorship in 1799, there was a thriving population of 1200 inhabitants. On one of his trips back to Britain, he decided to travel on a slave ship to see the conditions for himself. A parliamentary report had stated that the ships provided comfortable lodging in berths perfumed with incense, and that the slaves were entertained with music and dance. In fact Zachary could not sleep in his upper deck berth for the overpowering stench from the lower quarters. The captain informed him that the slaves were kept in leg-irons or neck-collars, and they were chained to the deck for the entire voyage. When they died, which many did, their bodies were thrown overboard.

When he returned to London in 1799, he married Selina Mills. In their first 14 years of marriage, there were nine children, five daughters and four sons. He also adopted his sister's four orphaned children. Despite being a workaholic he made time for his family, taking pleasure in the company of the children. On one occasion, Zachary corrected his wife when she scolded the children for their excessive chatter. "Let the children talk Selina. We shall know them better by what comes out, than what stays in".

As secretary of the Sierra Leone Company, Zachary retained his connection with the West African colony. His time in Jamaica and Sierra Leone, and his trip on the slave ship had given him an insight into the very worst excesses of the slave trade. When working on the plantation, he appeared to not to have been badly affected, but in his mid-twenties he became convinced that British involvement in the trade should be stopped forthwith. He joined the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1804. It was the start of a very uncomfortable period for all those involved in the abolitionist movement. They were pitting themselves against a well established and thriving business community. The wealth of many of Britain's major ports depended on the slave trade. London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow were very much against Wilberforce and his small but vociferous group. The campaigners had to withstand ferocious attacks on their integrity. It was a very hard time for them all. Wilberforce, in Parliament, had a real fight on his hands, but when he needed facts and figures to back up his arguments - it was Zachary who provided the information. Without Zachary's input many of the most difficult debates would have been lost. He was soon referred to as the "walking encyclopaedia of the movement". Against all the odds, in 1807 legislation was passed to end Britain's part in the trading of slaves.

Zachary was not satisfied by the achievement; he wanted an end to slavery itself. His first task was to lobby other European countries to follow Britain's example. The battles over slave trading were nothing compared to the struggle against the plantation owners and their allies. He was subjected to a constant barrage of lampoons and caricatures in the press. However, Zachary a quiet and retiring man, was also very determined, and remained undaunted by the public abuse, and ridicule heaped upon him. In 1823, he along with others formed the Anti-slavery Society. He worked tirelessly for the cause, producing monthly publications and pamphlets. Selina began to fear for his health as he was working late into the night doing what she felt was the work of four men. To support his family, he had set up an African and West Indies trading company, and he also acted as an agent to captains and shipping companies who were seeking compensation for their part in the suppression of the slave trade. These business activities were very successful, and the family was been able to live in a large house in Cadogan Place in the fashionable West End of London. However, his anti-slavery activities meant that he neglected his business, and was soon in financial difficulties. At first the family were forced to move to a smaller house, but as things got progressively worse, it was only his son Henry's support that kept them going at all.

Undaunted by his financial problems, Zachary continued to pursue the cause of the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. Within months of the death of his daughter Jean in 1830, his distraught wife died. Exhausted and with failing eyesight and ill health, he reluctantly gave up active work for the Society. In 1833, the Whig Government passed a bill abolishing slavery in the British Empire, and replacing it with a seven year apprenticeship scheme. Zachary spent some time in France, returning in 1836, and moving into lodgings in London. For two years he did not leave the house, and towards the end he scarcely left his couch. On 13th May 1838 at the age of seventy, he died. Three months later the last vestige of slavery in the Empire was abolished. In death, Zachary finally received recognition of his life's work. A bust of him was created and placed in Westminster Abbey to commemorate the enormous contribution he had made in the struggle to abolish slavery. The original inscription for the memorial concluded with the words "he meekly endured the toil, the privation, and the reproach, resigning to others the praise and the reward". Although this conveyed the truth, it was replaced in the final version with a more fitting tribute to a great man.

If Zachary had been the subject of a 'Who Do You Think You Are?' television programme, the viewer would have discovered that he was born in Inverary in 1768, where his father was a minister. His grandfather had been a minister in Harris, and his great great grandfather was the vertically-challenged Aonghus Bheag, who lived at Cleider near Islivig, and who died heroically at the battle of Auldearn in 1645. Aonghus's father was the redoubtable Donald Cam, the great heroic figure of the inter-clan battles of the 16th Century. Donald was supposed to have lost the sight of in one eye as a result of an incident with a blacksmith, but there is some suggestion that his eye problem was an inherited defect. A number of Macaulays descended from Donald also had eye defects, and Zachary was one of them. A generation further back still was John Roy who only survived the Valtos massacre of the Macaulays, because at the time he was being fostered by Finlay Macritchie in Mealista. Zachary certainly shared the same tenacity, courage and determination as his forebears!

Sir Leslie Stephen writing in the Dictionary of National Biography summed up Zachary's achievements very well "Macaulay's services towards abolishing the greatest wrong in his time can hardly be over-praised. Few men have devoted themselves so entirely and unselfishly to a noble cause".

As for 'Amazing Grace'- to have ignored Zachary Macaulay when he played such a pivotal role in the story, in my opinion is quite unforgivable. I suppose that one should never rely on the cinema for historical accuracy!

Dave Roberts, Islivig.


Title: The Life of Zachary Macaulay
Record Type: Stories, Reports and Traditions
Type: Magazine Article
Record Maintained By: CEU
Subject Id: 65061