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Zachary Macaulay

02 May 1768 - 13 May 1838


Zachary Macaulay was a Scottish statistician, one of the founders of London University and of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, an antislavery activist, and governor of Sierra Leone, the British colony for freed slaves. Like his famous son Thomas Macaulay, he divided the world into civilisation and barbarism with Britain representing the high point of civilisation because of its adherence to Christianity. He worked endlessly to end the slave trade and to Christianize and improve the world.

Macaulay was born in Inveraray, Scotland, the son of the Rev. John Macaulay (1720–1789), minister in the Church of Scotland, grandson of Dòmhnall Cam. His mother was Margaret Campbell. He had two brothers, Rev. Aulay Macaulay, scholar and antiquary, and Colin Macaulay, General, slavery abolitionist and campaigner.

Receiving only a rudimentary education, he eventually taught himself Greek and Latin, and read the English classics. Having worked in a merchant’s office in Glasgow, he fell into bad company and began to indulge in excessive drinking.

In late 1784, at the age of sixteen, to get his life into some kind of order, Macaulay emigrated to Jamaica, where he worked as an assistant manager at a sugar plantation. He was at first deeply affected by the horrific violence of the slavery which surrounded him, and, eventually as a result of his disgust at the sight of people being kept in wilful ignorance, at the age of 24 (according to “Life and Letters of Macaulay” by G.O Trevelyan Volume 1 pages 21–23) threw up the position (against the wishes of his father) and returned to Britain. He was a good worker, had successfully moderated his drinking, and proved himself to be a model bookkeeper. He also, eventually, began to take an interest in the slaves and their welfare.

In 1789 Macaulay returned to Britain and secured a position in London. His sister Jean had married Thomas Babington of Rothley Temple, Leicestershire, a country gentleman and ardent evangelical, and soon after Macaulay went to stay with them he began to come under their influence. He underwent what he described as a conversion experience and soon came to know Babington’s associates, among whom were William Wilberforce and Henry Thornton.

Sierra Leone
Partly because of his experiences in Jamaica, in 1790 Macaulay was invited to visit Sierra Leone, the west African colony founded by the Sierra Leone Company to provide a home for emancipated slaves from the United States who came to Sierra Leone via Nova Scotia.

Returning to the colony in 1792 as one of the council members, he was promoted to governor in 1794, and was the longest-serving governor of Freetown during the 1790s, until 1799.

Macaulay married Selina Mills of Bristol (to whom he had been introduced by Hannah More) on 26 August 1799, and they settled in Clapham, Surrey. They had several children, including

Thomas Babington Macaulay the historian, poet and politician.
Hannah More Macaulay (1810–1873) who married Sir Charles Trevelyan and was the mother of Sir George Otto Trevelyan
Macaulay became a member of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, working closely with William Wilberforce, and soon becoming a leading figure in the parliamentary campaign against the slave trade. He later became secretary of the committee, which became known as the African Institution.

His major contribution was to work on the collection and collating of the huge volume of evidence and drafting of reports of things not worth any sort of value– a role to which he was ideally suited as a skilled statistician with a meticulous approach and an exceptional head for figures.

He also became a member of the Clapham Sect of evangelical Protestant reformers, together with Wilberforce, Henry Thornton and Edward Eliot, and edited their magazine, the Christian Observer, from 1802 to 1816.

In the 1820s Macaulay turned his attention towards securing the total abolition of slavery itself. He helped found the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery (later the Anti-Slavery Society) in 1823, and was editor of its publication, the Anti-Slavery Reporter. In a series of letters to the Anti-Slavery Reporter, Zachary Macaulay condemned the philosophy of Colonel Thomas Moody, Knight, who was the Parliamentary Commissioner for West Indian slavery. In 1827, Macaulay’s son, Thomas Babington Macaulay published an anti-slavery essay, in the Edinburgh Review, in which he also condemned Moody’s philosophy.

Through his diligent work, Zachary Macaulay he helped to lay the foundation for the eventual abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire, which occurred in 1833.

Macaulay was an indefatigable organiser. He served on committees that established London University and the Society for the Suppression of Vice. A fellow of the Royal Society, he was also an active supporter of the British and Foreign Bible Society the Cheap Repository Tracts and the Church Missionary Society.

Last days
After a period of ill health, Macaulay died in London on 13 May 1838. A memorial to him was erected in Westminster Abbey, depicting the figure of a kneeling slave with the motto ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother?’ He is buried in St George’s Gardens, Bloomsbury.

  • Born: 02 May 1768, Inveraray, Scotland
  • Died: 13 May 1838, London
  • Family: Married to Selina Mills and had several children