The Fascinating Life of Herbert Macaulay, a Nigerian Nationalist

Last Updated on November 16, 2022

Herbert Macaulay is considered by many Nigerians as the father of Nigerian nationalism. But most Gen Zers may not know the man whose face is on the one Naira and coin. This is largely because the note and coin are now extinct. If you care to know about someone who played a critical role in the agitation for cultural unity in Nigeria, here are some fascinating Herbert Macaulay facts.

Who Was Herbert Macaulay?

Born Olayinka Herbert Samuel Heelas Badmus Macaulay on November 14, 1864, his official name could fool you into thinking he wasn’t Nigerian – or an indigenous Yoruba man for that matter. He also had a trademark mustache that was more popular among westerners. However, Herbert Macaulay was born to Thomas Babington Macaulay and Abigail Crowther and raised in Lagos State.

His mother’s last name may sound familiar. That’s because his maternal grandfather is Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther who notably transcribed the Holy Bible into the Yoruba language. His great-grandaughter was Dr. Stella Ameyo Adadevoh, a national hero who died of the ravaging Ebola disease and saved the country from a certain epidemic in 2014.

He Is Related to an Alaafin of Oyo

Macaulay’s maternal grandfather wasn’t the only popular person in his life. His paternal grandfather, Ojo Oriare, a well-known native doctor in Oyo at the time was also related to Alaafin Abiodun. On June 6, 1859, Macaulay’s father, Reverend Thomas Babington Macaulay founded the Church Missionary Society (CMS) Grammar School, Lagos, Nigeria and was also its first principal. CMS is the first and oldest secondary school in Nigeria.

Unfortunately, Thomas Macaulay died of smallpox on January 17, 1878.

Herbert Macaulay Poses for a picture
Herbert Macaulay poses for a picture Credit:

He Was a Brilliant Student

This should be unsurprising considering he was born to a principal, and was a violinist, guitarist, politician, and civil engineer. But long before he was all those things, Macaulay was a brilliant student. First, he was homeschooled by his mother, Abigail until he was five years old. Afterward, he had his primary school education at Paul’s School, Breadfruit, and then Christ Church School, Ita-Faji. Macaulay was only 13 when he gained admission into CMS Grammar School where his father was the principal. His school records show he excelled in English, Mathematics, Logic, and Latin! He left CMS in 1880, two years after his father’s death.

Herbert Macaulay Landed His First Job At 16

What were you doing at 16? Well, Herbert Macaulay was already a clerical assistant and indexer working for Crown Land Grants at the colonial Public Works Department in Lagos. He was still a teenager when his promotion to Draughtsman and Clerk came three years later. Macaulay’s brilliance was clear to see and in 1890, he won a colonial government scholarship in England to study Civil Engineering and Surveying.

Macaulay studied Civil Engineering, Architecture, Surveying, and Railway Surveying simultaneously. Nowadays, at least three of these are standalone degrees in Nigeria. Three years later on December 5, 1893, Hebert Macaulay became the first Nigerian civil engineer. He also attained membership of the British Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (FRGS), and the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Herbert Macaulay’s brilliance was undeniable and his lecturer, Mr. G.D Bellamy of Plymouth recommended him for further studies in civil engineering. But he was denied the opportunity by the colonial government. He had to return to Lagos.

Read: Who Is Thomas Sankara? 15 Interesting Facts You Never Knew

The Colonial Government Despised Herbert Macaulay

One would think for all the scholarship and opportunities Macaulay got from the colonial masters, he would stay loyal to them forever. But Herbert Macaulay wasn’t happy with his chains. Although he was made the Surveyor of Crown Lands in Lagos, Macaulay was unhappy with British rule of the Lagos Colony, his salary of around £90-150, and the position of Yorubaland as a British protectorate.

Herbert Macaulay Was Accused of Nepotism

Nepotism in Nigeria is alarming, but it turns out it has existed even since the time of Macaulay. For all the good he did, Macaulay had his fault. The first one which we would discuss here is his favouritism. According to the historian, Kristin Mann, Macaulay used his position as Surveyor of Crown Lands to help his friends secure crown grants and “persecute enemies by granting their land to others.” He also reportedly obtained grants using false names and sold them at a profit. Other historians report that his pursuit of private gain led to his resignation. After his relationship with the colonial government broke down, he went private at the age of 34.

Herbert Macaulay Had Several Mistresses and 16 Children

After his exit from the civil service, Herbert Macaulay married Caroline Pratt in December 1898. Unfortunately, Caroline died suddenly in August of the following year. He never remarried but kept several mistresses and had 16 children with them.

There is a 2019 movie based on his life titled “The Herbert Macaulay Affair.”

Herbert Macaulay Reportedly Practiced African Tradition Religion

Although he was born a Christian to an Anglican Priest and also an Anglican Bishop’s grandson, Herbert Macaulay reportedly practiced African Traditional Religion. He welcomed the Eyo Festival in Lagos and also indulged in African traditional medicine to fortify himself and his family.

His Financial Woes Led Him to Prison

Yes, Herbert Macaulay was a convict at one point. After going private, he designed a few notable houses such as Henry Carr’s House on Tinubu Street, Doherty Villa (Campos Square), Akinola Maja’s house, and Alex Taylor’s House (Victoria Street). But there were not enough and he was ultimately accused of misappropriating £350 from Mary Franklin’s estate. The latter had made him an executor of her will.

Although he claimed the money was used to pay debts owed by Mary’s estate, he was ultimately sentenced to two years in jail in July 1913. As a convict, he could never hold a public office.

Macaulay’s Career as a Journalist

As if being a Civil Engineer, Surveyor, Estate Manager, Architect, and Musician wasn’t enough, Herbert Macaulay also transitioned into journalism. He couldn’t hold a public office anymore, but he had to get into politics one way or the other. And he chose journalism.

After contributing to the Nigerian Chronicle, he eventually bought the Lagos Daily News alongside his friend, Dr. John Akinlade Caulcrick. This became the first daily newspaper in the entire British West Africa. He would use this newspaper to begin a series of critical attacks on the colonial government.

Herbert Macaulay Stature in Lagos
Herbert Macaulay Stature in Lagos – Credit:

A Convict for the Second Time

You bet Herbert Macaulay wasn’t mild with his attack on the colonial government. He published several editorials in the Lagos Daily until he landed into trouble for one story. He reported a story, which was at the time a rumor, that the vehicle which would convey the deposed Eleko Esubayi of Lagos back home from his exile in Oyo would be blown up by his rivals. The colonial government believed this publication would incite violence. So, Herbert Macaulay went to prison for the second time. After serving six months, his publications became cautious but still fault-finding.

Herbert Macaulay Founded the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP)

Herbert Macaulay’s journey to becoming the founder of Nigerian nationalism took an interesting turn when he founded the Nigerian National Democratic Party in 1923. It was the country’s first political party as well as the first in British West Africa.

He also gained acclaim for his contributions to winning two important cases that concerned indigenous land rights as well as another that concerned the Eleko of Lagos and his deportation to Oyo.

He Controlled Lagos Politics Behind the Scenes

Of course, he could no longer hold official political parties. But that didn’t mean he didn’t control politics, especially in Lagos. He attended NNDP public meetings, had a close relationship with the first executive council members, and had strong ties with Lagosians. His relationship with market women was fantastic. Macaulay also contributed to building a new African-only cemetery at Atan, Ota, which is in present-day Ogun State. He was also involved in the Lagos railway construction.

Herbert Macaulay continued to oppose the colonial government’s move to control market prices during World War II.

He Could Play the Violin

Like the biblical David, Herbert Macaulay comforted himself during his political woes with the violin, which he learned in the United Kingdom. In fact, he was certified by the Trinity College of Music as a violinist!

Herbert Macaulay One Naira Note
Herbert Macaulay was on the defunct one Naira note.

Herbert Macaulay Is on the One Naira Note and Coin

Although now defunct, his portrait was on the One Naira note and coin. Perhaps the reason why many young Nigerians do not know this hero is because the notes no longer exist. Several monuments and streets have also been named after him across the country, especially in Lagos and Abuja. For example, the Herbert Macaulay Library in Yaba. The Nigerian Shipping Line name a ship “Herbert Macaulay” after him.

President of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC)

Another notable contribution to Nigerian nationalism was when Herbert Macaulay alongside Nnamdi Azikwe formed the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC). It was established to bring Nigerians together and demand independence. However, he didn’t see it happen as in 1946, he fell was struck with rheumatism, and died in Lagos on May 11 of the same year.

Keep the Flag Flying

In his last words, Herbert Macaulay asked the National Council delegates to stop to mourn him for four days and then continue the fight.

“Tell Oged to keep the flag flying.”

Macaulay was buried at Ikoyi Cemetery, Lagos.

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