Herbert Macaulay

Herbert Macaulay: The Father of Nigerian Nationalism

Early Life

Herbert Macaulay was born on November 14, 1864 in Broad street Lagos to Rev Thomas Babington Macaulay; a missionary and educator. He mother was the daughter of Rev Samuel Ajayi Crowther thus making him a grandson to renowned missionary. His parents were children of slaves captured from Nigeria, settled in Sierra Leone and later returned to Nigeria.

Herbert during his life time was a politician, engineer, Surveyor and is considered by many as the founder of Nigerian nationalism.


He had his formative education in 1869 at St Paul’s Breadfruit School while his secondary education was at the first and foremost secondary school in Nigeria, the CMS Grammar School Lagos; founded by his father. While still in secondary school in 1878 his father passed away and with the help of British colonial administrators he went to Plymouth, England in 1890 for his tertiary education.


He studied Civil Engineering and qualified as a Land Surveyor. He also obtained a certificate in music from the Trinity College London and returned to Nigeria upon graduation in 1893.

Herbert Macaulay

In September 1893 he got a job as a Surveyor of Crown Lands with the colonial service. He however resigned his appointment in 1898 as a means to convey his displeasure at British rule in Lagos and other parts of the colony. He also showed disdain for the racial discrimination perpetuated by the British in the civil service against the natives.

The British on their own part accused him of using his position and influence to indulge and favor his friends and cronies.

In 1898 he was into private practice as a private surveyor and soon became the mouthpiece against British rule in Nigeria.

Opposition to British Rule

Herbert Macaulay as a Nationalist opposed every bill initiated by the British which he felt was discriminatory and damaging to the interest of the people. Herbert gradually diverted from his private venture and became a political activist and was also a member of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society.

His agitations and opposition to British rule soon pushed him into the public glare. In 1908 he exposed the massive corruption in the financing of a railway contract.

By 1921 he was already a prominent figure in Lagos colony and beyond and was selected by the then Oba of Lagos to represent him in London on a land tenure case. Lands belonging to Chiefs in Lagos had been forcefully taken over by the colonial government. Hebert was thus contracted to plead the case of the chiefs at the Privy Council in London. The colonial government in Nigeria was mandated by the London court to return their lands and  pay compensation to the chiefs after Herbert stood in their defense and won the case.

Additionally Herbert opposed the Water Tax to be imposed on Lagosians for funding water supply. He claimed imposition of taxes on citizens without representation was unlawful and dishonest.

Political career

He co-founded the Nigerian Daily News, a medium he used to convey his opinions against the colonial government. His activities from 1923 to 1938 steadily transformed him into a politician; he founded the first political party in Nigeria, Nigeria National Democratic Party (NNDP) on June 24, 1923. The party was more prominent in Lagos but failed to achieve national spread probably due to Herbert, dabbling into local (kingship) issues in Lagos. The party nonetheless won all the seats in elections into the legislative council in 1923, 1928 and 1933.

Herbert’s efforts at creating political awareness through his activities soon led to an increase in Nigerians participating more in economic, social and political development of their society.

Herbert’s Legal problems

During his lifetime he was convicted twice; one for fraud and the other for sedition and was thus barred from running for political office.

He was accused of mismanaging funds from an estate he served in as executor. He was found guilty and subsequently sentenced to two years in prison in 1931. A foremost historian however claimed Herbert was unjustly persecuted and was a target of British colonial administrators.

His conviction on charges of sedition was based on a story he published in the Lagos Daily News where he claimed the Colonial government was planning to blow up the vehicle of an Oba (Oba Eleko). For this he was sentenced to six months in prison without an option of fine at the age of 64.

Herbert partners Nnamdi Azikiwe

The NNDP dominated Nigerian politics from the 1920s until the late 1930s when its influence began to decline. This was due to the rise of the Nigerian Youth Movement led by Nnamdi Azikiwe. Thus in order not to go into oblivion, in 1944, together with Nnamdi Azikiwe they founded the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) with Herbert Macaulay serving as its first president.

Though the NCNC was not a political party it was a nationalist organization the sought and pushed for the independence of Nigeria. Unfortunately he did not live to see the attainment of this dream


Old Herbert Macaulay

On one of their political movements in Kano, he fell ill abruptly and returned to Lagos. Shortly after his return to Lagos he died on May 7, 1946 at the age of 81 and was buried on May 11, 1946. He was thereafter replaced as the president of the NCNC by Nnamdi Azikiwe.

Private Life

He married in December 1898, but lost his wife during child birth in August 1898. There are reports that he vowed never to get married again, though he had children from women whom he never married legally. Macaulay was the first Nigerian to own a car and the first to found a political party in Nigeria.

Despite his upbringing as an Anglican, he embraced traditional worship, ventured into magic and was a member of the Association of Babalawos of Lagos (traditional doctors). There are rumors also that he visited fortune tellers and practiced occultism.

He was highly regarded for his ability to obtain confidential information from colonial government meetings using informants. He was reputed to have had informants in government circles that fed him with top confidential information at colonial meetings. And thereafter would leak this information in newspapers he had dealings with.

His portrait was once featured on the Nigerian one Naira note from 1979 to 1991 before it was changed to coins.

1 Naira Note

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