The modest campaigner who fought to free the slaves

An engraving of Zachary MacAulay, held in the National Portrait Gallery

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Colin Cameron

He was a statistician who co-founded a London university, became heavily involved with the movement to end slavery, governed a British colony in Africa and has a memorial in Westminster Abbey.

Yet Zachary MacAulay might just be the most famous Inveraray man you’ve never heard of.

His father was Reverend John MacAulay, Inveraray minister and a man of proud Lewis ancestry and descendant of legendary Hebridean warrior Dòmhnall Cam MacAulay.

It is perhaps not too far a stretch to suggest that an inherited fighting spirit played no small part in the life of this modest son of the manse.

Zachary MacAulay was born on May 2, 1768 to Reverend John and his second wife Margaret Campbell, around the time that the fifth Duke of Argyll was beginning construction of the new town of Inveraray. The town on its present site would be taking shape by the time young Zachary began his schooling.

His education, however, was said to be ‘rudimentary’, so young Zachary began teaching himself Latin and Greek as he absorbed English classic literature.

Employed from the age of 14 in a merchant’s office in Glasgow, historical references describe him falling into ‘bad company’ and indulging in excessive drinking.

At the age of 16 in 1784 he emigrated to Jamaica to take up a role as a book-keeper, effectively a slave overseer, on a sugar plantation. Such was his horror and disgust at the way in which slaves were treated on the plantation that he became an implacable opponent of the slave trade.

He gave up his job in Jamaica – by this time a ‘model book-keeper’ – and returned in 1789 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. Babington took MacAulay under his wing and introduced him to the Clapham Sect – a group of Tories against slavery.

Among them was William Wilberforce, founder and leader of the anti-slavery movement.

Through working with the Clapham Sect, MacAulay was invited in 1790 to visit Sierra Leone – the West African colony established to provide a home to emancipated slaves from the United States who came to Sierra Leone via Nova Scotia.

In 1794, aged 25, he was promoted to the post of governor and remained in the post until 1799.

Returning to England on a slave ship, he brought with him 40 African children, with the hope of finding them a better life in the Clapham Sect community.

He settled in Surrey following his marriage to Selina Mills on August 26, 1799.

Having witnessed the misery of slavery, MacAulay became a member of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, working closely with Wilberforce, and soon became a leading figure in the parliamentary campaign. He later became secretary of the committee, which became known as the African Institution.

The campaign succeeded in 1807, with an Act of Parliament making the slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire. The practice, however, was to continue despite this victory.

Many abolitionists had thought slavery would fade away once the slave trade was stopped, but that failed to happen.

MacAulay continued in his activism, helping seize a slave ship in 1809. On this act, William Wilberforce commented in a letter to MacAulay, ‘you really deserve a statue’.

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 monthly publication, the Anti-Slavery Reporter from its launch in 1825.

His major contribution was the collection and collating of a huge volume of evidence showing the true scale of slavery – a role to which he was ideally suited as a skilled statistician with a meticulous approach and an exceptional head for figures.

It was also during this period that MacAulay co-founded University College London.

Publication of the Reporter continued until 1830, but by the end the work had worn MacAulay out and he had got into debt.

In 1831 Selina died and, with his finances in disarray, MacAulay was exiled to Paris in 1834 – the year the Slavery Abolition Act came into force which ended slavery throughout the British Empire.

He returned to England once his debts were liquidated and died on May 13, 1838. He was buried in a London cemetery, but after the site became a public park – St George’s Gardens – the exact location of his grave was lost.

MacAulay is commemorated with a life-sized memorial bust in Westminster Abbey.

To mark the 250th anniversary of his birth in 2018, a memorial plaque was unveiled in the gardens, donated by the Royal Statistical Society, the Friends of St George’s Gardens, University College London and the Clan MacAulay Association.

William Wilberforce said of Zachary MacAulay: ‘My sober and deliberate opinion is that you [Zachary MacAulay] have done more towards this consummation [abolishing slavery] than any other man.

‘For myself, I take pleasure in acknowledging that you have been my tutor all the way and that I could have done nothing without you.’


The register of Zachary MacAulay’s Inveraray birth. no_a47ZacharyMacAulay01

An engraving of Zachary MacAulay, held in the National Portrait Gallery. no_a47ZacharyMacAulay02

The memorial bust for Zachary MacAulay in Westminster Abbey. no_a47ZacharyMacAulay03

Installed on the 250th anniversary of his birth, a memorial plaque in St George’s Gardens. no_a47ZacharyMacAulay04