"Every Schoolboy Knows Who Imprisoned Montezuma"

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Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 352

Context: An essay on Milton, published in the influential Edinburgh Review in 1825, brought Macaulay a reputation as an essayist and biographer. Its smooth elegance and clear prose, with each topic sentence logically developed, made easy reading. The parallels he provided, drawn from the wide scope of his reading, and his phenomenal memory, blinded readers to the real shallowness and sweeping judgments about everything. So Macaulay was frequently assigned books to review, and the result would be very readable and enlightening literary and biographical essays. Since he had become a specialist on Indian affairs, having served in India on the Supreme Council between 1834 and 1838, he was the natural one to review Major-General Sir John Malcolm's threevolume Life of Robert Lord Clive, of 1836. While that work is now rarely read, Macaulay's review of it is still the best-known brief account of the early days of the British in India. His review starts with the accusation that the British people know more about the Aztec Emperor Montezuma and Hernán Cortés in sixteenth century Mexico, and about the Inca Emperor Atahualpa and Francisco Pizarro of the same period in Peru than of events in eighteenth century India. Macaulay puts a series of questions to his readers to make them realize how ignorant they are about people and happenings in their wealthiest colony. Still less do the people today know that the British won at Buxar in 1764; Meer Cossim ordered the massacre of 200 British prisoners at Patna; Sujah Dowlah ruled in Oude; and Holkar was a Hindu.

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We have always thought it strange that, while the history of the Spanish empire in America is familiarly known to all the nations of Europe, the great actions of our countrymen in the East should, even among ourselves, excite little interest. Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma, and who strangled Atahualpa. But we doubt whether one in ten, even among English gentlemen of highly cultivated minds, can tell who won the battle of Buxar, who perpetrated the massacre of Patna, whether Sujah Dowlah ruled in Oude or in Travancore, or whether Holkar was a Hindoo or a Mussulman.
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