November in review

November epitomised.

Although I have felt at times this month that the external distractions of lockdown and domestic and international politics might entirely overwhelm my ability to focus on Macintosh, I have, somewhat to my surprise, managed to start writing. I have begun work on what will be the book’s second chapter, which seeks to account for Macintosh’s emergence as a commentator on the politics of empire. What I hope to show in this chapter is that his experience of the various sectarian and racial divides in Grenada during the 1760s and 1770s precipitated his politicisation and led to him adopting a vocal stance on matters he considered significant. The Caribbean was, in that respect, Macintosh’s political nursery and his time there is important in contextualising his later engagement with British India and the subsequent publication of Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa (1782).

My writing progress has, so far, been steady but also fairly slow: ranging between 500 and 1,000 words a day. In part this rate is explained by a somewhat constrained working day, defined by the hours of the school day. Partly, however, it is also explained by the fact that at least half of every writing day is devoted to reading and to research. I have always found it impossible to separate reading, research, and writing and so I tend to inch my writing forward line by line, paragraph by paragraph. Although this approach tends to give me confidence in the accuracy of what I am writing, it does also mean that it is very easy to get lost down a rabbit hole when trying to track down a snippet of information necessary to complete a particular sentence. At the beginning of this chapter, for example, I found myself needing to test a claim (from a 1782 source) that Macintosh had had “a good education”. Verifying this statement necessitated a lengthy detour into the literature on education in the Scottish Highlands during the eighteenth century, a check to see whether a parish school existed in Rosskeen at the time Macintosh was living there, what forms of education were available to the children of Tacksmen, like Macintosh’s father, and so on. A couple of hours of reading—together with an email or two to a more knowledgeable colleague—netted perhaps two sentences of final prose.

While in many respects it is a joy and a pleasure to be able to follow my curiosity in doing this kind of background work, it also speaks to a deeper-set anxiety I have about the challenges this book presents as a consequence of its scope. There is a very good reason, I think, that historians tend to specialise by period and/or area; there is a great deal to know and a vast literature to get to grips with. Following Macintosh means crossing multiple areas of historical and geographical specialism and exposing myself to the challenge of demonstrating appropriate competence in each of these areas. Precisely what makes this project interesting—Macintosh’s mobility within and across three continents and their political contexts—is what makes it challenging. In order to make progress, however, I have to try to put these concerns to one side and to write one line at a time.

Although my writing timetable has me finishing this chapter in time for Christmas, I no longer think that is realistic. Although I have a little more than 8,400 words written, I have, in effect, only reached as far in the chronological narrative as Macintosh’s arrival in Grenada. Much of what is relevant about his experiences there is still to come and will, I suspect, take me well into January to complete.

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