A question of (mis)attribution

Joseph Price’s description of Macintosh in “Some observations and remarks on a late publication, intitled, Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa” (1782)

Shortly after the publication of Macintosh’s Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa, its explosive criticism of the East India Company under Warren Hastings attracted a vociferous counterblast from one of Hasting’s supporters, Joseph Price. Aside from seeking to refute Macintosh’s criticisms, Price also presented a number of ad-homenim attacks, one of which—that Macintosh was mixed race—was intended to undermine Macintosh’s credibility among a readership whose prejudices would have understood rationality and authority as running along racial lines.

Although Macintosh’s subsequent appearance in the historical literature is extremely patchy, it is remarkable how often Price’s mischaracterisation of him has been parroted uncritically in nineteenth- and twentieth-century historical scholarship. More than the reproduction of a factual error, however, the echoing of Price’s description often serves to bias scholars’ reading of Macintosh as a historical actor.

A related problem is the erroneous conflation of Macintosh with others of a similar name. This tendency has, for example, seen the authorship of Travels attributed to James Mackintosh (1765–1832)—rather improbable as Mackintosh would have been a precocious seventeen years old at the time of the book’s publication—and Macintosh confused with William Mackintosh, with whom Alexander Johnstone (1727–1783) seems to have quarrelled. A further conflation has occurred in relation to a “Captain Macintosh” who appears in the memoirs of William Hickey and was characterised by him as a lascivious drunkard, gambler, and persistent debtor. Whether Hickey’s Macintosh and Johnstone’s Mackintosh are one and the same is a question I shall leave for others.

These twin problems of error and conflation are exemplified, to an almost parodic extent, in a biography of Lauchlin Macleane (1728/9–1778)—Reward is Secondary: The Life of a Political Adventurer and an Inquiry into the Mystery of ‘Junius’ (1962), by James N. M. Maclean—which I have been reading lately. The following extracts from the book illustrate the repetition of Price’s lie (or, in this case, a repetition of someone else’s repetition of it), the conflation of Macintosh with others, and the effect of these misattributions on the book’s analysis of him.

Before leaving the West Indies Lauchlin had chosen as his ‘attorney’ and land steward a rogue of the deepest dye. He was a quadroon [i.e., one quarter black] named William Macintosh—”a swarthy and ill-looking man as any that is to be seen on the Portuguese Walk in the Royal Exchange. He was a man of colour born in the West Indies and a great impostor, assuming acquaintance with all manner of distinguished persons.” This shifty son of a Highland Father and a mulatto mother was invaluable to the syndicate [i.e., Macleane’s land purchase in Grenada]. Macintosh knew how to control and get the best of out negro slave labour, he knew a lot about sugar crops and he was crooked and capable enough to falsify land titles. He was, however, too dangerous to be left without some sort of supervision. p. 90.

…William Macintosh, the villainous land steward… p. 176.

With these new appointments, Macleane’s personal domination of the West India land syndicate and its employees came to an end. Only the Scottish French-Creole quadroon William Macintosh, a rogue cast in the Macleane mould but without the master-adventurer’s powerful intellect, finesse and sense of timing, was left as a representative of the old gang. p. 251.

As Colonel Lauchlin Macleane left the shores of Britain for the East Indies, ‘Captain’ [here the author is conflating] William Macintosh was approaching them from the West Indies. Earlier in the year Macintosh had informed [Robert] Orme that young William Ridge was dead, that Thomas Vanderdussen was temporarily managing the Grenada estates, and that he, Macintosh, felt that the time had come for him to meet the trustees for whom he worked. Orme formed a high opinion of Macintosh and continued to hold that opinion. Nearly everyone else who met this unmitigated scoundrel were initially impressed by his plausible manners, fine clothes and bogus military rank but, unlike Orme, they quickly saw that he was a vainglorious mountebank without the necessary abilities to match his pretentions. p. 318.

…the disreputable William Macintosh, who had been making a thorough nuisance of himself… p. 432.

In William Hickey’s opinion nobody was ‘so mean and despicable a wretch as the dirty dog calling himself Captain Macintosh’. He was ‘an errant pickpocket blackguard’ and a ‘dirty vagabond’. To the end of his days Macintosh was an intriguer. As late as 1796 he was working in Berne, Switzerland, as a secret agent for George Chalmers. What happened to him after this date is not known, but he was getting old and probably did not live very much longer. His exploits in India as a henchman of Francis were exposed in a book produced by a fiery sea-captain named Joseph Price. p. 434.

The factual errors and erroneous conflations evidenced above are, from a practical point of view, frustrating since they introduce unreliability into what is otherwise a very detailed and well-supported biography of Maclean, but they are also illustrative of the broader historiographical processes by which Macintosh’s role as a historical actor have been distorted by fundamental uncertainties about who he was. In one way, this is all grist to the mill for my own research, but, in another, it is a reminder about the centrality of source criticism in my efforts to understand who Macintosh actually was.

Somewhat ironically, James N. M. Maclean was aware, in general, of the problems of conflation and misattribution; his entertaining and very honest introduction to the book highlights this issue: “Many of the men in this book have hitherto been confused with one another, or they have been merged to form a composite character” (p. xii). Plus ça change!

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