Writing history as a question of geometry

Writing the life of William Macintosh is, at least to my mind, a question of geometry. There is the vertical axis, which describes the chronological sequence of his life, and there is a horizontal axis, which contextualises that life by situating it in relation to places, people, and events. The vertical axis is what provides a sense of a connected narrative to the book I am writing, while the horizontal axis provides the book’s wider intellectual contribution. Both, when in the right balance, make the book worth reading. Finding that balance is, however, the tricky thing, and it is sometimes difficult to know how far it is sensible to go in the pursuit either of contextual or chronological detail. Sometimes, however, it is impossible to resist the allure of curiosity. This was the case, recently, when I found myself trying to make sense of a short but crucial phase of Macintosh’s convoluted journey to India.

Detail from “Vue du Cap de Bonne-esperance de l’Ouest”, by Jean Herman Schneider (1770). © Harvard Map Collection, Harvard University.

In January 1779, whilst he was a prisoner of war aboard a French ship in waters to the south west of the Cape of Good Hope, Macintosh managed to transfer to a Danish vessel, that took him on to Cape Town. The neutrality of the Danish ship, and the fact that Macintosh was a prisoner of war, should have made such a transfer impossible and, indeed, the apparent sensitivity of the event is reflected in the way it is described in Macintosh’s book, Travels. Nowhere in Travels is the Danish ship named; the reader is told only that it was a snow, that its supercargo and co-proprietor was a “Mr. B—d”, that it had reached Cape Town by 22 January 1779, and that the supercargo and captain were British, possibly Scottish.

In the hope that I might be able to identify the vessel somehow, I performed various internet searches that led me to a paper in the Scandinavian Economic History Review that listed Danish Asiatic Company voyages to and from India and China for the period 1772–1792. The paper included a table with the dates of departure and return of various vessels from and to Copenhagen, together with details of where they had stopped en route. Based on its return date, and the fact it had stopped at the Cape of Good Hope, the Rigernes Ønske looked like a good bet.

Table showing the departure and return dates of various Danish Asiatic Company vessels.

A second table in the paper provided a more detailed breakdown of the various phases of each ship’s journey. Using those data, it was possible to determine that the Rigernes Ønske had arrived at the Cape (during its return journey) 395 days after leaving Copenhagen on 21 December 1779, putting its arrival there at 20 January 1779.

Table showing the duration of the various phases of each ship’s journey.

Despite a two-day discrepancy between the date of Macintosh’s arrival at the Cape and that of the Rigernes Ønske, I was fairly confident that this might be the right vessel, knowing that there remains some uncertainty over the precision of the dates recorded in Travels. Further internet searching led me to the logbook of the Rigernes Ønske, which is among a vast collection of digitised materials held by the Rigsarkivet—the Danish National Archives.

Although I was able to access the relevant sections of the logbook, I really needed someone able to read eighteenth-century Danish to help me make sense of what I was looking at. I posted a call for assistance on Twitter and was utterly floored by the number of suggestions and offers of assistance I received, one of which came from a scholar based in Norway, Thomas Gerhardsen Moine, who specialises in foreign warships and privateers in Norway in the period between 1793 and 1815.

Thomas was very quickly able to confirm that there was no mention of Macintosh in the Rigernes Ønske‘s logbook, but that the ship had sighted another Danish vessel at the Cape—a merchant snow that it identified as the Fransiskus, owned by a merchant named “Bøyte”. As this was the only Danish vessel the Rigernes Ønske saw at the Cape, this seemed to be a good contender for the ship that had taken Macintosh there and I was inclined to leave things there, having sufficient evidence for an adequate contextual footnote. Like me, however, Thomas was overtaken by curiosity and, by reading further back into the logbook, was able to gain more information about the Fransiskus. He was eventually able to discover that the supercargo was, in fact, a Scottish free merchant, David Boyd (the “Mr. B—d” from Travels) operating from the Danish fortified settlement at Tranquebar. Having identified Boyd, it was then possible, using digitised Danish Asiatic Company records and the registers from the Zion Church in Tranquebar, to learn all sorts of fascinating things about his life, family, and trading activities, and the ship (ordinarily the Francis or Franciscus, not Fransiskus) that Macintosh had joined in January 1779.

Thomas’s discoveries in the archives of the Danish Asiatic Company have allowed me to add empirical rigour to my discussion of Macintosh’s brief journey on the Francis, but their value lies more particularly in their contribution to the horizontal axis of my book. The story of Macintosh’s transfer at sea is an interesting one because it put international treaty in tension with maritime custom. In the end, Macintosh’s status as a fellow Scot is what most likely persuaded Boyd to allow him to join the ship. Although they spent only five or so days in each other’s company, Boyd made a significant impression on Macintosh. He found Boyd to be “very sensible and liberal” but also, undoubtedly, looked on him with a degree of envy. Boyd embodied what Macintosh strived to achieve—success as a private merchant in the India trade. That Boyd appeared to have done so without sacrificing his family life (his wife, Maria, and daughters, Matilda and Veronica, were with him on the Francis) would have given Macintosh pause. Macintosh, for his part, had sacrificed his relationship with his wife, Ann, and had not seen his children for more than two years.

As I look ahead to another year in the company of Macintosh, tacking back and forth between the horizontal and the vertical, it is with the usual combination of excitement and apprehension—curiosity over finding out what happens next is mixed with the fear that the story, in all its infinite complexity, will overwhelm my ability to tell it. Onwards, onwards!

Messy methodologies

The element of historical inquiry that always fascinates me the most is the one that tends to be glossed over—sometimes out of embarrassment—in published work and presentations: the actual, messy, and occasionally haphazard doing of research. As Keith Thomas noted in a brilliant essay published a dozen years ago in the London Review of Books, our collective reluctance to share the details of our working methods comes, in part, because to do so is to “dispel the impression of fluent, confident omniscience.”

My own working method is one that owes as much to happy coincidence as it does to the rigorous application of a systematic and all-encompassing approach, or at least it sometimes feels like that. Flitting between different sources—manuscripts, texts, and digital representations—and between different ways of working—slow and careful reading, and repeated, rapid-fire googling—often leaves me reeling, as my desk fills with books and papers and scribbled notes and my browser buckles under the weight of dozens of open tabs. It is an approach that, at least most of the time, seems to work and is quite well suited for researching an individual whose historical traces are more often then not fragmentary and dispersed. In what follows, I describe the approach I took today to contextualising a single document from Macintosh’s archive.

David Anstruther to William Macintosh, 12 May 1778. Archives départementales de Vaucluse, 2 E Titres de famille 85.

The item in question is a letter sent to Macintosh on 12 May 1778 from David Anstruther, who was then en route to India to take up a military role in Bengal. Anstruther was hoping to buy some items—including “4 Boxes of Fruits in Brandy”—that Macintosh had with him aboard the French merchant vessel, Brisson, on which he was travelling. The reason this letter interested me is that it bore the same date as a letter Macintosh supposedly sent to the prime minister, Lord North.

Macintosh’s letter to Lord North, dated “At Sea, 12th May 1778; by the way of St. Helena”.

I wondered whether the coincidence of dates was meaningful. Elsewhere, Travels tells us that Macintosh’s letter to North was dispatched under separate cover to his friend in London, John Townson, and sent via another ship, the Queen, which was bound for St. Helena.

Macintosh’s letter to John Townson, sent aboard the Queen to St Helena.

Curious to know whether or not I could find any information about the Queen (which might help me by providing independent confirmation of the chronology of the letters that make up Macintosh’s book), I resorted to a speculative search of Google Books to see if anything obvious came up.

The ever-indispensable Google Books.

A simple search for “queen 1778 st helena” immediately brought up two relevant sources, the second of which proved to be particularly significant because it contained an extract from a letter written by the captain of the Queen, Peter Douglas, to East India House in London recording his meeting with Macintosh’s ship, the Brisson.

An extract from a letter from the captain of the Queen as it appeared in Appendix to the Sixth Report from the Committee of Secrecy, Appointed to Enquire into the Causes of the War in the Carnatic, and of the Condition of the British Possessions in those Parts (1782).

The extract of Douglas’s letter is interesting because it mentions the exchange of intelligence between the two ships concerning the supposed threat of two American privateers headed for the Mozambique Channel. The letter also mentions the Nassau, from where David Anstruther had sent his letter, and alongside which the Queen had been sailing. Here, I had found the connection! Keen to see if I could find more, however, I did a follow-up Google search on “‘peter douglas’ queen 1778”.

A simple Google search of key terms likely to be relevant.

The sixth search result pointed me towards a (digitised) manuscript of Douglas’s letter (or at least a contemporary manuscript extract of it), from the India Office Records and hosted now by the Qatar Digital Library.

The Qatar Digital Library version of IOR/R/15/1/4, ff 19-20, containing a contemporary extract of Douglas’s letter recording his meeting with the Brisson.

In a relatively short period of time, I had found information and connections that at the beginning of my working day I had no idea existed. Now I knew that the Nassau and the Queen had travelled in convoy, that both ships had had dealings with the Brisson in the waters south of St Helena, that the Brisson (almost certainly in the form of Macintosh) had passed sensitive information to the Queen‘s captain, and that that warning had made its way to London before being sent on by East India House to Company representatives in Basra in modern-day Iraq. Such research trails, followed between the offline and online worlds, retain the capacity for surprise which, in sustaining the momentum of a long-term project like this, is a valuable commodity.

Lives in Revolution

“View of the Town & Harbour of Ostend” (31 January 1804).

Although I have never found myself getting emotionally attached to my main research subjects—referring to them by their surname (Speirs Bruce, Semple, Macintosh) seems to create the necessary distance—I have found myself endless fascinated by Macintosh’s family: his wife, Anna (known as Ann); his daughters Elizabeth (known as Betsey) and Mary (known as Polly); and his son, William. These were people Macintosh variously loved, argued with, became distanced from, and was reunited with, and they are there, in various ways, throughout the book I’m writing.

William disappears from the archive after 1779 and I have no idea what became of him. Betsey, once the apple of her father’s eye, largely disappears after 1781, returning briefly years later as a married woman in her mother’s will, but evidently estranged from Macintosh. Polly is the only one I have been able to follow through to her eventual death. In many ways, Polly was a remarkable woman—ambitious, self assured, and resilient. Born in Grenada, she started school in London just shy of her third birthday. Later, under her own initiative, she enrolled herself into a convent school in Belgium and converted to Catholicism. She married a minor French noble, became an émigré during the French Revolution, raised four children, was deserted by her husband, and eventually died in Paris in her mid eighties.

At the end of Macintosh’s life, Polly was almost the only family he had left: Ann (from whom he was long since separated) had predeceased him, as had his brother, George. Betsey and William, if they were still alive, were no longer part of Macintosh’s life. Polly and her four daughters were, therefore, the people to whom Macintosh left what little he had at the time of his death.

Much of Polly’s adult life was overshadowed by the uncertainties of the French Revolution. She and her husband were already émigrés by the time of the marriage in 1791. Their wedding took place at the English church in Ostend in September. By the time their first daughter was born the following year, in July 1792, they were living in Broomfield in Essex. A second daughter followed in January 1795, when the family were living in Bury St Edmunds. By the time the couple’s third daughter was born in July 1798, they were back on the Continent, living in The Hague. They eventually returned to France in 1802, taking advantage of Napoleon’s amnesty for émigrés.

Somewhat unusually (at least as far as I have been able to tell), Polly and her husband remarried in a civil ceremony in Caen in January 1803, keen to ensure that their daughters had a clear legal right to inheritance. A fourth daughter followed in the wake of the marriage, but the relationship was not to last. Around 1810, Polly’s husband had—as Macintosh would later note in a codicil to his will—”abandoned his wife and family and Country in a manner highly disreputable and offensive without having had the least provocation”.

Polly persevered, and life became easier after 1825 when she and her daughters began to receive compensation from the French state for property seized during the Revolution. When Polly died in 1853, and was interred at the Cimetière Notre-Dame in Versailles, her life would have been celebrated by her surviving children and grandchildren, one of whom, George-Fernand Dunot de Saint-Maclou, when on to achieve fame as the founder of the Bureau des Constatations Médicales at Lourdes—a medical body established to investigate the curative powers of the shrine.

September in review

After an embarrassingly long time—a little more than 320 days—I have finished writing the first draft of another chapter. Although this is the shortest yet at 23,000 words, it has been the most challenging to write. It has also been the chapter that has felt most like detective work, as the nature of the supporting archival material has shifted to become more ephemeral—bills of sale, receipts, scribbled notes on scraps of paper—and less epistolary. The chapter has also, and more positively, been an education as I have engaged with a whole new set of secondary literatures in coming to grips with the complex and overlapping histories of the British and French presence in India.

The chapter follows Macintosh from his return from Dominica in the spring of 1776 to his eventual departure from France in January 1778 bound for India. This was an almost preposterously busy and complex period of Macintosh’s life, marking the end of his marriage, the development of his so-called “Eastern scheme”, his attempts to intervene in the American Revolution by proposing peace terms to Franklin in Paris, and his eventual identification as a presumed spy for the British against the French and Americans. In much the same way that this period marked a radical departure for Macintosh as he moved his focus, and his physical presence, from the West Indies to the East Indies, the wider intellectual framework of the book has had to pivot in the same way. From this point forward, the cast of characters, as well as the geographical and political contexts, are significantly different and it has been quite a steep learning curve to get a handle on the key secondary literature.

Lorient, from where Macintosh departed to India in 1778.
From Nouvelles vues perspectives des ports de France (1776). Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The momentary satisfaction at having completed another chapter is tempered, somewhat, by my back-of-envelope estimates of how much more there is still to do and quite how long this is all going to take. As I currently envisage the book, there are three more empirical chapters to come: one focusing on Macintosh’s experiences in India; one on the authorship, publication, reception, and translation of Travels (and other pamphlets he wrote); and one encompassing his experiences in France before and during the revolution, his period as a counterrevolutionary spy in Switzerland, and his eventual exile and death in Saxony. All that, plus an introduction and conclusion, of course.

I am fortunate to have a period of sabbatical leave between now and Christmas and hope to use it to complete as much of the next chapter as I can. The resumption of normal duties in January will inevitably mean progress slows again, and I think it is certain that I will miss my original submission deadline of September 2023. A related problem, that I don’t think I can solve now, is that the first draft of the book is likely to be significantly over my contracted word length. Although there will inevitably be significant savings to be made as I revise the book from its first to second drafts, this is a bigger problem that I am going to have to devolve to a future version of myself to deal with.

For now, my next task is a completely different one: to write a chapter on Ellen Churchill Semple for an edited collection. I haven’t worked on Semple for about 15 years, but am hoping a change of focus will be helpful and allow me to return to Macintosh later in October with a fresher perspective. We shall see…


For much of the summer I have been focused on, and writing about, Macintosh’s pivot from the West Indies in 1776 to the East Indies in 1778. The precise circumstances that led Macintosh to pursue his “Eastern scheme”—indeed, what that Eastern scheme actually was—have been a longstanding puzzle, but they have come gradually into view in the last few weeks and I have been able to enjoy the all-too-fleeting sensation of having cracked a stubborn code.

The chapter I am currently writing—the book’s fifth—will conclude at the point of Macintosh’s departure from Lorient, in France, en route to India in January 1778. Before getting to that point, however, I need to address Macintosh’s intelligence-gathering activities in France during the winter of 1777–78. Although it would be wrong to classify Macintosh as a spy during this period, since he was not formally employed in that capacity, his activities were very definitely considered to be spying by the French authorities and by the American congressional representatives living in Paris.

“LE PORT DE L’ORIENT, Vu du Quai de la Machine à mâter” (1776).

Macintosh was almost comically unsubtle in his efforts to gather political and military intelligence in France, and seems to have raised suspicions wherever he went. His lack of clandestine subtlety—and his unfamiliarity with what might be called spycraft—is an almost endearing quality in retrospect, but it had very real and very immediate consequences for him. The captain of the French ship that was due to carry Macintosh as far as Pondicherry, in India, was given a set of secret instructions by the authorities in Paris concerning Macintosh’s spying—instructions that eventually led to him being imprisoned at Isle de France (what is now Mauritius). This traumatic episode significantly delayed Macintosh’s arrival in India; all told, it took him almost 18 months to complete the journey, and he arrived in India jaded and dispirited.

The circumstances of his journey to India become significant (largely on account of who he met and the order in which he met them) for understanding how and why he performed a political volte-face on his arrival, from being a presumed supporter of Warren Hastings to a close ally of Hastings’ principal opponent, Philip Francis. It is to this story that the book turns in Chapter 6—a task that will consume my autumn.

I am in the extremely fortunate position to be on sabbatical during Term 1 of 2022/23, and hope to make as much headway as I can with this phase of the book. I know several institutions in the UK that have either decreased the frequency of research sabbaticals or eliminated them altogether, and it is difficult to imagine how it is possible to pursue large-scale research projects without the time and space offered by them (especially in the absence of external funding).

Hope & Co. and the legacies of slavery

In April, a team of researches at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam published a fascinating report for the Dutch bank ABN AMRO on its historical links, by way of predecessor institutions, to slavery. The report—The slavery history of historical predecessors of ABN AMRO: An investigation into Hope & Co. and R. Mees & Zoonen—caused something of a stir on its publication, prompting media coverage and an apology from ABN AMRO.

The report from the International Institute of Social History.

The report addresses a significant gap in the literature. While it was well known that ABN AMRO’s predecessors—particularly Hope & Co.—were significantly invested in Caribbean slavery through the provision of plantation loans, among other activities, existing literature, like Marten Buist’s 1974 company history At spes non fracta, was insufficiently critical and failed to address properly the firm’s role in bankrolling the slave economy in the Caribbean.

The new report resolves this significant omission by placing these links at the centre of its focus. As a consequence of this attention, the report brings to the fore Macintosh’s 1770 plantation loan. From a narrative and explanatory perspective, the 1770 loan is something of a turning point in my study of Macintosh—it laid the foundation to his (doomed) partnership with William Pulteney, it cemented his friendship with Alexander Fordyce, and it became a complex financial burden which cast a long shadow over the next 15 or so years of Macintosh’s life.

My existing research on the loan drew from Macintosh’s own papers as well as notarial records in Amsterdam, but—due to the pandemic—I hadn’t been able to explore the issue from the side of Hope & Co. directly. The new report is, therefore, extremely helpful in allowing me to check the validity of what I have already written and to identify additional material in the Hope & Co. papers that might prove helpful by way of further context. Two of the reports researchers—Gerhard de Kok and Patrick van der Geest—have been kind enough to respond helpfully to my inquiries and with their help I should be able to cover all the archival bases of the 1770 loan.

Last summer Patrick also completed a master’s thesis examining the links between Hope & Co. and the 1772 financial crisis (“The banker’s banker: Hope & Co. and the credit crisis of 1772-1773“). Patrick has argued that rather than look solely to Alexander Fordyce to explain the crisis, we would be well placed to consider the economic consequences of Caribbean plantation loans, particularly those—like Macintosh’s—issued by Hope & Co. By coincidence, I was also contacted this week by another Dutch researcher—the historical geographer Taco Tichelaar—who is working on the 1772 crisis.

Last year I felt like I was ploughing something of a lonely (albeit important) furrow in writing about Macintosh’s loan, but this new report, alongside Patrick’s thesis, helps to provide a wider context in which to situate Macintosh and his significance.

Would the real Mr Macintosh please stand up?

The end of the exam term has allowed me to return, somewhat dazed and confused, to the book manuscript. Although I had tried my best to keep the research going during term time, it has been several months since I did any real writing and restarting the task has proved to be quite slow going. Inadvertently I had left the manuscript, just before Christmas, at a difficult-to-resolve juncture: the point in 1777 where Macintosh made the decision to embark on his “Eastern scheme” and to lay the groundwork for his journey to India. I didn’t know then, and am still now trying to understand, what the “Eastern scheme” actually involved (whether in Macintosh’s imagination or in reality) and until I can get that question resolved to my satisfaction, it is difficult to move the narrative forward.

I made progress of a sort this week in eliminating some of the possible explanations for the “Eastern scheme” and, in the process, cleared up some misidentifications of Macintosh that have appeared in the secondary literature. I have written before about the way Macintosh has been misrepresented or misunderstood as a consequence of confusion over or conflation with others who shared the same or a similar name. Such a situation occurred in relation to a “Mr Macintosh” (or “Mackintosh”) who, in late 1776, sailed for India in the Rippon with a series of letters for Warren Hastings from his agent in Britain, Lauchlin Macleane. I knew from evidence in Macintosh’s archive that he didn’t leave Europe for India until 1778, but I was not sure exactly how the two men had come to be conflated.

An early conflation of William Macintosh with “Mr Macintosh” of the Rippon, from H. Beveridge’s The Trial of Maharaja Nanda Kumar, A Narrative of Judicial Murder (1886).

Perhaps the first conflation of Macintosh with “Mr Mackintosh” of the Rippon occurred in Henry Beveridge’s The Trial of Maharaja Nanda Kumar (1886), where he records that Macleane’s letters were taken out to Hastings “by Macintosh”. Although Beveridge identifies this Macintosh as the author of Travels, he acknowledges the fact that—according to Travels—its author “did not arrive in India till 1779”. “I still think,” he went on “that the Macintosh referred to by Hastings must be W. M., for [Joseph] Price calls the latter an intimate friend and fellow-labourer of Colonel Macleane”. In this respect, the confusion is perfectly understandable: what are the odds that Macleane would be working closely with two Macintoshes, both of whom travelled to India around about the same time?

Years later, and apparently independently, Lauchlin Maclean’s biographer—James N. M. Maclean—made the same error in conflation, noting that Macintosh had been “sent out to India as his [Macleane’s] special messenger to Hastings in November, 1776”. In this case, Macleane’s biographer had at least consulted the original correspondence, in which he would have seen Macleane’s note to Hastings concerning the bearer of his letters: “Mr. Macintosh promises all diligence and Dispatch with zeal & fidelity. He is recommended to your Protection” (13 November 1776; BL Add Ms 29317, f. 461r).

So, who was the Macintosh who sailed with the Rippon in November 1776? The best clue we have comes in a letter sent to Hastings from John Macpherson. In that letter (30 August 1778, BL Add MS 29141, f. 342v), Macpherson explained to Hastings that it had been him who had introduced “Mr. Mackintosh” to Macleane, “in order to place him in the line of a better fortune, than had attended the early part of his life”. As Macpherson explained, “In the success of that poor fellow, I am much interested”. It is possible that this was the same Mackintosh whom Laurence Sulivan had recommended to Hastings in 1773, when he wrote of a “Mr. William Mackintosh, who was in Bengal, & other parts of India, some Years, in the Shipping way; and now returns to follow the same Employ” (27 January 1773; BL Add MS 29133, f. 345r).

As the number of William Macintoshes continues to mount in my research, I can’t help but think that an interesting book could be written on their simultaneous, but different, experiences of the eighteenth-century world. What would it look like to write a history of that period from a prosopographical perspective, tracing the converging and diverging lives of those who shared a name? I shan’t allow my self to get distracted; one Macintosh is more than enough to keep me going!

By (yet further) coincidence, the Rippon was commanded on its eventual return voyage to Britain in 1780 by Captain John Blankett, to whom Macintosh would go on to send a dedicated copy of Travels upon its publication.

Inscription to Captain Blanket.t
Inscription to Captain Blankett.

10 years on

Monday marked the 10th anniversary of this blog (yikes!), and found me on a train to Rome. Although this was not a research trip, I was nevertheless following in the footsteps of William Macintosh, who visited the city in 1790 possibly for an audience with the Pope.

Like any dutiful tourist, I visited the Vatican and, in passing the entrance to the Apostolic Archive, did wonder idly if Macintosh’s presence might be recorded somewhere in there. It is, however, an avenue I have decided not to explore in the hope of actually being able to finish the book one day.

While in Rome, I received the very welcome news that an application I had made for a research sabbatical in the first term of 2022/23 had been approved. This is a huge relief, and a terrific privilege (since sabbaticals are awarded less routinely these days), and will give me a pretty clear run at the book from late June until Christmas.

Slowly, slowly…

At the end of my Leverhulme Fellowship in December, I set myself the challenge of keeping progress on the book moving along (no matter how incrementally) during term time, by blocking out time in my diary for the task. Somewhat to my surprise I have, so far, managed to stick to that plan and this is the fifth Friday in a row that I have been able to devote (wholly or partly) to Macintosh. In some ways this should not feel like such an achievement, but over the last five or so years I have found it increasingly difficult to do anything in term time other than frantically spin the plates of teaching and administration. Creating time for Macintosh has meant squeezing other tasks into the late evenings. It is doable, but it does not feel very sustainable!

My focus this year has fallen on trying to better understand and contextualise Macintosh’s geographical, economic, and political transition from Caribbean planter to traveller in India. His own archive is patchy during this period and I have had to cast the net much further to try to understand what was going on and how particular networks of friendship and patronage set Macintosh off in this new direction. His longstanding friendship with Lauchlin Macleane was particularly important in this respect and I have gone back to the work of his biographer, James N. L. Maclean, to better understand the relationship between Macintosh and Lauchlin Macleane. Macleane’s biographer is excellent on Macleane but, as I have written before, gets Macintosh completely wrong because he confused and conflated him with another individual with a similar name. Nevertheless, the work of James N. L. Maclean is really central to my understanding of this important period of transition in Macintosh’s life.

For a long time I have been meaning to read Maclean’s master’s thesis, which was a follow-up to his published biography of Lauchlin Macleane, and covers in detail the final four years of Lauchlin’s life, when he was working as agent for Warren Hastings. Not being able to find the time to get to Oxford to read the thesis in the Bodleian, I have spent the last couple of weeks tracking down Maclean’s literary executor to get permission to have an electronic copy of the thesis made. The task allowed me to play detective and, using the acknowledgements in Maclean’s PhD thesis, I was eventually able to identify and contact his literary executor, who has been kind enough to give permission for the master’s thesis to be reproduced (and eventually hosted on the Oxford University Research Archive).

Lauchlin Macleane was at the centre of East India Company politics in the 1760s and 1770s, and it was through him that Macintosh acquired the assistance or patronage of Company directors. Especially important in this respect was Laurence Sulivan, who was— at intervals—a director, Deputy Chairman, and Chairman of the Company. In letters to his son, Stephen, Sulivan writes interestingly about Macintosh’s motivations for going to India. Sulivan and his son tried to keep their correspondence secret by using a cypher: Macintosh was “Prime”, his friend John Townson was “Tracey”, and the Nabob of Arcot (Lacuhlin’s sometime employer) was “Job”. Sulivan’s letters to Stephen are held privately and I am very fortunate that their owner has agreed to let me consult them later this month. Without them I do not think I would be able to be definitive about what exactly set Macintosh on his course to India.

As ever, there is a lot still to do. Sometimes it feels like there is everything still to do, but writing this book is an attritional process and slowly, slowly, little by little, it will get done.

December in review

The end of the beginning.

Today is the 300th (and final) working day of my Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship. Although I can’t quite escape the thought that I have only just got going with the book, I find to my surprise that I have actually accumulated 108,450 words (including notes and bibliography). The nature of academia is, of course, always to lament the fact that more could have been done and that anything less than total completion of a project reflects some kind of failure. Anticipating that feeling, I began my Fellowship by creating a diary, in which I listed what I had done each day, whether that was reading, writing, editing, researching, or dealing with administrative tasks. I certainly found it a helpful routine in combatting existential crises over productivity!

300 working days condensed (red indicates periods of lockdown and/or homeschooling).

I have progressed the book, roughly speaking, to the spring/summer of 1777—the period just before the narrative of Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa begins. Understanding Macintosh’s transition from Caribbean planter to traveller in India has proved taxing given the fragmentary, contradictory, and often deliberately clandestine nature of the surviving evidence, but I finally feel I am beginning to get to grips with it. Without question the most difficult part of the project is writing without the benefit of a foundation of existing scholarship—there is no empirically detailed but acritical Victorian hagiography of Macintosh for me to draw on, and every “fact” of Macintosh’s life has to be wrestled from primary sources. The consequence of this is that it’s difficult to know what twists and turns the narrative of his life will take next. It’s a little like driving towards a distant city in thick fog—the bright lights of the destination are just about visible, but you can’t see what’s coming next.

Having covered the first 40 years of Macintosh’s life, I have 36 to go. There is a vast amount of research and writing ahead, and still 21 months until the book needs to go to the publisher, but—in this moment at least—I feel hopeful that I’ll get there.