“Now I am Going to Tell You about Sir Hector Macdonald”: A Cultural Biography of Memorialization and Child Sexual Abuse in the British Empire

Kristen Thomas-McGill
UC Santa Barbara

This project challenges academic and popular understandings of Hector Macdonald, a celebrity soldier of the British empire at the turn of the twentieth century. Drawing upon previously unstudied correspondence between the governor of Ceylon and British home authorities, I reveal that the 1903 scandal surrounding Macdonald’s court martial and suicide was not, as has been speculated, a snobbish English conspiracy against a poor Highlander risen above his station. Nor was Macdonald an “unfortunate homosexual” brought down by imperial homophobia. Instead, the scandal was triggered when a 16-year-old British Ceylonese boy wrote a letter disclosing that Macdonald had sexually abused him and his 13-year-old brother. My research winds together historiographies of empire, childhood, celebrity, gossip, sex between men, and pederasty. I propose a new, abuse-informed reading of the Macdonald scandal that centers the narratives (and, where available, the biographies) of the boys he assaulted. Attending to recent calls to believe the accounts of survivors of abuse, I ask what it means for a primary source to be believable. How can historians evaluate “believability” when official records have been destroyed and key pages of muckraking newspapers are missing from government files? And what should we do when sources speak distressing truths anyway?