Macaulay's grandfather, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, was the first African bishop in Nigeria. Macaulay's father, Thomas Babington Macaulay, was also a minister and an educator. Herbert was born and educated in Lagos, one of the 12 states in present-day Nigeria. In 1881 he became a clerk for the public works department in Lagos. His abilities soon won him the respect of the government, and he was offered a scholarship to study civil engineering in England.
Returning from England three years later, Macaulay was named surveyor of the Crown lands for the colony of Lagos. Soon, however, he became embittered by the racial inequities he saw in civil service. In 1898 Macaulay resigned his post and began his own surveying company.
Macaulay's dissatisfaction with colonial rule in Africa led him to express himself, contributing a number of articles to the Lagos Daily Times. Lagos and the entire Nigerian region were under the Lugard system called indirect rule.
Britain established its power using extant administrative systems rather than imposing entirely new governmental institutions. Although the governments and officials were often Africans, they had no real power.
British governors and primarily white legislatures made all the decisions. As a result, the leaders lost standing among their people, the people distrusted the British even more, and protests were common.
In an effort to compromise, the British marginally increased African representation. This action was partly the result of Macaulay's 1921 trip to London as a representative of the king of Lagos. Macaulay used the opportunity to denounce British rule for usurping the power of the king, or eleko, who Macaulay asserted was recognized by all Nigerians as their rightful ruler.
In 1922 Lagos and Calabar were able to send African representatives to the legislature, but they remained in the minority. Macaulay then established the first Nigerian political party, which was able to win three seats in the legislative council in 1923.
The Nigerian National Democratic Party sought self-government for Lagos and all Nigeria, universal primary education, the building of schools, and more representation of Africans in government and civil service positions.
Macaulay continued to work for these causes and in 1944 was instrumental in the formation of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC). Macaulay was elected president of the NCNC. The council brought together more than 40 different factions that represented many geographical, cultural, age, and ethnic groups.
Although he is often called the father of Nigerian nationalism, Herbert Macaulay did not see Nigerian independence. He became ill in 1945 while on a speaking tour promoting the NCNC agenda. He returned to Lagos, where he died the same year. Nigeria was granted independence from Britain on October 1, 1960.