three pairs of lovers with space

The Tragedy of Sir Hector Macdonald


The following story is recounted by Cambridge Professor Ronald Hyam in his Empire and Sexuality: the British Experience (Manchester, 1990) pp. 32-35.  The numbering of his notes has been adapted, and four others have been added in square parentheses.

Major-General Sir Hector Archibald Macdonald

There are two reasons why the tragedy of Sir Hector Macdonald (1853-1903) looms large. One is the magnitude of the disaster: a national hero committing suicide after indulging in pederasty on a scale usually associated only with major sex criminals, running a big ‘vice ring’. The other is the fact that he was shown no mercy by the ‘establishment’. It has long been argued that this was because he was an outsider, a ‘ranker’, a Scottish working-class lad made good.[1] I used to think this a fairly daft piece of special pleading: now, I am not so sure. Macdonald was, after all, far from being the only prominent British soldier who liked small boys. There was General Gordon a little while before him, and in the mid-twentieth century there were two field marshals in the same case; and all three of them were protected by the absolute loyalty of their staff. Whereas Macdonald was probably told by the king that the best thing he could do was to shoot himself[2], Auchinleck was let off with a high-level warning. Moreover, shortly before Macdonald’s fall, two establishment figures guilty of similar offences, Robert Eyton (canon of Westminster), and the seventh earl Beauchamp, both escaped prosecution: Eyton was allowed to slip quietly off to Australia, while Beauchamp (having already been Governor of New South Wales) was allowed to remain and get married, although deprived of public office for nearly ten years.[3] Macdonald was, of course, caught more or less in flagrante delicto, but it is still hard to see that he must necessarily have been required to face a court martial.

Macdonald was a crofter’s son who became a draper’s apprentice and then enlisted in the ranks in 1870, serving eight or nine years in India, and becoming a captain in the Egyptian army by 1887. At Edinburgh in 1884 he went through a declaratory form of marriage with a girl barely sixteen, Christina Duncan. They had a son, but within less than ten years they had parted. Macdonald never informed the War Office of his marriage. He became the hero of the hour at Omdurman, and went on to have a good war in South Africa. By now he was a Scottish national hero, one of the most popular generals of his day. Yet his principal friend was a Glenalmond schoolboy from Aberdeen called Alaister Robertson, to whom he wrote letters which strangely prefigure those Montgomery would write to his boy friends half a century later. (‘I am sending you a tin of the Queen’s chocolate, which you can eat with your best friends, and think of me. You should keep the box as a memento.’) Before the battle of Paardeburg it was Alaister’s photograph he had beside him as he wrote demanding ‘more news about your dear self’.[4]

Edward VII, the generally affable king who reputedly encouraged Macdonald to kill himself, 1902

In 1902 he was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Ceylon. Accusations about his behaviour were laid before the Governor, Sir Joseph West Rigeway, in mid-February 1903. Ridgeway suggested he should go to England on six months’ leave to think things off and discuss the problem, and to avert an immediate public scandal. He informed Field Marshal Roberts, who admitted he already knew that Macdonald in South Africa had been ‘given to quaint practices … love-making to quite young girls – but this must be something much worse’. Indeed it was. There was even the possibility that Macdonald had earlier used the services of a procurer of males who was convicted of murder in 1902. In London, Roberts told Macdonald that he could not remain in the army unless he cleared his name. Although no offence had been committed under the laws of Ceylon (which had not adopted the mother country’s 1885 legislation[5]), he must go back there and answer to a court-martial.[6] Macdonald then saw the king. On 20 March 1903 he left England to return to Ceylon, staying for a few days at the Hotel Regina in Paris. Meanwhile Ridgeway, under pressure in the Ceylon legislature, revealed that ‘serious charges’ had been laid against Macdonald, who was returning to be court-martialled. The story broke in the European edition of the New York Herald, whereupon Macdonald immediately shot himself. The relief of the authorities was enormous. If he had come to trial, the dimensions of the scandal might have been revealed as the largest ever known in the history of the empire. We shall never know its precise dimensions. Macdonald’s case file was almost certainly destroyed as a precaution immediately after his suicide.

Ceylon furnished Macdonald with a lethal combination of a military command which was inactive and uninteresting and a community of boys who were interesting and very active. He soon became aware of the bonzes’ catamites at the temples, the obliging waiters of the Grand Oriental Hotel, the up-country resting-house dancing boys, the ubiquitous nude-bathing boys on the beaches, perhaps even of the Tamil boy prostitutes in the Colombo docks. He became friendly with a Burgher[7] family called de Saran, and it became his undoing.[8] White planter society (which he shunned) disliked the friendship, and noted that he seemed to spend too much time with the two de Saran boys, with whom, it was suspected, he was having a sexual relationship. There seems also to have been a dubious club attended by both British and Sinhalese youths, which Macdonald patronised.

   Ceylonese boys by Donald Friend

And then came the famous denouement in a railway carriage at Kandy. Macdonald was discovered in a compartment (with the blinds down) in company with four Sinhalese boys. He was (more or less) wearing civilian clothes, but was recognised by the startled intruder, a tea-planter, as ill-luck would have it. The planter, who had probably interrupted a communal masturbation session, spread the gossip in such a way that a number of schoolmasters and two clergymen were induced to lay charges before the governor. There were seven or eight cases thus alleged, but the governor was assured that more would follow if the scandal became public knowledge. Macdonald denied the charges. There was enough evidence, however, to convince Ridgeway that Macdonald was involved in ‘a habitual crime of misbehaviour with several schoolboys’. Up to seventy witnesses could have been called. Apparently Macdonald was engaged in a systematic pattern of serious sexual activities with possibly scores of boys aged twelve and upwards. ‘Some, indeed most of his victims, whose cases were dealt with,’ wrote Ridgeway, ‘are the sons of the best known men in the colony, English and Native.’ One boy, the son of a doctor, had already ‘gone off his head’ with anxiety. It was rumoured that Ridgeway’s own son was one of Macdonald’s circle. At any rate, the governor was desperately anxious to conceal all the details, ‘hoping no more mud would be stirred up’.[9]

People accused Ridgeway of hounding Macdonald to death. He defended his action in sending Macdonald home:

If he had remained a few days the clergy and planters and others who had practically formed a Vigilance Committee in Colombo would have taken action and a warrant would have been issued for his arrest. What would he have gained by staying? He knew his case to be helpless. There was just the chance he might be allowed to retire. If not, suicide remained the only alternative. My action has been so far successful that the revolting details of the case have not transpired and need not transpire unless the poor man’s friends are very indiscreet. The danger is that they provoke revelations. However I shall continue to try to ensure silence.

Silence appears to have been his main thought throughout, fearing such revelations regarding Macdonald’s life not only in Ceylon but in earlier years as would produce a ‘terrible scandal’ prejudicial and demoralising both to Ceylon and to the army.[10] It is perhaps hard to see how Ridgeway could have acted otherwise. He successfully muzzled the Ceylon press, and ensured discretion from those who made the original allegations. The real villain of the piece would seem to have been Roberts, who insisted on a court martial.[11]


[1] K. I. E. Macleod, The Ranker: the Story of Sir Hector Macdonald’s Death, London, 1976. Macleod discusses the possibility of a plot against Macdonald’s reputation and argues that even now he cannot be proved guilty.

[[2] The outrage of the King in question, Edward VII, was presumably provoked only by the homosexual character of the scandal, since he was hardly a prude: in his favourite brothel in Paris, Le Chabanais, he kept a siège d’amour, a specially made contraption, apparently equipped with straps, for hoisting the obese royal body into a comfortable position for sex with his chosen woman.]

[3] Earl Beauchamp was Governor of New South Wales, 1899-1901, and his career restarted as First Commissioner of Works, 1910-14. He inspired H. Belloc’s poem Lord Lundy (Oxford Book of Satirical Verse, 1980, p. 366): [here omitted, as it has no bearing on his practise of Greek love].

[4] J. Montgomery, Toll for the Brave: the Tragedy of Major-General Sir Hector Macdonald, London, 1963, esp. p. 115.

[[5] Legislation which for the first time criminalised homosexual acts other than sodomy, long understood to mean only pedication and bestiality.]

[6] National Army Museum, Roberts Papers, 7101/23/122/5, ff. 108-9, Roberts to Kitchener, 20 Feb. 1903; 7101/23/122/5, f. 150, Roberts to Kitchener, 19 March 1903; 7101/23/46, f. 114, Ridgeway to Roberts, 17 May 1903.

[[7] Local Eurasian.]

[8] T. Royle, Death before Dishonour: the True story of ‘Fighting Mac’, London, 1882,pp. 119-32. For the temptations of Ceylon see R.Raven-Hart, Ceylon: a History in Stone, Colombo, 2nd ed., 1973, pp. 56, 157-8, etc.; A. W. Holden, Ceylon, London, 1939; Edward Carpenter, From Adam’s Peak to Elephanta: Sketches in Ceylon and India, 2nd ed., London, 1910, pp. 14-15; G. Tillett, The Elder Brother: Biography of Charles W. Leadbeater, 1854-1934, London, 1982; R. Peyrefitte, Exile of Capri, translated 1961; C. Green & A. D. Maclean (eds.), A Skilled Hand: a Collection of Stories and Writings by G. F. Green, with Memoirs and Criticism, London, 1980, pp. 106-9.

[9] PRO, CO 537/410/6835, CO 537/411/41391 (Supplementary secret correspondence). There are no significant references in CO 54 (Ceylon original correspondence).

[10] Roberts Papers, 7101/23/46, f. 113, Ridgeway to Roberts, 20 April 1903.

[[11] The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography concludes its biography of Macdonald thus:

"The sudden, unexpected allegations against, and death of, their hero shocked the public. There was massive public grief in Scotland: ‘in death as in life he was their hero still’ (Cromb, 92). On the first Sunday after his burial some 30,000 people visited his grave; so many flowers were brought that the cemetery superintendent refused to allow any more. Rumours spread: that Macdonald had been ‘done away with’ (Montgomery, 149), that he had been the victim of English jealousy and class prejudice, and of a plot involving Kitchener or Ridgeway or both, and that he was not dead but still in France. Later it was rumoured he was serving with the Russians against the Japanese, and during the First World War that he was a French officer, and that he was the German general Von Mackensen. Macdonald was commemorated by a tower at Dingwall, paid for by subscriptions from Scotland and the Scottish diaspora. Macdonald's rise from private soldier to general officer was unprecedented in the Victorian army. A brave soldier and a competent commander, his NCO's obsession with drill and discipline served him well at Omdurman. At the time of the mass-circulation press and popular imperialism, military enthusiasm and ‘highlandism’, he was ‘Scotia's darling’, adored by the public. His life and tragedy have continued to fascinate and—despite biographies, articles, and pamphlets—there are questions still unanswered on his last years and death."]