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Belief and Doubt in Histories of Abuse

[Content Warning: This piece contains graphic descriptions of child sex abuse. ]

A detail from a photograph of a historical document. Cursive writing stands out from a white paper.
Excerpt from a hand copy of the 8 February 1903 letter in which the student disclosed his abuse to Alfred Gordon Field. Image courtesy Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham, JC29/2/22/46.

In October 2022, England and Wales’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published its final report after eight years of work in the wake of the Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal. Its findings echoed what survivors of Savile’s abuse, and survivors of sexual violence more broadly, have been saying for decades: that (dis)belief matters. Of participants in the IICSA’s Truth Project, 14% indicated that they did not disclose their abuse at the time it was happening because they did not think they would be believed. In many cases they were correct; the report is replete with accounts of those children who did speak out being dismissed, insulted, and sent back to their abusers.

Cases of sexual violence, particularly against children, hinge precariously on the belief of others, more so than other crimes. (Nobody pointedly asks a mugging victim if they are sure they were really mugged.) Historical instances of child sexual abuse are therefore distinctly productive sites for exploring not only histories of childhood, crime, or sexuality, but also of belief itself. Further, they highlight the contingency of historians’ own practices of belief and disbelief. A case study from 1903 is instructive.

It started with a letter. Alfred Gordon Field, a British merchant living in Colombo, was the guardian of the 16-year-old and 13-year-old sons of an India-based horse trainer. The boys were studying at the Anglican boys’ school in Ceylon’s hill station, and on 8 February 1903, the elder brother sent Gordon Field a remarkable letter. “Now I am going to tell you about Sir Hector Macdonald,” the boy wrote. Major-General Macdonald was the celebrity soldier “Fighting Mac,” a national hero to Scotland who had commanded the troops of Ceylon for the previous 11 months. He had sexually abused both boys.

In excruciatingly frank terms that make for harrowing reading, the student described to Gordon Field two encounters with Macdonald. In the first, as they rode in a carriage together “he put his overcoat on to my knee and he started fiddling with my cock;” later “he unloosened my belt and he was pulling down my trousers and he flung me on the bed.” In the second incident, “he fiddled with my brother’s cock,” then “he took me into a spare room and he pulled my cock out and he got it on the stand,” afterward giving the brothers a rupee.

Gordon Field believed his ward. He immediately consulted with clergy before bringing the matter to the colony’s director of public instruction, who personally presented the letter to the governor, Sir Joseph West Ridgeway, just one week after the student wrote it.

There followed an investigation in which the boys’ principal interviewed their schoolmates and took statements from five of them. Some of the students corroborated the original allegations, and some described their own abuse at Macdonald’s hands. Governor Ridgeway began skeptically, but as the allegations piled up and revealed a pattern of what we would call grooming, he came to believe the boys: “I have become gradually convinced of the absolute guilt of this unfortunate man.” Ridgeway learned that there had long been rumors of his suspect interest in British and Burgher boys, and he found at least three other specific instances of Macdonald’s abuse, including that of a young Boer prisoner of war.

The Army, the War Office, and the Colonial Office believed the allegations were substantial enough to court martial Macdonald. But before the trial could begin, he ended his life. Specifics, beyond that there were “grave, very grave charges,” were not publicly released. Macdonald’s supporters could therefore go on believing that he was the innocent victim of an amorphous classist and/or anti-Scottish conspiracy, revised in the mid-20th century to include a more plausible element of homophobia. Macdonald is remembered today in memorial towers and bagpipe tunes, popularly believed to be an unfortunate victim of snobby colonial gossip. That the boys even existed is often (but not always) omitted from the popular narrative.

This should not be the case. The file containing the student’s letter to Gordon Field and the detailed statements of the other boys has been publicly available at the Cadbury Research Library since 1997. In 1967, the Public Records Office made available CO537/410, the official Colonial Office file on the events of 1903. This folder of telegrams and memoranda conclusively states that the problem was Macdonald’s “habitual crime of ‘misbehaviour with several school boys’;” that “there are seven or eight alleged cases but probably more will follow;” and that “his victims included English boys aged twelve and upwards.” For 53 years researchers have had archival evidence that the Macdonald scandal was about sex with children. But they have not always believed it.

A stone tower stands in the middle of a cemetery. The grass is a bright green, the sky a calm blue.
The Hector Macdonald National Memorial Tower opened in May 1907 in Macdonald's home town of Dingwall, Scotland. Construction was financed by public donations from around the world in the wake of his suicide on 25 March 1903. Photograph by the author.

Kenneth I.E. Macleod, whose petition led to the opening of CO537/410, found its contents unbelievable, or at least requiring extraordinary supporting evidence. In a 1968 letter to the Times of Ceylon soliciting oral histories, he goaded the surviving boys, “Why don’t they speak and tell the truth? Or, are they ashamed because of the part they played in the downing of another human being?” In his pamphlets The Ranker (1976) and A Victim of Fate (1978), he dismisses Ridgeway’s communications with the home authorities as “hearsay” while credulously treating 1903 editorial articles from the anti-Ridgeway Ceylon Native Opinion newspaper. Though he positions himself as just asking questions, Macleod ultimately (and influentially: his pamphlets are heavily cited in later popular literature), argues that “Hector Macdonald was framed.” Macleod believed it was more likely that Macdonald had been brought down by a conspiracy between Governor Ridgeway, Lord Kitchener, Lord Roberts, and Edward VII himself than that Macdonald had sexually abused boys aged 12 to 16.

In 2018 Amy Stanley wrote a powerful reflection for the American Historical Association about the role of belief in her own analysis of the letters of Tsuneno, a 19th-century Japanese woman who was raped. Stanley explores how historians’ well-intentioned skepticism of primary sources, shaped by the discourses that envelop us all, can obscure real histories of sexual violence. What historians find believable or unbelievable as evidence is itself historically contingent.

When Macleod was writing, the prevalence and harm of child sexual abuse, then often framed as the fault of a supposedly “seductive child,” were only beginning to be broadly recognized. Boys’ experiences of sexual abuse were especially marginalized. Macleod’s confrontational, dismissive attitude toward Macdonald’s victims is disturbing but it should not be surprising. His refusal to believe them was a product of his historical context, which guided his interpretive approach to the archival sources then available.

Macleod was wrong. The boys and their experiences were real. We have had their full statements since 1997, and we should believe them. Gordon Field did. Their principal did. Governor Ridgeway did.

In history, belief both unmakes and makes. Historians write “I believe” as a way of hedging a too-bold assertion, but history, from top to bottom, is all about belief—whose evidence is believable, whose is not. Today, after the Catholic Church scandals, and Jimmy Savile, and #MeToo, we draw on different beliefs about sexual abuse of children than we did in Macleod’s time. We can and must choose differently about what to believe when writing histories of sexual violence.


Kristen Thomas-McGill is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of California Santa Barbara. Her dissertation, “‘Now I am Going to Tell You about Sir Hector Macdonald’: A Cultural Biography of Memorialization and Child Sexual Abuse in the British Empire,” draws on correspondence previously believed destroyed in order to redefine a misremembered scandal at the turn of the 20th century. In this project she aims to both disentangle historiographies of pederasty and sex between men, and weave together historiographies of empire, nationalism, gender, childhood, celebrity, and gossip and rumor. She has conducted archival research in England, Scotland, and Sri Lanka.


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