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Significant Scots
Colin MacKenzie

WELL educated and well connected, Colin MacKenzie was an exceptional soldier who combined active service with a passion for geography and natural history.

Although born in the Western Isles, he spent much of a remarkable career in India, where he managed to bridge cultures and learned to value the history and knowledge of territories being annexed into the British Empire.

MacKenzie produced the first accurate modern maps of the Indian sub-continent and his research and collections laid the foundations for Asiatic studies in almost every field.

Despite his achievements, he is relatively unknown in his home town of Stornoway.

MacKenzie, or Cailean MacCoinnich in Gaelic, was born in 1754 into the upper echelons of Lewis society - the Seaforth MacKenzies. He worked first as a customs officer in Stornoway but, aged 28, joined the East India Company as an officer in the engineers.

His mentor, Lord Napier of Merchiston, supplied him with his first subject of research into Hindu culture - Indian mathematics and the Hindu system of logarithms. MacKenzie later wrote a biography of John Napier, the inventor of natural logarithms and an ancestor of Lord Napier.

For the rest of his life, MacKenzie used his military career and salary as a captain, major and finally colonel, to finance his researches into Indian and Javan history, religion, philosophy, art, ethnology, folklore and mathematics.

He hired highly-educated Brahmin assistants who, as well as being trained in the Western science of surveying and cartography, researched ancient Indian manuscripts for him and opened his mind to the worlds of Indian thought and culture.

Later he was to spend two years in Java, during the brief period before 1815 when it was part of the British Empire, and reached Bali where he spoke out against the institution of slavery.

In 1799, he played a pivotal role in the battle of Siringpatnam in the Mysore district, which removed the most powerful tribal leader, Tipu Sultan, and paved the way for the Mysore survey between 1800 and 1810 which MacKenzie led.

During this survey, a massive team of draughtsmen and illustrators collated material on historic architectural sites, Hindu caste customs, folk tales, plant life and detailed mapping of the region, an unprecedented volume of work which, to this day, sits virtually undiscovered.

MacKenzie survived nearly 40 years in situations where many other Westerners perished in the heat or through disease and, despite a continuous longing for his homeland, he never returned to the islands. He is buried in Calcutta, where he died in 1821.

A substantial section of his life’s work is now found in the British Museum and the British Library, both in London.

John Ross
Wednesday, 17th September 2003
The Scotsman

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