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
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
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
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
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.
Wednesday, 17th September 2003