Colin Mackenzie: The Scotsman Who Became The First Surveyor General Of India

Image: Thomas Hickey/ Public Domain
India's first Surveyor General started out as an engineer but found his calling as an archivist and cartographer.

The largest volume of historical data ever collected about India was made by a Scotsman in the 18th-19th century.

Colin Mackenzie (1754-1821), a Scottish army officer in the British East India Company, spent four decades in India, during which time he recorded local histories, rulers, topographies and an endless array of data – manuscripts, maps, coins, sketches, paintings and artefacts. It was a treasure trove for later historians and anthropologists.

Notably, Mackenzie made the first accurate map of South India’s geography and was the first Surveyor General of India. His topographical survey of over 40,000 square miles was unprecedented.

Map by Colin MacKenzie, Mark Wilks in 1810 (Image: Public Domain)

At a time when joining the East India Company meant making your money and returning a rich man; Mackenzie took an offbeat career path – and never returned to his place of birth.

He joined the Company as a Mathematician, entrusted with studying India’s ancient knowledge of mathematics – for use in a biography of a Lord whose ancestor invented the logarithm. For some years, Mackenzie worked on this – but when the Lord died, he found himself thirsting to know more about the ‘Orient’. A Lord named Seaworth saw to it that Mackenzie was enlisted with the EIC as an engineer in 1783. Mackenzie was 30 when he left.

On arriving, he visited the daughter of his patron in Madurai – who connected him with locals known for their mathematical knowledge. He worked on the biography for a while, but his main calling then was as an Army officer, fighting in the Third Mysore War of 1790-92.

The then Governor General, Lord Cornwallis, liked Mackenzie’s work – and had him enlisted with the powerful Nizam of Hyderabad, to report the geography of his country. In 1796, Mackenzie met a young man named Cavelly Venkata Boria. Venkata was 20 and knew Sanskrit, Persian, Hindustani, English, Tamil and Telugu. He became Mackenzie’s chief translator and interpreter; the Scotsman’s own personal key to the subcontinent. Sadly, Venkata died young, at the age of 26.

Mackenzie’s interest-driven study of India led to several key findings. For example, Mackenzie was the first European to visit the Bahubali statue in Sravanabelu – one of the holiest sites of Jainism. But his finding was even more significant; he was the first to intimate the British of a religion called Jainism – and of its distinctions from Buddhism!

He also shed light on the many religious sects within India, such as the Lingavanta, Saivam, Pandaram Matts and so on. 

Painting by Colin Mackenzie in 1791, during the Third Anglo-Mysore War (Image: Public Domain)

Importantly, Mackenzie kept his personal opinion or the ‘subjective’ view out of his work, at least, the last known presence of his view was with his work with the Nizam. His observations give us an account of the prevalent customs at the time. In the paper ‘An Account of the Marriage Ceremonies of the Hindus and Mahommedans, as Practised in the Southern Peninsula of India‘ (published posthumously after Mackenzie’s death), we see how marriage played out in South India.

Every man should use his utmost endeavours to have his daughter married before she is nine years of age; and when he shall have accomplished that object he will obtain his reward in the like manner as if he had performed a religious sacrifice… When a man is desirous of marrying his daughter, he first ascertains an auspicious day, on which he relates his intentions to his Brahmin and his barber, and giving them money and betel-leaves he deputes them in search of a youth, who must be three or four years older than his daughter, of a respectable family, and of the same caste with his own.

He ends the report with a statement that runs true even today:

The natives of India often expend such immense sums of money on the marriage of their children, that their families are reduced to poverty and distress.

He completed his Survey of the Nizam’s provinces and wrote to the Company’s Directors in London requesting the creation of a Madras Survey of India – and a hike in his allowance on account of his expenses. His request was turned down (his letters frequently complained of poor pay); and soon, he was pushed away from uncovering history. The Fourth Anglo-Mysore War saw him return to the battlefield, making watercolour plans of siege batteries and a journal of the march from Hyderabad to Seringapatnam.

With Mysore conquered, he was entrusted with reporting its geography – as the Surveyor General of Mysore. For nine years, he worked on this with a large staff of assistants and researchers. Along with his team, he visited all the places of record in South India.

Between 1811-1813, Mackenzie was deployed in Java, Indonesia, to seize the colony from the Dutch. Here too, he collected and made several records of the local terrain and culture. On his return, he took a brief vacation to explore North India and the Himalayas. He returned to Madras in 1815 and got straight back to work. Soon, he was given the appointment of Surveyor General of India – a position based in Calcutta.

He was reluctant to take it up, as it would mean abandoning many of his loyal and efficient assistants to penury. He managed to bring many of them with him to Calcutta, and those who were left behind managed to receive some form of pension. But ill health took him (not before he was promoted to the rank of Colonel) and he died in 1821.

The Mackenzie Collection is his legacy. Colonel Marks Wilkes summarizes its contribution:

One of the most wide ranging collections ever to reach the Library of the East India Company is formed by the manuscripts, translations, plans, and drawings of Colin Mackenzie, an officer of the Madras Engineers and, at the time of his death in 1821, Surveyor-General of India. Mackenzie spent a lifetime forming his collection which is exceptional, not only for its size, but also for the fact that materials from it are to be found in almost every section of the India Office Collections including Oriental Languages, European Manuscripts, Prints and Drawings, and Maps. Including manuscripts in South Indian languages held in the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library in Madras… According to Mackenzie’s own estimate, no fewer than fifteen Oriental languages written in twenty-one different characters…according to a statement drawn up in August 1822 by the well known orientalist Horace Hayman Wilson who, after Mackenzie’s death, volunteered to undertake the cataloguing of the collection, there were 1,568 literary manuscripts, a further 2,070 Local tracts, 8,076 inscriptions, and 2,159 translations, plus seventy-nine plans, 2,630 drawings, 6,218 coins, and 146 images and other antiquities.”

Much of his collection is scattered between India and Britain now. Mackenzie’s work continues to be a source of learning for many.


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