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Illustrating India: The Early Colonial Investigations of Colin Mackenzie (1784-1821)

Item Code: NAL312
Author: Jennifer Howes
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9780198064411
Pages: 282 (Throughout B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 11.5 inch X 9.0 inch
Weight 1.50 kg
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Book Description

About the Book

Illustrating India reveals for the first time a mine of unique and fascinating information on pre-colonial and early colonial India. The Mackenzie collection, assembled by Colin Mackenzie, the first surveyor General of India, between 1784 and 1821, contains the oldest and largest known repository of pictorial document on the history and culture of India to be gathered by a single European collector.

This book showcases monuments and shrines, sculpture, landscapes, caste groups and social structures as described in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century India. Jennifer Howes’ gripping narrative contextualizes the Mackenzie drawing and provides a broad view of the Indian subcontinent. She presents a graphic account of people and everyday life in Hyderabad and Mysore, along with interpretation of temples and their uses. She also highlights Mackenzie’s investigations at Mahabalipuram, providing unique answers to some puzzling archaeological questions. Most importantly, she show s how Mackenzie’s methods profoundly relied upon information gathered by his Indian assistants.

Besides drawings, Mackenzie collected manuscripts, unpublished letters and maps, and he published articles about his research. Howes includes biographical note military draftsmen and copyists who worked for Mackenzie and identifies many unknown artists. Delineating the illustrious career of a determined individual, the author also asks whether Mackenzie could be regarded as an Orientals.

Well illustrated with sketches, maps, fair copy drawing, and plates, this book will be a significant resource for scholars and researchers of pre- and early colonial India. It will also interest art historians, archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists.

About the Author

Jennifer Howes is Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, Asia Pacific & Africa Collections, The British Library, UK.


On 8 May 1821, Colin Mackenzie, the first Surveyor General of India, died while travelling by boat to the river Hughli, before the therapeutic sea air of the Bay of Bengal could help him recuperate. He was 69 years old and was survived by a young wife, an old maid sister, and an extensive establishment of draftsmen, translators, and surveyors. He also left behind a massive collection of manuscripts and drawing that he had intended to organize, but never did. In 1822, when Mackenzie’s widow sold his collections to the East India Company, the task of cataloguing them fell into the hands of Horace Hayman Wilson. In Wilson’s word, the Mackenzie Collection ‘was formed at a considerable cost of time, labour and expence, which no individual exertions have ever before accumulated, or probably will again assemble. Its composition is course very miscellaneous…the collector having done little or nothing towards a verification of its results…It is the more to be regretted that Col. Mackenzie did not live to execute some connected view of the principal facts his collection furnishes’. Distanced from Mackenzie’s original intentions, his formidable collections were long viewed as impossible to make sense of. However, in the last few decades, a handful of dedicated researchers have begun studying different parts of the Mackenzie Collection and have brought renewed interest to this enigmatic archive. Once seen as an incomprehensible antiquarian maze, the Mackenzie Collection is now considered a mine of unique and fascinating information on pre-colonial and early colonial India.

The purpose of this book is to make sense of the corpus of drawing collection by Colin Mackenzie during his four decade career in India. There are over 1,700 Mackenzie drawing in the British Library alone. Hundreds more were deposited in the library of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta and a few are in the Royal Asiatic Society’s library in London. The Mackenzie drawing evoke the life and work of a determined individual. Collected mainly in southern India, but also in north India, Sri Lanka, and Java, they form the largest and oldest extant archive of drawings to be gathered by a single European collector in Asia. Mildred Archer, the first curator to publish a catalogue of the British Library’s Mackenzie drawings, noted that they had ‘never been fully described, and, as a result, little notice has been taken of a large collection of visual material which not only illustrates many of Mackenzie’s own manuscripts but also documents his career’. It is my intention to expand our knowledge of the Mackenzie drawings, as per Mildred Archer’s comments, by connecting them with the manuscripts, letters, maps, and published sources connected with Mackenzie’s career. It is impossible to write about every single drawing in the Mackenzie Collection in this book, so I have written about certain sets of drawings that benefit from a contextual analysis. It is also impossible to talk about the drawings without looking at other aspects of Mackenzie’s work, so the manuscripts, maps, translations, and publications he was responsible for, and the people who gathered the information on his behalf, are frequently mentioned.

Colin Mackenzie began collecting the drawing in 1783, when he first arrived in India at the age of 29, and was appointed as an engineer in the Madras Army (plate 2) . He was employed as a surveyor in Madras Presidency, and it was primarily during his extensive travels conducting military surveys from the 1780s until 1814 that he amassed the drawing, maps, and manuscripts that now constitute the Mackenzie Collection. His duties changed on numerous occasions during the late eighteenth century; in 1799 he was put in charge of the survey of Mysore. This monumental survey was the largest of its kind to be implemented by the East India Company until the Great Trigonometrically survey began in the 1817. The Mysore Survey led to Mackenzie’s promotion as Survey General of Mardras in 1810, and in 1815 he became the first Surveyor or General of India and, as a result, his employment became less field based. He continued to travel and had an atelier of assistants based in Calcutta who collated and copied his existing collections, as well as those gathered by his contemporaries and assistants. Many of his surveys and antiquarian investigations took place in areas that were previously unexplored by Europeans.

For most researchers looking at the Mackenzie Collection today, the importance of the drawing lies in their beings unique pictorial documents which accompany a vast collection of written and cartographic material gathered in the early colonial period of Indian history. The variety of themes covered by the drawing show how one man struggled to understand and explain the history and culture of another part of the world both to a himself and to a wider audience. His prime motivation was a personal desire to convey knowledge about Asian history and culture to his colleagues and to the British public. In a letter dated 28 February 1809, Mackenzie explained the purpose behind assembling his vast collections: ‘It would be my ambition to carry home with me [a] body of materials that I conceive may be very interesting to the Public if properly brought forward, and it is my object now in remaining a few years longer [in India] to devote my chief attention to it’. In other correspondence Mackenzie discussed his intention to write books articles, and to contribute to his colleagues’ research by sending them useful information.

Mackenzie began assembling his collections almost immediately after his arrival India in 1783, and continued collecting and organizing them right until his death in 1821. He was a man with a clear mission to help others study and learn about India. This is precisely why scholars, almost 200 years after his death, now revisiting the Mackenzie Collection. It is recognized as one of the most important archival sources in existence about the late pre-colonial and the early colonial periods of Indian history. It is also the key to understanding how one person (and possibly others) gathered information about India. Before embarking on a detailed study of the Mackenzie drawings, one needs to consider the historical and biographical circumstances behind Mackenzie’s decision to work in India as a surveyor, let alone to stay in India for four consecutive decades without once returning to his native Scotland. Second one needs to establish how Mackenzie was perceived by himself and others. Finally, one needs an idea of how a man who began his career as an ensign in the Madras Engineers managed to expand his time in India into an elaborate project to gather information, and how this project was not possible without the help of both Indian and European assistants. Without his team of surveyors, draftsmen, copyists, and translators Mackenzie would have never been able to accumulate his vast collections.

Very little is known about Colin Mackenzie’s life before he came to Indian. He was born in 1754 on the Island of Lewis, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. His father, Murdoch Mackenzie, was the postmaster of Stornoway. Murdoch and his wife Barbara had three other children, Mary, Alexander, and Kenneth. Alexander travelled to the West Indies in the late 1760s, and returned to Scotland ‘after an unsuccessful sojourn of 33 years’ in around 1800. Mary remained in Lewis, never married, and was the only person in the immediate family to outlive Colin. As for Colin’s younger brother, Kenneth, it is believed that he went to Canada.

Little is known about Colin, Mackenzie’s early education. Generally speaking, we know that Scotland during the mid to late eighteenth century emerged as an important center of learning. In the late seventeenth century Scotland’s Presbyterian Church established what is today known as the ‘Kirk’ based education system. Its aim was to ensure that all Scots should be able to read the Bible, but the ingenious side effect of his system was the elevation of Scotland’s literacy levels to one of the highest in Europe. By the mid to late eighteenth century, an educated Scottish middle class had emerged which, thanks to the intellectual ferment of the Scottish Enlightenment, was moving beyond the constraints of the Presbyterian Church. Scotland’s two key universities, at Edinburgh and Glasgow, became increasingly accessible to a new, mobile class of young men. Colin Mackenzie spent his formative years in Scotland under these unique social circumstances. Although there is no evidence that Mackenzie attended university before he went to India, it appears that his keen interest in mathematics, and the people who he met through this interest, led him to India.

Mackenzie departed for India in 1783 at the age of 29 as a volunteer in the 78th Sea forth Highlanders. Soon after his arrival he became an engineer in the Madras Army. His admission into the East India Company’s service was no doubt arranged through Lord Francis Humberstone Mackenzie, the Earl of Sea forth. The contrast between Scotland and India must have been overwhelming and the melancholy he felt for his native place is reflected in some of the letters he wrote to his friends. In one of these letters, written on 9 October 1890 to John Leyden, Mackenzie revealed his longing for his Scottish home and his knowledge of Gaelic.

Sometimes of a morning, walking from an impressive dream of past days, a clearer and stronger recollection of scenes far distant, and of persons long parted, appear to the ‘minds eye’ with a feeling that on no other occasions I can approach…I am therefore not surprised that ‘the early calm hour’ has been in all ages dear to poets and to sages-Several instances of this kind will occur to you in my early Native Dialect I fondly recollect

Nhaum dho duaska ar maiddhin

S’mi Aiuanta er m’Challee

S aun u yuindram mi’ caidrrilh

An’t Seiod uhoum

But how the deuce has this Gaelic Effusion stolen in upon me? I was going to write [to] you on business, to Calcutta in Bengal in the Eastern Indies, and here I find myself in the midst of the Lewes Forest, wailing the absence of Heroes and Chieftains long since departed.

Amongst the maps in the Mackenzie Collection, there is one showing the Island of Lewis. Its placement amongst the vast spread of maps from India makes it a poignant reminder of Mackenzie’s distant home, which he was never to return to.

Mackenzie wrote to his British colleagues throughout his career in India, revealing his hopes and longing to return to scotland before his death. In particular, he communicated regularly with his patron, the Earl of seaforth, about a variety of matters. In a letter he wrote to Seaforth in 1796 he revealed why he stayed on in India during the early part of his career without returning to Britain on furlough.

My appointment is handsome, exceeds my expences and I have been able to save a little against a rainy day in the West Highlands, but not enough to induce me to go home while I have health, tho’ve now have obtained permission for 3 years leave on our pay…I am not however of a turn of mind to despair and still hope to have the pleasure of seeing you at Brahan Castle, tho scarcely on the top of a hill in the Lewis Forest…

Money was a common theme in Mackenzie ‘s letters. He was clearly worth more to his family while earning a salary in India than he would have been in Scotland. He sent money home regularly, as is evidenced by numerous remittance letters to Thomas Anderson, his solicitor in London. For example, in a letter dated 1793 we learn of the following disbursements to his family.

To be paid to the following friends of Captain Mackenzie at Stornoway

His father Murdoch Mackenzie Senior…50

His sister Mary Mackenzie…25

His aunt Mrs. Wyllie…10

To be applied as Mr. Mackenzie of Seaforth thinks fit to pay his debts or repair the house and it is requested in the event of any casual charge or of the deaths of relations that Seaforth will direct the distribution of the sums as he may think best adverting to render their situation as comfortable as these can make them…35

Besides being Mackenzie’s patron and canfidante, the Earl of Seaforth was also the landlord of the Isle of Lewis. Mackenzie’s family must have been in debt to Seaforth, hence the disbursement of 35 mentioned at the end of the letter. The condition of the Mackenzie family’s finances is not clear, but no doubt the money that Mackenzie sent back home was badly needed.

In another letter, addressed to the Earl of Seafroth in 1796, one month after the above remittance was posted to London, Mackenzie mentions his father’s embarrassment regarding some unspecified financial difficulties.

Having just made a remittance to my friends the Andersons in the City I have requested them to remit you one hundred pounds for the use of my father and relation in the Lewis (directing them however to deduct from it any thing they may have remitted him this year) May I then request the favor of you to manage this business and direct some of your agents there to pay the money at sated periods or at once as may be most convenient-I mean that my father should have Forty Pounds my sister Fifteen and my Aunt Mrs. Wyile Five; the remainder to be disbursed in such manner as may be judged by yourself most convenient for my father, as I know he was a good deal embarrassed by the difficulties he has unavoidably labored under for some years I could wish it were applied to pay off some of the more urgent claims as I hope to discharge the whole in the time.

One can infer form this letter that Mackenzie’s family had accumulated depts Which the Seaforth family had helped to pay off. This financial situation could have only made it more difficult for Mackenzie to return to Scotland . With such financial obligations at hand to a man as important as the Earl of Seaforth, it is no surprise that Mackenzie remained in India.

Besides finances, Mackenzie was torn between returning to Scotland to be with his family and staying in India to increase his collections and continue pursing private gain. In a letter to Henry Traill, a London based East India agent, Mackenzie wrote about an opportunity he passed up to return home in 1799 because ‘my engagement in this work, and the highest gratification I feel in its success and Investigations encourage me to persevere to end…My historical investigations are exceedingly gratifying’. During the Mysore Survey, Mackenzie also wrote about his ‘foolish wish of revisiting my native country while yet an old father of 80 years, a brother just returned from the West Indies… and other relations dear to me’ were still alive. Even when he was based in Calcutta, long after parents and brother had died, Mackenzie was still taking about returning to Scotland. In a letter he wrote from Calcutta in 1819 he describes how, in spite of his promotion to Surveyor General of India in 1815, he was apprehensive about returning to Scotland because of the condition of his finances.

My removal from Madras tho’ highly creditable has not improved my fortune; on the contrary these five years made great sacrifices by the change in forming and removing five different establishments. My house at Madras that cost me 10,000 Pagodas has not been rented till December last, and I cannot get it immediately disposed of so on the whole my finances have been injured by this honourable selection by my honourable masters. Our establishment here you will conceive is expensive; we however continue to keep within my income, but at my time of life I ought to be thinking of returning to Britain….

Added to this, by the time he had moved to Calcutta his health was failing, he was married to a women who had never lived outside of Asia, and was in the thick of organizing his vast collection with the help of a large team of assistants, many of whom he regarded as family.


List of Illustrationsvi
1The Survey of the Nizam of Hyderabad's Dominions:1792 to 179921
2Historians and Orientalists55
3Trades and Occupations: The People of Mysore78
6The Later surveys:1811 to 1821190
Biographical Notes on Draftsmen and Copyists Employed by Colin Mackenzie240

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