THE British Empire may have been defunct for decades, save its septic presence in the deluded mindsets of many English exceptionalists and comparatively few Scottish Unionists, but it can nevertheless never be denied that Scots played more than their fair share in developing and maintaining that empire.

I have shown in past columns how Scottish soldiers, engineers, doctors and administrators were key people in the empire project from its inception and, in the latter half of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century, Scots achieved high positions and great influence in the military in particular.

The life of Colonel Sir Colin MacKenzie (1754-1821) was in some ways a typical story of a Scottish lad who rose from the ranks to become the first surveyor general of India, exhibiting great bravery as soldier and considerable genius as an administrator before his death on May 8, 1821. The bicentenary of his death on Saturday was hardly commemorated anywhere, which was a great pity.

For there was nothing typical about MacKenzie, who almost single-handedly changed the way people viewed India due to his mapping of the country, his rewriting of the history of the Asian sub-continent, the discoveries he made in India and elsewhere and the massive collection of antiquities that he found or traced across the vastness of India.

The National:

The MacKenzie Collection of documents, coins, and archaeological remains is often calculated to be the largest such historical collection in the world.

He is credited with discovering much of the history of the Indian religion of Jainism and certainly was the first Western expert to find and describe the magnificent statue of Gommateshwara, the tallest monolithic statue in the world carved out of a single block of granite (below).

The National:

For that alone MacKenzie should be more honoured as the 57ft (17m) statue should really be classed as one of the Wonders of the World – it was created and located on Vindhyagiri at Shravanabelagola in the state of Karnataka in south west India and is so tall that it can be seen from 18 miles (30 km) away.

MacKenzie was born in Stornoway in 1754 as the second son of a merchant, Murdoch MacKenzie, who was also the first postmaster in the largest town on the Isle of Lewis.

He had the good fortune to be taught by the renowned tutor Alexander Anderson, who also taught Sir Alexander Mackenzie, the great explorer of North America after whom the Mackenzie River and Bay is named. Colin MacKenzie would write later in life: “I must attribute some part of the early seeds of passion for discovery and acquisition of knowledge to ideas first implanted in my native isle.”

Due to the family connection to Lewis’s then owner, Kenneth Mackenzie, the Earl of Seaforth, Colin MacKenzie gained the post of local customs officer for Stornoway while still a teenager and served in the customs for 10 years before taking a ship to India, never to return to his native town. He very much wanted to go to India, having become intrigued by the Hindu culture and particularly their mathematics which included logarithms.

David M Blake’s excellent piece of research for the British Museum discloses how Sir Alexander Johnston, in evidence to a Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Affairs of the East India Company in 1832, stated: “As a very young man he [MacKenzie] was much patronised, on account of his mathematical knowledge, by the late Lord Seaforth and my late grandfather, Francis, the fifth Lord Napier of Merchiston.

“He was for some time employed by the latter, who was about to write a life of his ancestor, John Napier of Merchiston, inventor of logarithms.”

To head off to India in search of its people’s use of logarithms might have seemed a bit mad to his folk on Stornoway, but it is likely Lord Napier paid for his journey and certainly encouraged MacKenzie in his studies. Sadly, the fifth Earl of Napier died in England in 1773, leaving MacKenzie at a loss as to what to do next.

THE Earl of Seaforth intervened and gained MacKenzie a commission in corps of engineers of the army of the East India Company based at Madras, now known as Chennai. MacKenzie visited Hester Johnston, daughter of Lord Napier, and she introduced him to local Brahmins, the priests, teachers and protectors of the Hindu religion regarded as the most respected class of people in that religion.

He was instantly fascinated and resolved to research as much as he could of Indian history and culture. For the next 15 years, however, MacKenzie lived the life of a soldier and was very, very good at it, too. He set to work surveying territories which the East India Company controlled, or at least thought it did as several Indian leaders rebelled against the company’s regime.

His “engineering” largely consisted of blowing up fortifications and making maps of most of southern India, an invaluable contribution to the British campaigns. He fought in the Third Mysore War of 1790-92 against the forces of Tipu Sultan, a war that ended with the Treaty of Seringapatam.

MacKenzie’s bravery and skills as a mapper and surveyor saw him rise from Ensign to Colonel in rapid succession, especially after playing a vital role in the capture of Pondicherry, a French enclave, in 1793 and the taking of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1795-96 in which Scottish general James Stuart led the invading British forces.

The following year, Mackenzie was back surveying and found a ruined ancient temple of the Jain people whose religion is one of the oldest in the world and which is still practised today – MacKenzie made it his mission to study their way of life. James Stuart and another Scottish general, David Baird, were involved in the Siege of Seringapatam where MacKenzie fought alongside Colonel Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington.

It has been reported that Wellesley’s caution in attack was viewed as cowardice in some quarters, but the claim was rejected because MacKenzie was with him and no one could gainsay the reputation of the Scot “whose bravery and sangfroid in action are proverbial.”

Many years later at Waterloo, Wellington is recorded saying that he missed MacKenzie, having never known “a more zealous, a more diligent or a more useful officer”.

With Tipu Sultan dead after the siege, almost all of India was peaceable and MacKenzie began his great work of mapping and surveying 40,000 square miles of the country. It took him nine years as is recounted in his seven volumes of intricate and detailed memoirs of the survey.

All the while he was collecting items for his studies, but he never did learn the native languages and dialects. For that he relied on the team of Brahmin scholars that accompanied him everywhere, translating what the local people told them and finding and translating documents, some of which were hundreds of years old.

Professor TV Mahalingam quoted in Sandeep Balakrishna’s book Seventy Years of Secularism published in 2018, shows what MacKenzie was up against: “It is necessary to recall the contemporary climate of [Mackenzie’s] times. To the Occident, the Orient was a dark continent inhabited by semi savages with no civilisation or culture.

The National:

‘ASTUDY of Orientology was the hobby of the eccentric. What was accepted as normal was to join the East India Company, make easy money by means fair or foul and return home to live in comfort or participate in politics on the security of the fortune made in India.

“That a few of the company’s servants did not tread this golden path to fortune, but chose on their own, prompted by the love of learning, ‘to discover the east’ for the benefit of ... the east itself was a lucky accident of great historical value. Mackenzie was a pioneer in his field.

“There was no precedent for his special field of research into the antiquities of India ... he stood alone. The results of his work were a topographical survey of more than 40,000 square miles, a general map of India and many provincial maps, a valuable memoir in seven volumes containing a narrative of the survey ... of historical and antiquarian interest.”

In the same book Robert W Wink says that no collection “matched the enormous privately funded venture by Colonel Colin Mackenzie. His teams of Maratha Brahmin scholars begged, bought or borrowed, and copied, from village heads, virtually every manuscript of value they could finally acquired. Collections so acquired, reflecting the civilisation of South India, manuscripts in every language, became a lasting legacy – something still being explored.”

On being made the first Surveyor General of India, MacKenzie’s first thoughts were for his Indian scholars: “I am in doubt, and hesitating, whether I should carry them with me to Calcutta (Kolkata). Without this, my recourse to them would be shut up and as translations are continually in hand, their removal without having natives of this part near me would be equally inconvenient.”

He got his way and carried on collecting until his death.

In a letter to Sir Alexander Johnston which MacKenzie intended to be used as the basis for a biography or obituary, Mackenzie himself lists his greatest achievements (I have preserved his spellings): “1, The discovery of the Jaina religion and philosophy, and its distinction from that of Budd’ha. 2, The different ancient sects of religion in this country, and their subdivisions – the Lingavanta, the Saivam and Pandaram Matts, &c. &c.

“3, The nature and use of the Sassanams, and inscriptions on stone and copper, and their utility in throwing light on the important subject of Hindu tenures; confirmed by upwards of 3000 authentic inscriptions collected since 1800, hitherto always overlooked.

“4, The design and nature of the monumental stones and trophies found in various parts of the country from Cape Comorin to Delhi, called Virakal and Maastikal, which illustrate the ancient customs of the early inhabitants, and, perhaps, of the early western nations.

“5. The sepulchral tumuli, mounds, and barrows of the early tribes, similar to those found throughout the continent of Asia and of Europe, illustrated by drawings, and various other notices of antiquities.”

He leaves out one of his most staggering collections – that of dozens of coins dating from the days of the Roman Empire which proved that the people of India traded with the Romans for centuries. These coins are now in British Museum.

In his paper on the British Museum website, David M Blake states that the Orientalist Horace Hayman Wilson volunteered to undertake the cataloguing of the collection: “There were 1568 literary manuscripts, a further 2070 Mocal tracts, 8076 inscriptions, and 2159 translations, plus 79 plan, 2630 drawings, 6218 coins, and 146 images and other antiquities.”

MacKenzie is remembered on his home island where there is a small monument to him. Frank G Thompson, writing for the Stornoway Historical Society records: “For his sister, Mary Mackenzie, he sent home the money to build ‘Carn House’ on South Beach Street, and on his death bequeathed her his entire estate.

“She, in turn, was known to disburse sums of money to those less fortunate than herself. Near her grave in Ui Church cemetery, is an inscribed memorial paying tribute to Colin MacKenzie and his ‘indefatigable researches into the ancient history, literature and antiquities’ of India.”