‘The man who mapped India’

Colonel Colin Mackenzie

Colonel Colin Mackenzie

Colin Mackenzie was born in 1754 to an eminent Stornoway family. His father was the merchant Murdoch Mackenzie, the town’s first Postmaster and a founder member of Lodge Fortrose.

Colin more than lived up to his family’s expectation, pursuing a distinguished military career and later becoming Surveyor-General of all India and earning a place in history as one of its greatest explorers and archivists.

Colin Mackenzie was lucky enough to receive his education from an Alexander Anderson who was reputed to be a brilliant tutor of the sciences and mathematics. The man must indeed have had something inspirational to offer, for another pupil of his at that time, Alexander Mackenzie also went on to achieve fame and glory as an explorer. Colin recorded Anderson’s influence, saying ‘I must, however, attribute some part of the early seeds of passion for discovery and acquisition of knowledge to ideas first implanted in my native isle’.

‘The man who mapped India’ – Colonel Colin Mackenzie’s work to preserve and record the antiquities of India is still recognised today.

In his early twenties, Colin was employed as an Inspector of Customs in Stornoway. In 1782, he began work with Lord Napier of Merchiston who was, at that time, engaged in preparing a biography of his distinguished ancestor, John Napier, the inventor of logarithms (and the decimal point! Such is fame!). The post offered him his first taste of Eastern culture, researching Indian mathematics and the Hindu system of logarithms, and provided him with the experience and qualifications he would need for his next role.

At the age of 28, he joined the East India Company and, by the end of 1783, Colin Mackenzie was in India where he was to spend the rest of his life.

Armed with letters of introduction, he made his way up the career ladder of the company, starting as an Ensign of Engineers and later being promoted to Lieutenant, before finishing up as Colonel in 1819. His abilities as both an engineer and a soldier were widely recognised and he is affectionately described in the history books as ‘the man who mapped India’.

Whenever time allowed some relaxation from his heavy workload, Mackenzie turned his attention to his true passion – the ancient history and artefacts of India. Manuscripts, books, coins, images, carved stonework and other works of art were collected and studied to gain greater insights into the Eastern mind. The significance of his work was described in one statement: ‘…… our knowledge of the literature and early history of Southern India is almost entirely due to the MacKenzie manuscripts.’

After his death, much of his collection was sent to London where it is still available for those who care to search among the archives of both the British Museum and the British Library. Enough remained in India to form a considerable corpus of native material which is still studied and valued today.

Carn House

Carn House

Colin Mackenzie was never to return to his native Lewis and died on May 8th, 1821, near Calcutta, aged 68 years. It was said of him: ‘His disinterested friendship, high sense of honour and singularly mild disposition endeared him to all who knew him. The Highlands may justly consider him one of their brightest ornaments, for to the qualities of a gallant soldier and gentlemen, he united the attainments of a man of profound science’.

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.

Frank G. Thompson


Painting – © Royal Asiatic Society of Gt. Britain and Ireland.
Image provided by National Galleries of Scotland

Photograph – Carn House, South Beach