Colin McKenzie (1753-1821)

surveyor, military engineer, oriental enthusiast, and East India Company man.

BORN on the Isle of Lewis, the details of McKenzie’s education are uncertain, but he was reputedly a skilled mathematician and had a passion for the Orient. He joined the East India Company’s infantry in 1783 as an ensign before transferring to the engineers, where he distinguished himself in a number of sieges and expeditions, carrying out surveys when not on campaign. McKenzie was an invaluable officer during the war against Tipu Sultan. Contemporaries spoke of his remarkable coolness in battle and he was personally commended by Arthur Wellesley (later Lord Wellington).

After Mysore fell, McKenzie argued the need for a comprehensive survey as a crucial mechanism for efficient governance – by which he meant not just mapping, but also cataloguing and describing the physical, historical, and cultural features of the territory surveyed. Working with William Lambton (whose cartography was more efficient and accurate, but lacked the range and depth of McKenzie’s data), McKenzie surveyed Mysore from 1799 to 1808. He was appointed surveyor-general of Madras in 1810, and surveyor-general of India in 1815. The cultural and religious aspects of his surveys captured his interest most keenly, and McKenzie credited himself with the discovery of a number of subdivisions within Indian religion, including Jainism. He liaised with many native scholars, and brought back thousand of coins, artefacts, inscriptions, and descriptions of the landscapes and cultures he surveyed, published in Asiatic Researches and elsewhere. McKenzie died near Calcutta in 1821.

Elias Greig and William Christie, University of Sydney

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