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

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

Scottish historian, essayist, man of letters and social critic, for a while a close friend of Francis Jeffrey and later one of the pivotal figures on the Victorian literary scene.

BORN in modest circumstances in rural Scotland, Carlyle was educated at Edinburgh University and, after school teaching, earned his living by private tutoring and freelance writing.  An early intention for the ministry was soon abandoned, and though Carlyle was to be revered as a force for good and for the value of a personal religious life, his own religious position remained ambivalent.  Passing through interests in science and mathematics, he found his first literary inspiration in German literature (he was a close correspondent with Goethe) and then in the social and political history of his own country.  His substantial histories of the French Revolution (1837) and of Frederick the Great (1858-65) established his international reputation as historian, yet his wide interests and prolific output defy simple summary.

Early journey work produced translations of both parts of Wilhelm Meister (1824-7) and a Life of Schiller (1825), but a more authentic voice emerged in two seminal essays, known as ‘Signs of the Times’ (1829) and ‘Characteristics’ (1831), both of them first published in the Edinburgh Review.  With these, Carlyle brought into a focus a penetrating analysis of the effects of the industrial revolution of his own lifetime on society and on the lives of those who worked in the new factories.  ‘Mechanical’ forces impinging on lives which for centuries had been lived according to essentially rural and traditional patterns brought about the changes highlighted in these essays, a theme he further developed in the wonderfully experimental Sartor Resartus (1834), which explores the possibilities of fiction to represent a consciousness caught by these mechanical forces, struggling with religious doubt, and energised by the transcendental forces Carlyle read about in the romantic writers of Germany.  With an incisive and memorable style, Carlyle made many converts (he was widely translated) and his conversational powers were rightly celebrated.

After he stopped writing for the Edinburgh, a steady output of essays continued while Carlyle wrote (always slowly and with difficulty) Chartism (1840), On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) (originally given as lectures), Past and Present (1843), Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches (1845) and Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850).  His political views, always idiosyncratic and often unpredictable, were initially seen as radical by cautious contemporaries like Jeffrey. (Later they would shift steadily to the right, as Carlyle saw in Victorian society an erosion of personal and public values, and in ‘Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question’ (1853) and ‘Shooting Niagara’ (1867) he became openly anti-abolitionist and racist, alienating many of his earlier admirers.)  Carlyle never lost sight of the world-view of his parents and his early years in Scotland, longing for the certainties of a God-centred Universe even while raging at the decline of his own society.

Jeffrey befriended both Carlyle and his wife, Jane Welsh Carlyle (1801-66) – the two of them produced the nineteenth century’s most distinguished and voluminous collection of letters – in the closing years of Jeffrey’s editorship, when the couple were living in Edinburgh and before they moved to Craigenputtoch and thence to London, where they eventually settled. Carlyle was soon conscripted to review German literature (for which Jeffrey expressed a contempt), which gave the Edinburgh its first German specialist and Carlyle the opportunity to reach the wide audience enjoyed by the Review.

Ian Campbell, University of Edinburgh

John Bentley (1757-1824),

mathematician and astronomer.

BENTLEY was one of a number of mathematicians fascinated – and in Bentley’s case, frustrated – by the newly translated works of Hindu astronomy, such as the Surya Siddhanta, made available by Sir William Jones, founder of the Asiatic Society. Jones’s decipering of Sanskrit opened up the vast extent of the Hindu cosmos, and evidence from ancient astronomical record-keeping challenged the Mosaic story of creation. Incensed by what he saw as a combination of cavalier mathematics and blasphemy, Bentley attempted to prove that the postulated age of these texts was a gross exaggeration, taking particular exception to Edinburgh reviewer John Playfair’s estimate that such texts dated back to 4300 BC: ‘By his [Playfair’s] attempt to uphold the antiquity of Hindu books against absolute facts, he thereby supports all those horrid abuses and impositions found in them, under the pretended sanction of antiquity. Nay, his aim goes still deeper, for by the same means he endeavours to overturn the Mosaic account, and sap the very foundation of our religion: for if we are to believe in the antiquity of Hindu books, as he would wish us, then the Mosaic account is all a fable, or a fiction’. The review of Bentley’s ‘On the Hindoo Systems of Astronomy, and their Connexion with History in Antient and Modern Times’ (ER 10:455-71) – not by Playfair as some assumed – was harsh. Bentley’s key work, A Historical View of the Hindu Astronomy, published posthumously in 1825, contains a preface challenging at length the Edinburgh’s reviews of his works.