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

Sir Charles Warre Malet (1753-1815)

East India Company servant and diplomat.

BORN in Somerset, the son of a rector, Malet joined the East India Company at an early age and filled a number of posts, including the charge of an embassy to the Mughal Emperor and residency at Cambray, a post he filled from 1774 until 1785, when he was made Company resident to the court of the Peshwa at Poona. An unrivalled expert on western India, Malet was an expansionist, arguing for an increased EI Company presence – and, therefore, British presence – throughout India. He believed Britain had a duty to spread ‘liberal justice’ through a country he saw as ravaged by conflicts between petty robber-barons. Such ideas influenced the future decisions of figures such as Cornwallis and Wellesley.

Malet was made baronet in 1791 for brokering a difficult triple alliance between the East India Company, the Peshwa at Poona, and the Nizam of Hyderabad – no easy feat, as Malet had to diffuse tension between the Nizam and the Peshwa. This alliance enabled the defeat of Tipu Sultan and cemented Malet’s reputation. After a stint on the council at Bombay and as acting governor for the Presidency, Malet returned to England and married Susanna, daughter of the painter, James Wales, whom he assisted in publishing – particularly Wales’s work on the Ellora caves. Malet’s own description of the caves was published in Asiatic Researches in 1801. He died at Bath in 1815.

Elias Greig and William Christie, University of Sydney


Francis Buchanan [later Hamilton] (1762-1829)

botanist, surgeon, and East India Company man.

BORN in Perthshire into the minor aristocracy, Buchanan took an MA from Glasgow in 1779 and an MD from Edinburgh University in 1783. Hoping to pursue a career as a botanist, Buchanan joined the East India Company, spending a decade as a ship’s surgeon before securing the post of Assistant Surgeon for Bengal in 1794, where he participated in Britain’s first political mission to Ava and collected a substantial Burmese herbarium along the way.

After the fall of Mysore and victory over Tipu Sultan, Wellesley appointed Buchanan to survey the newly conquered territory. Buchanan collected a multitude of new plant specimens and continued his botanising as a member of the British Embassy to Kathmandu in 1802. By 1804, Buchanan had been appointed Wellesley’s personal surgeon and made director of the Natural History Project of India, an enterprise that would attempt to classify and illustrate all the animals and birds of Southern Asia. Buchanan returned to London in 1805 and in 1806 was made a fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1807, Buchanan was promoted to Surgeon and returned to India, embarking on a topographical survey of Bengal that would occupy most of his time in India. In 1814, he was appointed superintendent of the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta, but only a year later ill health forced a return to Scotland, where he inherited his mother’s estates and changed his name to Hamilton. By the time of his death in 1829 he was chief of Clan Buchanan.

Elias Greig and William Christie, University of Sydney