Colin Mackenzie: Collector Extraordinaire

Portrait of Colin Mackenzie with three Indian assistants by Thomas Hickey, 1816. (F13) Reproduced by permission of the British Library.

Stornoway’s Museum nan Eilean, in Scotland, may well be hosting its most eclectic exhibition to date. On the walls, there are watercolour paintings and drawings depicting people, places and monuments in India and Java. Next to these are stone sculptures, ancient coins, bronze statues, and even a small oil painting, all of which have been borrowed from the British Museum, the British Library and the Victoria & Albert Museum.  Why? They are part of an extraordinary collection that once belonged to Colin Mackenzie.

First Surveyor General of India

All of these borrowed items share this one astonishing link. Colin Mackenzie, the first Surveyor General of India, and a native of Stornoway, was responsible for collecting them. He left Scotland for India at the age of 29, and although he never returned home, thousands of the manuscripts, pictures and objects that he collected in Asia were transported to London in the early 19th century.

The Exhibition: Collector Extraordinaire

Collector Extraordinaire tells the remarkable story of Colin Mackenzie’s life’s work, to gather information about South and Southeast Asia.  It is the first ever exhibition to celebrate the legacy of this formidable Stornoway native. He was an employee of the East India Company, and thus served an Imperialist, London based corporation.

His role was to serve the Company’s army as a military surveyor, mapping territories where the East India Company spread its tendrils. However, the documentation he gathered extended far beyond this military agenda. His passion was to create an archive of information that would elucidate to his employers, and to the broader British public, what the people and places he encountered in Asia were like.

Customs Officer in Stornaway

The exhibition begins with a landscape of Stornoway, made in the late 18th century, approximately six years after Colin Mackenzie left for India. We know little about Mackenzie’s childhood and early adulthood, except that he worked as a Customs Officer in Stornoway, and he studied mathematics. His interest in mathematics appears to have been the catalyst behind his decision to travel to India, and once there, he journeyed to Madurai, where he hoped to help found a mathematics college. His interest in this rational, universal topic, and comparing the Indian and European approaches to it, may have sparked his broader interest in South Asian cultures.

Scotland and The Raj

Because Mackenzie was a military surveyor, one of his earliest resources for collecting information was himself. He was a trained draftsman, as were most of the other East India Company employees he worked with in the field. The main aim of these draftsmen was to generate pictures that were used to identify territories and make maps. Mackenzie availed of these skills to create pictures on a far broader range of topics.

Mackenzie Drawings in Collections in Britain and India

Over 17,000 Mackenzie Drawings are today in the British Library, and many others are in the Asiatic Society of Bengal’s library in Kolkata. The drawings selected for the exhibition, showing people, customs, monuments and topographical views, give a taste for the vast range of topics Mackenzie chose to investigate.

The earliest pictures from the Mackenzie Collection were by Mackenzie himself.  His sketch of a Fakir’s Hut taken in May 1784, the year he arrived in India, is a perfect example of one such drawing.  The background shows a rocky hill where a holy man lived, while the foreground shows two men, one Indian and the other European, greeting each other. Vignettes such as this, alluding to the mutual discovery of different cultures, were common in Mackenzie’s early pictures.

Notes written on the sketch indicate that Mackenzie intended for the picture to be copied out and painted in colour. This is what happened to many of his early drawings. Another picture in the exhibition shows a view of Charles Cornwallis’ armies marching through a hilly landscape on 26 February 1791 during the Third Mysore War. Although the drawing from which the finished watercolour is based is now missing, we know that it was copied out in colour by one of Mackenzie’s draftsmen in the early 19th century.

Lady Hood – One of Scotland’s Most Powerful Women

Not all the pictures he collected were gathered while conducting surveys. In 1814, Mackenzie played host to Mary Elizabeth Frederica Mackenzie, the daughter of Lord Seaforth Mackenzie, and the wife of Admiral Sir Samuel Hood. Lady Hood was the heir to the chieftaincy of Stornoway’s Mackenzie Clan, and was one of Scotland’s most powerful women. She asked Colin Mackenzie to accompany her on a tour of India’s Upper Provinces in 1814,
and unsurprisingly, Mackenzie documented many of the monuments they saw such as Sarnath Stupa and the Quwwat al Islam mosque at Delhi.

Mackenzie Sent Objects to East India Company’s New Museum

Although the drawings give a broad idea of the staggering number of topics that interested Colin Mackenzie, it is their juxtaposition alongside objects that really brings the exhibition to life. Mackenzie began his documentation project in the 1780s, then in the early 19th century, he expanded his collection habits from drawings and manuscripts to actual objects. One catalyst for this change was the East India Company’s decision to open a museum and library in its London premises on Leadenhall Street, dedicated to glorifying the Company’s exploits in Asia. Mackenzie decided to send objects to the Company’s new museum to draw attention to his extensive research.

Black Stone Sculpture of Parsvanatha

The largest of these objects was a black stone sculpture of Parsvanatha, the 23rd Tirthankara of Jainism. In 1806, Mackenzie removed it from Garsoppa, while he was conducting the Survey of Mysore. During that survey Mackenzie and his assistants meticulously documented the Jain religion through drawings and the writing down of oral histories. Sending a large Jain sculpture to East India House was a ploy to impress his masters in London, in the hope that they would recognise and financially support his work on topics such as Jainism. To ensure that the East India Company knew exactly who had sent the sculpture, Mackenzie carved ‘CMcK 1806’ into its back.

In the early 19th century, when Mackenzie had risen in the ranks and had more financial support, his research shifted towards historical discovery. In particular, he is remembered for his survey of the abandoned Buddhist Stupa at Amaravati in 1816-17. When he first discovered the stupa in the late 18th century, he mistakenly identified it as a Jain monument. When Mackenzie’s surveyors returned to the site 15 years later, they revealed that it was a Buddhist monument. Mackenzie arranged for at least seven of the sculpted stones unearthed at the site to be sent to Calcutta, one of which was then sent on to the museum at East India House in London. The exhibition includes a sculpted stone from Amaravati Stupa, but unfortunately it is not the one that Mackenzie sent to London.

Portrait of Colin Mackenzie

The famous portrait of Colin Mackenzie standing alongside three of his Indian assistants is also on display. It was painted at Madras in 1816 by Thomas Hickey, shortly before Mackenzie moved to Kolkata to take up the newly created post of Surveyor General of India. This diminutive painting is packed full of references to Mackenzie’s work. In particular, it shows that Mackenzie acknowledged and respected the contribution of the Indian men he employed as translators and informants.

Soon after the portrait’s completion, Mackenzie sent it to his friend Henry Trail, who worked in the City of London as a private banker. Trail had extensive business dealings with the East India Company, and presented the portrait to the Company’s Court of Directors for display in their library after Mackenzie’s death.

Group of Bronze Statues

The exhibition also features a group of bronze statues. These are all from the south of India, except for one that Mackenzie collected in Java, where he spent two years conducting surveys between 1811 and 1813. Bronze sculptures were not the only thing that he took away from Java. It was there that he met Petronella Bartels, the teenage girl who became his wife.

Drawings Commissioned in Java

Amongst the drawings Mackenzie commissioned in Java, many of which evoke the fusion between Javanese and European customs at that time, there is a picture of a young European woman smoking a hookah, who is believed to be Petronella. Mackenzie died in 1821, when Petronella was in her mid-20s.

Collection Sent to East India House

The East India Company purchased Mackenzie’s private collections from the young widow and sent them to East India House in London, where they were deposited in the Company’s library, under the watchful eye of Mackenzie’s portrait. Collector Extraordinaire celebrates Colin Mackenzie’s contribution towards Britain’s earliest understanding of Asian cultures.

Curated by Catherine Maclean of An Lanntair in partnership with the Museum nan Eilean, it is part of the Purvai Project, which aims to inspire Indian and Scottish artists to draw upon Colin Mackenzie’s legacy. In 2017, Britain’s colonial past must be viewed through critical eyes. Collector Extraordinaire gives the viewer an opportunity to ponder some of the historical and social connections between British, Gaelic and South Asian cultures.


Until 18 November, at Museum nan Eilean, Lews Castle, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides,