One of the British Library’s most iconic art works is a small oil painting of Colin Mackenzie (1754-1821), the first Surveyor General of India, standing alongside three Indian men. The identity of the Indian men is lost to us today, but the level of attention and detail that Thomas Hickey used to paint their faces shows that this picture was intended to make them recognisable as distinct individuals.
Colin Mackenzie conducted extensive research, mainly in the South of India, during his four-decade career in Asia. The immense collection he assembled is the largest archive of information from South Asia to ever be gathered by an individual. However, to assemble such a vast collection, Mackenzie relied heavily on the assistance of educated, multilingual Indians who performed an astonishing variety of tasks for him. Known as “pandits”, they mainly worked as translators, but during field surveys they also collected manuscripts and transcribed oral histories.
Another task performed by these Indian assistants was to walk ahead of Mackenzie and his survey team to announce their impending arrival. They would brief the inhabitants at these places of the arrival of foreigners, and the intentions behind Mackenzie’s investigations. The earliest documentary evidence of an Indian assistant working for Mackenzie appears to record one such advance foray in 1788. It is from a set of four maps by an anonymous Telugu artist. Mackenzie labelled one of these maps with the caption, “Harcara Sketch of Guntoor obtained or observed by one of my Harcaras”. (WD2673) The word harkara means a messenger, informant or spy.
Mackenzie’s Indian assistants should not be viewed merely as passive employees. Their role was to explain Indian knowledge and culture to their European colonisers, and they understandably used this position to their advantage. In particular, it was possible for them to increase the social status of the communities they came from by conflating their importance in the documents they translated and interpreted.
Colin Mackenzie openly acknowledged the contribution of the Indian men who assisted with his research. It is impossible to say how many Indian assistants he employed during his long career in Asia, from the 1780s to 1821. In 1808 alone he was employing at least 12 Indian assistants. Mackenzie regarded many of these men as family, and in one version of his last will and testament he bequeathed a tenth of his estate to two of his Indian assistants. As for the painting by Thomas Hickey, Mackenzie chose to have his portrait painted alongside three Indian men, thus reflecting their central role in creating his collections.
The portrait of Colin Mackenzie with his three Indian assistants is on exhibition in Stornoway’s Lews Castle Museum until 18 November 2017. Curated as part of An Lanntair’s Purvai Project, “Collector Extraordinaire” celebrates the life and work of Mackenzie, one of Stornoway’s most famous natives. The Purvai Project aims to inspire artists and performers by looking at Colin Mackenzie’s work. But how should we view his Indian assistants?
This article first appeared on the British Library’s Untold Lives blog.