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  • Unearthing the Past to Forge the Future: Colin Mackenzie, the early colonial state and the comprehensive survey of India by Tobias Wolffhardt
  • Thomas Simpson
Unearthing the Past to Forge the Future: Colin Mackenzie, the early colonial state and the comprehensive survey of India
By Tobias Wolffhardt, trans. Jane Rafferty. New York; Oxford: Berghahn, 2018.

The expansive collections, writings, and images that Colin Mackenzie (1754—1821) produced during his four-decade imperial career present historians of early colonial India with opportunities and challenges. Many recent scholars use Mackenzie’s sprawling archive as a privileged vantage point from which to take in the expansion of British rule in southern India, yet the Scotsman eludes easy categorisation. According to Bernard Cohn and Nicholas Dirks, Mackenzie’s sympathetic approach to the people and places of Madras’s hinterlands rendered his work relatively useless for administrative purposes.1 For Peter Robb and Phillip Wagoner, by contrast, Mackenzie adapted local structures to instantiate influential modes of colonial power and knowledge.2

Unearthing the Past befits its subject in being founded on admirably deep and fastidious research. Drawing on wide-ranging material that covers Mackenzie’s whole life, Tobias Wolffhardt mediates between the competing versions of Mackenzie in the extant historiography and develops some important new insights. The opening chapter of the main body of the book contains innovative material, demonstrating how Mackenzie’s first twenty-nine years in the Western Isles of Scotland mattered to his later work in India. His time as Comptroller of Customs at Stornoway instilled a commitment to scrupulous writing and archiving practices, while his experience of the brutal imposition of economic and social change in the Highlands underpinned a preference for more culturally sensitive and incremental forms of “improvement.”

The following two chapters consider Mackenzie’s development during his sixteen years in southern India prior to starting the decade-long survey of Mysore, for which he was primarily renowned, in 1799. Wolffhardt convincingly positions Mackenzie not as someone driven by idiosyncratic and fixed intellectual passions, but a man of his time, place and interactions in South Asia. He had to build a long-term career as the East India Company’s rule became more formal and opportunities to make a quick fortune through private trade diminished. His learned interests, meanwhile, were shaped by a tight circle of administrator-scholars in Madras and, increasingly, by the Indians on whom he relied in conducting survey fieldwork.

Wolffhardt’s examination in Chapters Four, Five and Six of Mackenzie’s work in Mysore is thorough and deserves to become the standard account of the survey, even if his focus on Mackenzie’s personal and institutional wranglings leaves space for further work on practices in the field. The analysis of the vital issue of the dynamics between Mackenzie and his interlocutors is comprehensive. Although drawing conclusions similar to Wagoner’s and Robb’s about the essential role of Indian intellectual elites, Wolffhardt goes further in focusing on how Mackenzie rooted the Mysore survey in the extant spatial structure of parganas (sub-districts). By privileging a form of territorial organisation he understood to have been established long before the Mughals, Mackenzie attempted to order his data into what Wolffhardt terms a “comprehensive research aim… based not on a mathematized observation of the globe, but on the historical geography of a cultural region” (158). This is among the most compelling and original claims of Unearthing the Past, not only deepening our understanding of Mackenzie but also highlighting that survey sciences in early colonial India were oriented to matters of human history as much as to spatial abstraction and fiscal extraction.

The book’s final two chapters deal, respectively, with Mackenzie’s vast collection of objects, manuscripts and archaeological inscriptions, and his tenure during the final decade of his life as Surveyor General of Madras and, finally, of India. Wolffhardt persuasively shows that Mackenzie’s collection was of a piece with his “historicist orientation” (236), which grounded colonial administration in ancient rights and laws while acknowledging that India’s past was socially and politically dynamic. Mackenzie’s time as Surveyor General is dealt with somewhat hastily: more details on key projects from this era, especially the Atlas...


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