Unearthing the Past to Forge the Future

Caleb Simmons

Unearthing the Past to Forge the Future is a remarkable biography of Colin Mackenzie, the surveyor and collector responsible for the Survey of Mysore and the Mackenzie Collection. Tobias Wolffhardt’s work thoroughly reconstructs Mackenzie’s life based primarily on Mackenzie’s own correspondences while interweaving theoretical discussions of knowledge production, historiography, cartography, and surveying techniques. Jane Rafferty’s translation of this award-winning German work is a pure delight to read and should be on the reading list for anyone working on colonial South India.

Unearthing Mackenzie’s Past

Unearthing the Past is a proper biography of Colin Mackenzie beginning with his childhood and formative experiences in Scotland prior to his Indian career in Chapter 1. Wolffhardt does not simply recount the early days of Mackenzie but does so with purpose, consistently showing how the Scottish milieu and his early training established particular interests and skills in the future Indian surveyor. Even in this first chapter, the author makes interventions into how we view Mackenzie, particularly how he came about his career in India. While many have followed Mackenzie’s autobiographical letter that was published in 1822 as his obituary (pp. 4-6) in which he states that a love of Indian history and geography drew him to India, Wolffhardt uncovered records from 1770s and 80s that show that a family financial crisis was a – if not the – major factor in Mackenzie joining the East India Company (pp. 36-7). This, perhaps, less lofty impetus for his embarkation to India is not, however, meant to scandalize or diminish Mackenzie’s accomplishments. Instead, it sets the stage for the subsequent chapters in which the reader sees Mackenzie’s career develop in fits and starts traced through ingenuity, (good and bad) luck, and well-timed patronage.

Patronage takes center stage in the second chapter, as Wolffhardt demonstrates the importance of British patrons in the careers of young East India Company officers. Here the financial situation of the Mackenzie family is important, as his meager familial resources did not afford him the luxuries and promotions that his peers received. Instead, Wolffhardt depicts Mackenzie’s early years of service in India as an uphill battle wherein ‘he was trying to compensate for lack of patronage by personal qualifications and achievement’ and his later methods were not ‘pre-formed’ but developed in these early years (p. 68).

Wolffhardt ably demonstrates these claims. For instance, in one such post, as a surveyor for the Nizam of Hyderabad, the author highlights the formation of Mackenzie’s emergence as a historical researcher. Specifically, Wolffhardt shows how Mackenzie’s interest in Indian culture and history was encouraged by William Kirkpatrick, the Resident of Hyderabad, who sent one of Mackenzie’s descriptions of a temple on the Krishna river to Asiatic Researches in which it was subsequently published and earned Mackenzie membership into the prestigious Asiatic Society of Bengal (p. 95). The author, however, doesn’t leave the thread of Mackenzie’s personal finances and shows that while working for the Nizam shaped Mackenzie’s later method, financially it was not lucrative, which, again, resulted in a Mackenzie seeking alternative employment. This time it resulted in Mackenzie’s appointment to the Mysore Survey.

At this point, Unearthing the Past turns to more well-known histories of Mackenzie and his survey; however, Wolffhardt does not just rehash what is already known. Relying on Mackenzie’s personal correspondence and the correspondence of those he came into contact with, the author adds a great deal to the discussion of the production of knowledge, the relationship between British officers and native courts, the development of scientific and mathematical method in the early colonial period. The material is extremely rich, but if there is a drawback about this work it is that in Chapters 4-6 the author sometimes loses sight of the Mackenzie narrative in order to discuss surveying methods of the late 18th century. This critique, however, might also be a matter of personal interest because in Chapter 7, Wolffhardt digresses from the narrative into a similar discussion of early colonial historiography, which this reviewer found utterly engrossing.

Forging Future Research Methods

Unearthing the Past to Forge the Future is not only compelling for its subject matter, but the author has demonstrated an effective and meaningful way of writing an academic biography. By taking personal correspondence seriously, Wolffhardt has managed to enhance not only our understanding of Colin Mackenzie, but he has also managed to illuminate the early colonial project and its actors. As a result, after finishing this book I felt as if I had a much better understanding of the process of knowledge production during the Mysore Survey and how Mackenzie’s biography was both unique and how it reflects broader trends in the East India Company. This reviewer would welcome more studies like this one that gives us insights into the motivations and careers of individual members of the East India Company.


I highly recommend Unearthing the Past to Forge the Future to anyone working on colonial India or on British colonialism more broadly. It is a unique study that is well-researched and well-executed. It could possibly work for a very particular graduate seminar, but it certainly is not intended for classroom use.