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Colonial surveyors of southern India

Siddharth Raja, Dec 4 2017, 22:30 IST

Colin Mackenzie was a colonial surveyor of southern India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He later went on to become the first Surveyor-General of India. If Mackenzie is rightly remembered as a true pioneer in his field, I was certain there were others, contemporaries of Mackenzie, whose tales needed to be told, for never can such an arduous enterprise be the sweat-and-blood of a single man.

Two Englishmen are of note alongside this Scotsman. Both have a connection with Nandi Hills through this famous aquatint, N W View of Nandydroog, published in July 1793 in London. It is inscribed: Drawn by R H Colebrooke from a sketch by Ensign Caldwell. It is strikingly similar to Mackenzie's work, sketched from almost the same location as the latter, history records that Colebrooke and Mackenzie were colleagues.

Robert Hyde Colebrooke was a British infantry officer who conducted early surveys in Bengal and Mysore before becoming the Surveyor-General of Bengal in 1794; a post he held until his death.

Many years junior to Mackenzie, Colebrooke joined the Bengal Infantry in 1778, still in his teens. He was skilled in topographical illustration (as this aquatint demonstrates), Colebrooke is well-known for his collection of aquatints, Twelve views of places in the Kingdom of Mysore, of which this sketch is one. Another famous sketch of his is of Sewandroog (Savandurga), based on his work in Mysore during the same Third Anglo-Mysore War that Mackenzie so famously participated in. He also surveyed the Andaman Islands, Colebrooke Island in the north of Port Blair is named after him. He died in Bhagalpur in 1808.

We can hazard a historical guess that both Mackenzie and Colebrooke probably produced their impressions of Nandi Hills at around the same time of the Third Anglo-Mysore War, from the same sketch by Ensign Caldwell as the similarities are striking.

Jennifer Howes in her book Illustrating India: The Early Colonial Investigations of Colin Mackenzie, notes that James Lillyman Caldwell became an ensign, a junior commissioned officer who would carry his regiment's ensign flag in the Madras Engineers in 1789.

He was present at the first siege of Seringapatam in 1792 and was wounded at its second siege and captured in 1799. Caldwell took part in the Baramahal, Krishna and Godavari surveys of the 1790s, as part of the survey of the dominions of the Nizam of Hyderabad led by Mackenzie. In his later career, Caldwell was appointed the chief engineer on an expedition to survey Mauritius in 1810-11, after completing a survey of Tirunelveli in 1810.

He designed the St. George's Cathedral in Madras, which was constructed by his colleague, Thomas Fiotte De Havilland. Unlike his superiors Mackenzie and Colebrooke, who never saw their respective homelands again after venturing to India, Caldwell returned to England in 1837 and died at the ripe old age of 93 in the Isle of Wight.

This English assistant was given his due by recording his contribution (writing his name) on the sketch itself. However, history does not give any real space to Mackenzie's Indian assistants, in particular, the brothers Cavelly Venkata Boria and Lecmiah. It is quite common that in the colonial narrative, the Indian tales are absent. An account of these two Indians and their contributions, in particular, are outstanding. Until then we must content ourselves with the intriguing stories of these two Englishmen surveyors and artists, Colebrooke and his assistant, Caldwell.

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