Alexander Mackay

Alexander Mackay was born in Inverness, Scotland, circa 1808 and became an accomplished and highly respected journalist and author. He began his career in journalism in Toronto, Canada, spending a number of years there following his decision to emigrate. A printed account of his voyage to Canada can be found in Charles Dickens’ Household Words, entitled An Emigrant Afloat, in which he describes his journey across the Atlantic. Deciding to return he found employment with The Morning Chronicle, preferring journalism over law, having practised in Canada and being called to the bar on his return. He was sent out by The Morning Chronicle to the United States as their correspondent and afterwards published his own widely-acclaimed “Western World” detailing his travels around America during 1846 and 1847.

He worked on the Rural Districts portion of the Labour and the Poor series which were published in The Morning Chronicle between 1849 and 1851. His investigations were taken over by Shirley Brooks when he accepted the task of travelling to India in 1850 to investigate the viability of expanding the cotton producing areas and trade in the East Indies. Ill health forcing him to return prematurely he sadly passed away at sea during his homeward journey. The following is an article from his long-time employer:⁠—

The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 6, 1852.


It is with sincere regret that we record the death, on his way home, of Mr. Alexander Mackay, the author of the “Western World,” and lately the commissioner in India of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Mackay was for many years connected with this journal, and we cannot withhold from his name the tribute due to the memory of an able coadjutor and of a valued friend.

By Mr. Mackay’s untimely fate an opening career of great promise is cut short. Endowed with high mental qualities, possessed of a clear intellect and acute and rapid powers of reasoning—a keen observer, and an instinctive lover of truth—Mr. Mackay added to these gifts a most amiable disposition. These powers had been ascertained, and were in the act of being applied to important public purposes, when the climate of a hot country, acting upon a naturally delicate constitution, cut him off—not, however, before he had to a great extent completed his task.

Alexander Mackay was the son of Mr. Mackay, a much respected banker in Inverness, and was born in that town about 1820. He was educated at the neighbouring town of Elgin, and afterwards at Aberdeen. Family arrangements led him first to Canada, where he was destined for the colonial bar, and for some brief space practised with repute. Journalism, however, seems to have had more attraction for Mr. Mackay than professional practice, and accordingly he soon became the conductor of a highly respectable newspaper in Toronto. After residing in Canada for several years, and travelling over a great portion of the provinces and the States, he returned home in search of a wider sphere than could be afforded by colonial life. He was speedily engaged in connection with this journal, and so highly were his acuteness and logical abilities estimated, that he was sent out again by The Morning Chronicle to the United States, for the purpose of examining the diplomatic bearings of the treaties as to the Maine boundary, and observing the feelings of the American public on the question. His letters upon these subjects were replete with most valuable information, and with clear and logical reasoning. Not long after his return, Mr. Mackay published his “Western World,” the great ability and comprehensive grasp of which were at once acknowledged. The book was indeed pronounced to be the best and the most complete work ever written upon the Transatlantic Republic. Its success was great and immediate, and the volumes became at once a standard authority upon that most important subject. The author’s connection with this journal was prolonged for some time afterwards. As one of our Special Correspondents, engaged in investigating the condition of the English rural population, Mr. Mackay rendered important services to the question of Labour and the Poor, while his versatile pen was frequently and successfully turned to other topics of general literary and political interest. After the settlement of the corn-law question he devoted himself to the topic of the suffrage; and his pamphlet upon our system of representation, with its analysis of the constitution of the House of Commons, became a text-book with a large class of Reformers on the question of which it treated, and was repeatedly quoted in the House of Commons. From that period Mr. Mackay determined to devote himself to political life. He joined the Reform party, and delivered many able speeches at public meetings in the metropolis upon the franchise question. He had before him the hope of ultimately entering Parliament; but he consented for a time to withdraw from home politics, and to accept from the Lancashire cotton interest a mission to India, to investigate the possibility of extending the growth of the plant in our Eastern possessions. Somewhat more than two years ago he departed full of hope and spirit. He died on his passage home. The subjoined extract from one of our Manchester contemporaries will give additional particulars, besides showing the high character Mr. Mackay had earned for himself in the East. Our melancholy task is over when we again express our heartfelt sorrow at the loss of a highly promising author, a rising politician, an accomplished gentleman, and a most amiable man.


It is with feelings of deep regret that we announce the death of Mr. Alexander Mackay, the Indian commissioner appointed by the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Mackay left this country on the 20th December, 1850, under the most favourable auspices—being accredited and recommended to the Chamber of Commerce of Bombay by the Chambers of Commerce of Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow, and carrying with him the full confidence of the mercantile and manufacturing public connected with the cotton trade. The object of his mission also received the unanimous approbation of the British press, and we have reason to know that it was regarded with good will by the leading members of the administration. The main purpose of his appointment was to ascertain by an unbiassed but minute investigation, on the spot, the real obstacles which prevent an ample supply of good cotton being obtained from the East Indies, and the causes which impede the extension of our commerce with that country.

The mission was one requiring great industry, intelligence, and sound judgment, on the part of the individual selected for the arduous and responsible undertaking; and it was peculiarly fortunate for the interests represented by the body with whom the mission originated, that they were able to secure the services of a gentleman so eminently qualified in every respect to carry out their views. Mr. Mackay’s inquiry embraced a multitude of details, all bearing on the main subject of the mission—such as the means provided by the Indian Government to promote the internal as well as the export trade of the country over which they rule—the nature of the roads by which the produce of the interior is brought to the coast—the means of inter-communication between neighbouring districts—the state and management of docks, piers, quays, &c.—the condition of the agricultural population, and the circumstances which tend to stimulate or repress their industry—the nature of the land tenure, particularly with reference to the security of the cultivator—the amount and kind of taxation, and the mode of levying and collecting it—all departments of inquiry requiring minute and impartial personal observation.

On his arrival, Mr. Mackay was cordially received by the Bombay Chamber of Commerce, and every facility afforded to him for the prosecution of his inquiries, which were continued during the whole of last year, and the results of which have been from time to time transmitted home. The influence of the climate of India was, however, too much for a constitution not naturally robust, and he was compelled to terminate his labours sooner than he had anticipated, and endeavour to regain his health by leaving the country. In a letter addressed to the Bombay Chamber of Commerce, dated March 30th, he mentions his intention of returning to England, but, at the same time, states that before disease had disabled him, he had succeeded in traversing the greater portion of the cotton field of the Presidency, and that he had from actual observation arrived at important conclusions as to the condition, wants, and prospects of the cotton trade in the great district in question, and that he hoped, on his return home, by the aid of renewed health, to make the information he had gathered conducive to the common benefit of India and England.

These anticipations, alas! were not destined to be realised. He left India on the 3d of April, but his strength gradually failed until the 15th, on the evening of which day he breathed his last. We are told that he suffered little until within half an hour of his death, and that up to that period he retained the full use of his faculties, having, previous to his dissolution, made his will and confided his papers to the care of a fellow-passenger, to be transmitted to his brother in Inverness. These and other details are contained in a letter (given below), addressed by Mr. Arthur Latham, a mercantile gentleman, who was on board the same vessel, to Mr. Bazley, the president of the Chamber of Commerce. With the regret inseparable from the untimely fate of Mr. Mackay is mingled a feeling of satisfaction that the main object of his mission has not been left unaccomplished.

“At sea, on board the Hon. Company’s steamer

Aydalia, April 17, 1852.

“My dear Sir—You will no doubt have heard from Mr. Alexander Mackay, that his health having seriously suffered in India, he was about to leave the country by the steamer of the 3d inst., in the hope that the change would benefit him. This, however, was not to be. His strength gradually failed, until the evening of the 15th, when the doctors suppose that an abscess of the liver burst into the lungs, already diseased, and suffocation and consequent death ensued. I am glad to say that he suffered little until within half an hour of his decease, and until then also retained the full possession of his faculties. The captain has confided to me his papers for delivery to Mr. Thomas Mackay, of Inverness, whom he has left his sole legatee and executor, under a will drawn up a few hours before his death. These I purpose to send by the first steamer to Messrs. Arbuthnot, Ewart, and Co., of Liverpool; and I have suggested to Mr. Mackay that on their arrival he should select those of a private nature, and arrange with those of Mr. Mackay’s friends on whose behalf he came out to India as to the disposal of the remainder.

“It is at Mr. Mackay’s own request, made when all hope was at an end, that I now address you; and any further information respecting this sad affair I shall be most happy to afford you, on your addressing me a line, to the care of Messrs. Arbuthnot, Ewart, and Co., where I expect to be about three weeks or a month hence.⁠—

Meantime I am very truly yours,

Arthur Latham.

“Thomas Bazley, Esq., Manchester.”

The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 6, 1852.