The Heart of Montrose

Madurai’s peculiar connection to Scotland, Logarithms, Colin Mackenzie, and a hero’s heart

Madurai has a great cultural history, and for a long time was Tamil Nadu’s cultural capital, and the ‘Toonga Nagaram, the city that never slept’. It was one of those cities which endured so many rulers and changes, notably by the Kalabhras, the Pandyas, the Cholas, the Tughlaq Sultanate, the Vijayanagar Rayars, the Telugu Nayaks, the Nawab of Arcot and Chanda Saheb, the British East India Company and finally the British Raj. Most would recall it as a Nayak-era temple town on the banks of the Vaigai river, or as a pilgrimage town, home to the magnificent Madurai Meenakshi temple and the Tirumala Naikar temple.

Plundered over time by the eunuch Malik Kafur and later the Arcot nawabs, it was once a home to Robert Nobili, the Roman Brahmin (see story)  when he tried to proselytize the Hindu populace in Tamil with the concept of the 5th Veda. Gandhi enthusiasts would also recall that it was here centuries later, that the nation’s father decided to cast off his clothes and wear his signature loin cloth (read the story here). But what if I told you that it also had a fascinating connection to logarithms, a reverted Scottish warrior and later on, a great archivist of Indian manuscripts? A senior Tamilian would quip (now I am speaking in jest, take no offense) – I told you long ago, nan annakke sonnen that Shakespeare was after all Sheshappa Iyer and kannakku – mathematics was always, annakkum, innakkum -in yester years & these days, child’s play for us..

And so, we go to Scotland to meet two stalwarts, one being Napier, considered to be the person who invented Logarithms and James Graham, the Marquis of Montrose. James was a Scottish nobleman from the 17th century (1612-1650), poet, soldier, later viceroy, and captain-general of Scotland. He led the royalists in the Civil war and had many victories, but did not fare well and following his defeat and capture at the Battle of Carbisdale, the Great Montrose was tried by the Scottish Parliament and sentenced to death by hanging in May 1650, followed by beheading and quartering. Sometime later, his excommunicated legacy was restored, and he was officially rehabilitated in public memory as a great man, his remains buried honorably at Holyrood in May 1661. All the distributed (quartered limbs) were brought back and buried with the main parts. Save one part, a critical one, that being his heart, for in 1650, his niece Lady Napier, had sent men by night to secretly remove his heart and bring it back to the family. This relic was placed in an egg-shaped steel case made from Montrose’s sword and this was then enclosed in a gold filigree box, and deposited into a silver urn, always kept at her bedside.

One of you may quip – why did this lady go after her uncle’s heart? Well, it seems the Marquis was very fond of his nephew as well as his wife and had always told the latter that he would leave his heart to her, as a mark of his affection, upon his death. Anyway, as the story goes, the urn and the gold box were lost for generations, but the box landed up in Holland where it was eventually located by the fifth Napier and restored to the family. Time went by and it was finally in the possession of Hester Napier, who went on to marry Samuel Johnston of the EIC, and soon, both were bound for India. The filigree box accompanied Hester and Samuel to Madurai, where he had found appointment as a civil servant. Misfortunes never ceased, for the ship they were voyaging on, was attacked by the French, off Cape de Verde. A shot or its resulting splinters destroyed the filigree box which Hester was clutching, but the steel case with the heart in it remained intact.

The description of the event by Alexander, Hester’s son is arresting – A shot from the frigate struck one of these guns, killed two of the men, and, with the splinters which it tore off the deck, knocked my father down, wounded my mother severely in the arm, and bruised the muscles of my right hand so severely that, as you know, it is even now difficult for me at times to write or even to hold a pen. My mother held me during the action with one hand, and with the other she held a large thick velvet reticule; in which she, conceiving that if the frigate captured the Indiaman the French crew would plunder the ship, had placed some of the things which she valued most, including the pictures of her father and mother, and the gold filagree case containing the heart of Montrose. It was supposed that the splinter must have first struck the reticule, which hung loose in her hand; for, to her great distress, the gold filagree box, which was in it, was shattered to pieces, but the steel case had resisted the blow.

The couple reached India and found their way to Madurai and thus the greatest Scottish national treasure had eventually found its way to the temple city. Hester located a celebrated goldsmith in Madurai, who recreated a new gold filigree case for the steel encapsulated heart, after listening to her description of it, and also made a silver urn for it. It was also engraved in Tamil and Telugu with the highpoints of Montrose’s life!! Imagine what they would have written in Tamil – Periyavar Montrose sayippode ascharyamana irudayam…. This was then given a place of honor, on an ebony table in the drawing room at the Johnston household.

Alexander, Hester’s son who knew this relic intimately describe it thus - The steel case was of the size and shape of an egg. It was opened by pressing down a little knob, as is done in opening a watch case. Inside was a little parcel, supposed to contain all that remained of Montrose's heart, wrapped up in a piece of coarse cloth, and done over with a substance like glue.

Interestingly, this led to a myth among the locals that anybody who possessed Montrose’s heart would never be defeated in battle or taken prisoner! Soon it was stolen from the house by robbers and after some time, purchased by the powerful Nawab of Arcot, in whose collection it rested for a while!! As it transpired, Alexander, Samuel’s and Hester’s son while hunting with the Nawab, helped him shoot down a hog and the grateful Nawab ( wonder why he was grateful – I doubt that the Nawab was a bad shot or had difficulty in shooting down a hog!) what he wanted in return as a gift. Alexander asked for the urn with the heart and explained the whole background to him. Upon hearing that it was a family relic stolen from Hester, the Nawab promptly restored the urn and the steel case to Alexander (The Nawab was killed some years later, by the British, as explained in Major Welsh’s military reminiscences).

Samuel and Hester returned to Europe in 1792, and were caught up in the French revolution where all their gold ornaments were confiscated by the revolutionary government. Hester however, entrusted the urn and the casket to a British lady named Knowles, for safekeeping. Unfortunately, the lady died, and the urn and the heart vanished, for all practical purposes. We will get back to the search for the urn as we go on, but let’s get back to Madurai after a short stop in Scotland to get to know the Napier who invented the Logarithms. Hester Napier passed away in 1819.

John Napier, after having traveled and studied abroad, came back to Scotland, as a scholar in Greek, Theology, Mathematics, and science. Towards the end of his life, he came up with many shortcuts for complex calculations and devices to aid calculations. His work, Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio (1614) contained fifty-seven pages of explanatory matter and ninety pages of tables listing the natural logarithms of trigonometric functions. He invented a well-known mathematical artefact, the ingenious numbering rods more quaintly known as "Napier's bones" (as well as the Promputary), that offered a mechanical means for facilitating computation. As a person involved in so much more, he was studied by his peers and later generations.  While his work was considered seminal in his times, in Europe, it has come to light in recent times that such methods were commonplace in distant India, where the English were yet to arrive.

Interestingly, a research paper mentions - A further link between Scheubel and Napier is that while abroad, the latter "studied the history of Arabic notation, which he traced to its Indian source”. Phillip Jones explains that the diagonal line separating the units and tens digits on the bones and the method of using the bones are counterparts of the popular gelosia or jealousy method of multiplication. This came into Europe from Arabic writers shortly after the introduction of Hindu-Arabic numerals,  and can be traced back to the Hindu  Bhaskara (1150) or earlier. I do not want to add more, simply because I do not want to make this a complex read.

Anyway, years passed by, and a young man named Colin Mackenzie, a Scotsman, was asked by the then Lord Francis Napier who was preparing a biography of the said mathematician John Napier, to collect all available information about Hindu mathematicians and mathematics as well as their use of logarithms (another mathematician Rueben Barrow was sent out in 1793 for the same purpose, while others such as Charles M Whish were already in Malabar collecting and archiving similar data). Lord Napier died in 1773, and Kenneth Mackenzie helped Colin to obtain commission with the British East India Company so that he could join the Madras Army. It was with the task of investigating Hindu Mathematics and Napier, that Colin set out for Madras in 1783. Little would he know that he would never return home, and that India would hold him in her firm grip, ever after. As Napier’s emissary, looking for information on Napier and Hindu Mathematics, where do you think he went to? To Madurai of course, where Lord Napier’s daughter Hester resided, in relative pomp and glory. That is where Mackenzie met and collaborated with the well-educated Brahmins, proficient in Mathematics, a subject we will study separately.

In hindsight, I can say that he was sent to the wrong place. Ujjain where Bhaskara lived and produced his mathematics treatises was no longer the right place, but he would have found many of his answers if he had gone to Malabar and met with Madhava’s pupils. But Malabar was still reeling from Hyder’s and Tipu’s onslaught, and it was much later that CM Whish and Thomas H Baber made their forays into these fields and Whish ended up publishing his paper on Malabar’s Mathematicians and Calculus.

Nevertheless, Mackenzie had good intercourse with the Math stalwarts in the erstwhile Nayaka kingdom with whom Hester had already established the right contacts. Math was Colin’s interest and though he would have seen the silver Urn with the Montrose heart, it held no interest for him, just that they were both in the same place, at the same time, far away from Scotland. Mackenzie’s life, both as an engineer and soldier as well as a collector of manuscripts is quite well known, his activities in Malabar (as a soldier at Palghat, his role in the fights against Hyder & Tipu, and his attempts to collect Malabar & Travancore history manuscripts) are not so well known, so they will follow in a forthcoming article.

As Alexander, Hester’s son put it - Mrs. Johnston introduced him to the Madurai Brahmins “who were supplying her with information on the Hindus’ knowledge of mathematics.” The more he interacted with these Brahmins, the greater his astonishment and admiration for their expansive learning, which “fired his interest in Indian antiquities.” This became the basis of his lifelong mission, and “the favorite object of his pursuit for 38 years of his life.”

However, I will not tire you with mathematics and Mackenzie’s deeds in India, at least in this article, let us get back to the heart of Montrose. We concluded earlier that it was lost for good, in France. I had also concluded that it was indeed lost, after my initial study, but then I saw that the Montrose Museum had on display a relic purported to be Montrose’s heart. Well, the heart, making its return from India to Europe continued with its adventurous existence, for it may have traveled long and crossed many oceans. Rachel Bennet, from the University of Warwick, came up with more conclusions.

One Capt H Stuart Wheatley-Crowe of the Royal Stuart society obtained an embalmed heart which was believed to have been brought to England from France during the Revolution by the ancestors of the Perkins family, who believed it was the heart of Montrose. Stuart had a medical examination carried out on the heart and they found it to be approximately 300 years old, but could find no other definitive proof of its authenticity or connections to Montrose. When a claimant for this heart surfaced in Canada in 1951, named Mrs. Maisie Armitage-Moore, the society sent the heart to her. She was the granddaughter of Alexander Johnston, now a Canadian from British Columbia. Maise, now Ms Maisie Hurley, was a larger-than-life woman who dressed in black, smoked cigars, loved boxing and American Indians, and was a publisher of the local newspaper.

Lloyd Graham, who investigated this further, takes it from here - Questions remained and Maise was no longer convinced the heart belonged to her ancestor, for an expert had told her that it seemed to have been mummified in the Egyptian fashion, using red lead and resin wax. She was tired of the controversy and wanted no part in the authenticity arguments and wanted to (as John Graham wished) cremate the heart and scatter the ashes over Edinburgh. But in 2012, when the Montrose Museum announced the James Graham collection, they had in their possession a heart, which may have been the lost one.

The only mention of the heart since then comes from Maise’s great-granddaughter Kerrie. In 2007, Kerrie recalls playing with the heart as a child and remembers being horrified when it fell into two pieces. She was very upset until she learned that “a bullet had apparently split it in half in its travels to Vancouver”– an inexplicable coda to an already bizarre tale. It was apparently sent to England, for safe keeping at her nephew’s home, from where it was eventually sent to the museum. When in Canada, it was discovered that the heart had a piece missing, and that piece had been retained by Wheately Crowe. The heart now in Scotland did have a missing piece and it corresponded roughly to the piece mentioned above.

Bennet concludes - Despite the lack of absolute proof of its authenticity, the heart was placed alongside other artefacts definitively related to Montrose, and this perhaps is a suitable final destination. Museum curator, Rachel Benvie, said: "There are two known hearts of Montrose and we have managed to locate and display one of them. "I was a little bit skeptical when I first saw it. "It is maybe slightly larger than a normal human heart, but the process of embalming could well influence that, and it is human. And anyway, I do feel it is right that the Marquis of Montrose should have a larger heart than other people."

Lloyd Graham is not convinced that the Canadian contender is the right heart and not much is known about the second contender – He explains From this (Alexander Johnston’s description of the urn, earlier narrated in red) it is clear that the heart was no longer the entire organ but a piece of cardiac tissue small enough to fit inside a container no larger than a hen’s egg; the fragment was also sealed inside a cloth wrapping. These points distinguish it from the unshrouded intact heart inherited by Capt. Wheatley-Crowe in 1931, which was forwarded to Maisie Armytage-Moore / Hurley in Canada and exhibited at Montrose in 2012. This exposed, enlarged and essentially complete heart is incompatible with Sir Alexander’s description.

How about the other heart in the possession of the museum? No information is publicly available about the other contender for the heart of Montrose. Unless it and its containers miraculously match Sir Alexander’s description, Lloyd states - we must conclude that the relic he described so carefully – which may well have been genuine –was in fact lost forever in Revolutionary France.

The New York Times dated 29th Jan 1911, however, mentions that the Johnston’s actually gave the trinket to an American named Mrs Stephen Brown who used to live in Boulogne, just before they themselves got arrested, assuming that it would be safer in American hands. However, all subsequent search for the Brown’s and the heart yielded no results. But the ‘veteran diplomat’ who wrote it believed that the heart was in America. Now, is the second heart relic in the museum’s possession? I don’t know.

The Arcot nawab’s connection with the Napier’s did not cease. It was another Lord Napier, the mayor of Madras, who was involved in reinstating one of the claimants as the Price of Arcot, in 1867.

And that my friends, is the incredible connection between Scotland’s hero, Madurai, Napier of logarithms and the first surveyor general of India – Col Colin Mackenzie, and the travails of the hero’s heart across continents and oceans, and shot at and split, even as a relic!. What an amazing story – the story of a heart, its obscure connection to the inventor of Logarithms, a distant city of Madurai in India and how it all connected to the very person who later on built the single largest archive and collection of Indian manuscripts!!


House GRAHAM From the Antonine Wall to the Temple of Hymen - Lloyd D. Graham
“A Candidate for Immortality”: Martyrdom, Memory, and the Marquis of Montrose - Rachel Bennett
Col Colin Mackenzie, First Surveyor general of India – WC Mackenzie
Memoirs of the Marquis of Montrose- MARK NAPIER
John Napier - W. R. Thomas
Napier's Education: A Speculation - Alex Inglis
Tangible arithmetic I: Napier's and Genaille's rods - Phillip S. Jones

 Images – Wikimedia – thanks to the uploaders