The British Empire is currently having what is known as a “bad press”. British India, perhaps the most extraordinary of all the parts of the Empire, was served by many thousands of men and women from these islands, as the monuments in churches and memorials in churchyards and cemeteries attest. I knew many veterans of the old Indian Civil Service (most of whom have since died), and a better bunch one could never find anywhere, for they were highly intelligent, humane, incorruptible, and thoroughly decent people, the like of whom we shall never see again.
Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, whose knowledge of India is encyclopædic, and who is the author of impressive studies of Major General Claude Martin (1735-1800) and his works, has now edited this extraordinary account of that remarkable man’s estate. Martin was born in Lyons, and signed up for the army of the French Compagnie-des-Indes Orientales in 1751, arriving in Pondicherry as one of a group the French General Joseph-François Dupleix (1697-1763) referred to as ‘the vilest rabble’, but quickly rose in the ranks. However, it soon became clear that France’s power in India was in decline, while that of Britain was rising, so in 1760 Martin and a companion deserted to the army of the East India Company under the command of the Anglo-Irish soldier, Eyre Coote (1726-83), who sympathetically received the two deserters. Thereafter, Martin’s rise was spectacular: he became a lieutenant in 1764 and a captain in 1766, by which time his skills as a surveyor and cartographer were becoming known, and he also acquired a knowledge of architecture.
In 1775 he got himself appointed Superintendent of the Arsenal of the fourth Nawab of Awadh, who moved his capital to Lucknow, where Martin settled, and began to exploit his entrepreneurial talents as well as his taste as a collector. He was to amass a superb library of over a thousand volumes (demonstrating his scientific, architectural, botanical, antiquarian, and erotic interests), among many other items, acquired properties in France and India, and built himself châteaux at Charbonnières, near Lyons, and at Lucknow. He had brought with him a young girl, Boulone Lise (c.1766-1844), who had fled from her Muslim family after her father killed one of her sisters: he had her well-educated, and later she became his mistress, one of seven young Indian women he installed in his home and whom he kept in some style. He installed hydraulic systems to cool his houses and experimented with hot-air balloons. As a Freemason and an educated man of the Enlightenment, he treated his servants decently, believed in female education, was insatiably curious about the natural world around him, was uncowed by outdated religious beliefs, and interacted with Indian men of learning such as Tafuzzal Hussain Khan (1727-1800), who had translated some of Isaac Newton’s work.
From 1795, Martin designed and built the extraordinary palace-mausoleum he called Constantia, south-east of Lucknow, the largest European funerary structure in India, which incorporates water-cooled air-conditioning, locally-produced decorations in the style of Wedgwood, statuary, and much else: it was a very curious structure, mingling European Baroque with many Indian allusions. The French Revolution seems to have determined Martin not to return to France, but he endowed schools at Lucknow, Calcutta, and Lyons, each named La Martinière, and each of which celebrates the anniversary of his death as Founder’s Day. Small charitable bequests of his are still distributed to the poor at Constantia.
The fascinating volume, with contributions from several distinguished scholars, provides an amazing insight regarding the household of a well-heeled, cultured European in late eighteenth-century India. The inventory includes paintings, silverware, jewellery, textiles, weapons, carriages, boats, hot-air balloons, books (an astonishing collection), clocks and watches, scientific instruments, and much else besides. It is an eloquent testimony of the introduction of Enlightenment ideas into post-Mughal India, though doubtless the very notion of such an introduction will be regarded by some as cultural colonialism or similar.
Given the quality of the contents, I have to say that the design of the book is very poor: it looks mean, and could have done the engrossing subject far better justice. As a bibliophile, I am afraid I have to express my disappointment: it could all have been so much more attractive, but that is not to devalue the scholarship and effort that have gone into the making of the tome.
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