Lucknow’s French Connection : Antoine Louis Henri de Polier
Volume: 12, No: 07 ; July-2018
Tornos conducts special tour built around the French connection with the city, ‘Un Morceau de France aux Indes‘.
Antoine Louis Polier was born to French parents on 1741 in Lausanne, Switzerland. His forefathers had migrated to Switzerland during the religious violence of 16th century in France. He therefore was an immigrant living in a foreign country. He later learned Hindi and Persian.
He left for India in 1757 to join the East India Company at Madras. Polier became a Madras cadet and sought active service under Robert Clive against the French. He served at Masulipatnam and Carnac in Bihar, and was then transferred to Bengal in 1761. He was appointed as the chief engineer in charge of constructing Fort William in Calcutta.
On account of the Company’s increasing skepticism towards the French in India, Polier was then removed from his senior position as chief engineer. Not being English, he was denied any chance of promotion in the British trading venture. Polier continued to act as a field engineer in the Company army and took part in the siege of Chunar in November 1764.
In 1766 he was appointed a major and helped to quell the mutiny of white troops in Sir Robert Fletcher’s brigade at Munger. But for all this, with his French origins Polier was handicapped. He was at this stage, denied a rise beyond the rank of major. It was only later in 1782, on Hastings recommendation, that he was appointed Lieutenant Governor in Lucknow. Warren Hastings rescued his career many a times.
It was because of this systemic block in his career that Polier agreed to be deputed into the survey department of Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula of Awadh (1732-75). He worked as an architect, surveyor and advisor for many years. His job entailed informing the East India Company about the political developments in Awadh and assisting the company in the commercial activities.
Polier created a niche for himself in Awadh, amassing fortunes via private trade and by assisting Shuja-ud-Daula in military transactions, especially during the Nawab’s fight against the Jats, which involved a siege of Agra’s fort.
Whether it was his success as a private trader, his foreignness in the eyes of the British, or his ostensible support for Shuja-ud-Daula’s actions, raised the hackles of several Company officials. Critics and opponents of Warren Hastings, pushed strongly for Polier’s resignation from the Company, and their pressure proved irresistible. Warren Hastings, publicly asserted that Polier’s dual role was untenable. Thus forcing Polier to resigned from Company service in October 1775.
However, he did survive deportation from India because of the solid economic stakes he had created for himself here. However, by the time of his resignation, Polier had effectively installed himself economically and socially within Indian high society.
Polier possessed extensive properties in Lucknow and Faizabad, two Indian wives, children, and he had a sophisticated taste in Indo-Persian culture, ranging from food, clothing, and habits, to a rapidly increasing collection of manuscripts and paintings.
Polier was in all probability a person looking at alternate prospects of building his career in India through his personal trade and by offering his services to various patrons, although he secretly always remained loyal to the English and provided the East India Company with valuable and timely information about his Indian patrons.
For a brief period he joined services of the Mughal emperor Shah Alam-II. In the mean time, Polier was given a land in Aligarh by Nawab Najaf Khan. Najaf Khan was a Persian adventurer himself in the court of the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II.
In 1781 he pleaded with Warren Hastings to be restored into Company service. Now, with Hastings’ intercession, this was permitted and in 1782 Polier was allowed to stay on, initially in Faizabad and later in Lucknow with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. His fortunes seemed to have taken a turn for the better then.
In Lucknow, Polier developed an interest in collecting manuscripts and paintings. It was here in 1783 that he met the well-known British painters William Hodges and John Zoffany, with whom he developed a long-lasting friendship. Polier figures prominently in Johann Zoffany’s famous painting ‘Colonel Mordant’s Cock-match’ (1786) along with another Frenchman in Lucknow Claude Martin, Nawab Asif ud Daula and others.
As an ambitious collector, Polier acquired precious manuscripts, miniatures and calligraphies. More importantly, he commissioned countless new pictures and thus made a decisive contribution to the flowering of Indian miniature painting in Awadh. The genre’s best-known representative, the painter Mihr Chand, created a number of notable artworks for Polier.
Finally, it was in this period of his life that Polier developed an interest in the Hindu religion and dispatched to William Jones certain volumes of the Vedas that he had acquired from the Raja of Jaipur. His notes in French for a book on Hindu mythology, prepared over these years in Awadh, earned him the honour in 1784 of being appointed a member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.
Apart from collecting oriental manuscripts and miniatures during his stint in Awadh, Polier built up a fascinating library in Lucknow where his collection was maintained. The contents of this library, along with his other collections, were distributed between the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the British Museum in London, the library of King’s College at Cambridge, Eton College in London, the Islamic Museum at Berlin, and the Bibliothèque Cantonale of Lausanne, which also has a manuscript catalogue of 120 oriental works with annotations by ‘Colonel Polier’. The French traveller Comte de Modave, who visited the Awadh court at Faizabad in 1774 just before the shifting of capital to Lucknow met Polier there and he noted that Polier had a good command over the Persian language (court language) and had an excellent knowledge of Urdu (the local language, that still is widely spoken in Lucknow).
In 1788 Polier returned to Europe after being away from his home country for thirty-two years. Of this long period of being away from France, he had spent a total of thirty years in India. On his return to Europe, at the request of William Jones, he deposited a collection of his manuscripts in England. Polier decided to return to France leaving his two Indian wives, Jugnu Begum and Zinat Begum back in India identified within his Persian correspondence as his senior and junior wife in the care of his close French friend in Lucknow, Claude Martin.
After his return to France, Polier bought property in Rosetti near Avignon and settled there with his French wife, by whom he had two children, Charles de Polier and Adolphe de Polier
Here he is reported to have hosted parties in ‘lavish Asian style’ and adopted the ideas of the Revolution. His intellectual interest continued and he is said to have read the entire collections of his Lausanne library. Polier was pensioned on Lord Clive’s fund. On 9th February 1795 he was assassinated by an unidentified robber. His wealth, accrued largely during his career in India, continued to be an asset to his family, which remained in the running for titles and honours.