Polier, Antoine-Louis Henri
Military Engineer, Architect & Collector of Oriental Manuscripts (1741-1795)
Antoine-Louis Henri Polier was baptized on 28 February 1741 at Lausanne, Switzerland. He was the younger son of Jacques Henri Polier and his wife Jeanne Francoise Moreau de Brosses, the family being French Protestants who had emigrated to Switzerland in the mid-sixteenth century. Polier’s parents were both French. They traced their ancestors to the eleventh century, when the family supposedly possessed a castle at Villefranche de Rouergue, in Aveyron province in south France, at the time when Comte Reimond de Tolouse laid the foundations of that town. In 1214, a member of the family was believed to have saved the life of Louis IX during a fight with the English. He was honoured with knighthood and the coveted ‘Order of the Cock’.
The establishment of one branch of the Polier family, headed by Jean Polier in Switzerland, is often explained in terms of a migration provoked by religious persecution at the time of the religious wars that beset the last decades of the Valois monarchy in the sixteenth century. Another version is that Jean Polier arrived in Switzerland as interpreter and secretary of a French embassy to the Swiss League. However, the aftermath of the celebrated St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572 in Paris, when Huguenots were killed with the connivance of the monarchy of Charles IX, seems to have changed the nature of Jean Polier’s relations with France. In 1574, he applied for refuge in Lausanne ‘on account of the massacres and persecutions for the Christian religion’, and in April of the following year he was granted the status of burgher (bourgeois) in that city. Polier’s grandfather, Jean Pierre Polier (1670-1740), served in Prussia and played a key role in the Swiss cantonal wars of 1712, fighting for the Evangelical cantons against the Catholic ones. His great-grandfather held a number of significant martial offices, such as Lieutenant Colonel of the Militia, and became Burgomaster of Lausanne. He also displayed a literary talent which, when combined with his mystical inclination, helps explain the nature of his principal works on such subjects as the Apocalypse, the Jewish notion of the Messiah’s imminent arrival, and the fall of Babylon.
There was thus a lively military and mercenary heritage, even before the departure of Polier’s paternal uncle, Paul Philippe Polier (1711-58), to serve the English East India Company at Madras. There was an intellectual heritage to boot. Apart from his great-grandfather and grandfather, a notable intellectual was a great-uncle, Georges Polier (1675-1759), Professor of Greek and Moral Philosophy at the Lausanne Academy, later Professor of Hebrew and the author of a number of works of a religious nature. Of greater eminence still was a paternal uncle, Jean Antoine-Noe Polier (1713-83), brother of Paul Philippe, who made his mark as a Protestant pastor and correspondent of Voltaire and the encyclopaedists.
Notwithstanding this genealogy of intellection, the Polier who interests us swims to view in humdrum circumstances as a passenger in a sailing ship called The Hardwick, journeying to Madras in 1757 to join his uncle posted in that city. Having arrived in India Polier became a Madras cadet and sought active service under Clive against the French. He served at Masulipatnam and Carnac in Bihar, and was then transferred to Bengal in 1761. Here he struck a long-lasting friendship with Warren Hastings, the British Governor General, and was appointed assistant to Thomas Amphlett, the chief engineer in charge of constructing Fort William. When Amphlett resigned, Polier was promoted to the post of chief engineer with a commission and the rank of captain lieutenant in the army. He continued in this position for more than two years.
On account of the Company’s increasing scepticism towards the French in India, Polier was then removed from his senior position as chief engineer. At the same time, the Company never managed to jettison his services entirely. He seems to have been able to cling to Company employment one way or another, suggesting a wiliness and tenacity in line with that displayed by his French contemporary and Friend Calude Martin, the adventurer-entrepreneur-architect who sank his roots deep into Lucknow. Like Martin, who clung on despite fierce hostility from jealous foes, 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, he was appointed Lieutenant Colonel.
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. Here, in Awadh, Polier regularly supplied the Company with detailed news of the political developments in the region while assisting the survey and trade transactions of the Company. Simultaneously, in keeping with the general trend amongst Company officers, Polier created a niche for himself in Awadh society, amassing fortunes via private trade and by assisting Shuja-ud-Daula in military transactions-such as during the nawab’s fight against the Jats, which involved a siege of Agra’s fort. This streak of independence in Polier raised the hackles of several Company officals. Critics and opponents of Hastings, such as Edmund Burke and Philip Francis, pushed strongly for Polier’s resignation from the Company, and their pressure proved irresistible. And so Polier resigned from Company service in October 1775. He did, however, survive deportation from India because of the solid economic stakes he had created fro himself here. For a brief while he joined service with the Mughal emperor Shah Alam. 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, later in Lucknow with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. His fortunes seemed to have taken a turn for the better.
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 Hodges’ famous painting ‘Colonel Mordant’s Cock-match’ (1786) as well as in ‘Claude Martin and his friends.’ It was during this period that the Indian artist Mehrchand, who enjoyed Polier’s patronage, prepared albums for him with miniatures and paintings that had a distinct European artistic imprint. Again, it was in Lucknow that Polier arranged for a part of the Mahabharata to be translated into Persian for the British orientalist Richard Johnson, a resident of the city. 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 with the help of Khiradmand Khan Don Pedrose. 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 where Polier was present, noted that the latter had a reasonably good command over the Persian language and an excellent knowledge of Urdu. The Orme Collection in the British Library contains Polier’s Account of ‘Begum Sombre’ (Begum Samru), the History of Shah Alam II, and the Account of the Sikhs.
In 1788 Polier returned to Europe after an absence of thirty-two years. Of this long period away 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. He then moved on to Lausanne where, on 20 January 1791, he married Anne Rose Louis Berthoudt, daughter of Jacob, Baron van Berchem. In India, Polier also had two Indian wives, identified within his Persian correspondence as his senior and junior wife. These same Indian wives were identified as Johguenow [Jugnu] Begum and Zinnet [Zinat] Begum in Claude Martin’s will. They were each bequeathed a pension of 10 sicca rupees per month. By his European wife Polier fathered Pierre Ame’dee Charles Guillaume Adolphe, Comte de Polier. He had two other sons born of Indian women, and a daughter. He maintained a full-fledged household in Faizabad, with his two Indian wives and sons living under the care of his trusted Indian servant Lal Khan.
In 1792 Polier bought property in Rosetti near Avignon and settled there with his European wife, by whom he had another son. 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 with effect from 14th of March 1792. On the 9th of February 1795 he was assassinated by unidentified robbers. 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.