Saturday, December 25, 2010

Edge of Empire

At the moment I am reading Edge of Empire by Maya Jasanoff. The book is subtitled Conquest and Collecting in the East 1750 -1850. Although published originally in 2006 this is the first time I recall seeing it on the shelves. Jasanoff is, or at least at the time of writing was, an Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia.

The book back cover of the book states:
Jasanoff asks what people brought from eastern domains, what they took away, and what it was that motivated them – whether ambition, opportunism, curiosity, attraction or greed. By following those who travelled to the edges of the Empire in India and Egypt, as well as the collections they purchased, plundered and preserved, Jasanoff uncovers an original and intimate history of imperialism.
The author is interested in the motives of the collectors who lived on the verges of European power - where Native rulers remained with considerable power. The Europeans in such areas were usually of socially inferior status and used the opportunity to collect artefacts to reinvent their status. Many lived as Moghul nobles, took native wives and reared families. Fortunes were made. But more often than not attempts to repatriate to the mother country were met with tragedy – such as Antoine Polier who had moved to India from Switzerland in 1756, aged 16.
Polier arrived in India in the year Plassey was fought.  He specialised as a military engineer and was rapidly promoted. Transferred to Bengal in 1761, he was tasked with the redesign of Fort William.  By 1766, Polier was chief engineer to the Bengal Army and a major, at the age of twenty-five.

To quote Jasanoff:

In many respects, Antoine Polier's rapid ascent echoed the rising stature of the Company he served. But there was one crucial fact about him that did not fit the conventional image—as even he drew it—of an emerging "British" empire in India. For Polier himself was not British but rather Swiss, born in Lausanne into a family of Huguenot emigrĂ©s. Both his ancestry and his mother tongue were French. And though he had glided up the ranks thus far, his foreign birth and connections now became an obstacle in a way they had never been before. Pressure was mounting in the Company against non-­ British officers. In 1766, the same year Polier was promoted to major, the Company passed a decree that no foreign soldier could rise above that rank. Polier was only in his mid-twenties, and already it seemed his career was coming to an end. "I now despair ever of seeing merit or long Service, the allowed qualifications to a candidate for preferment," he would later complain.

It was this fact that caused Polier to seek employment with the nawab of Awadh,  Shuja ud-Daula, in 1773.  He made his home in Lucknow for the next 15 years and collected  Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic manuscripts, gained prominent friends and made his fortune.

Polier, General Claude Martin, John Wombwell (assay master) and Johan Zoffan in Colonel Polier and His Friends 1786. Polier is shown surrounded by his friends, servants and part of his collection.

Poliar was part of a collecting circle which included Claude Martin, Benoit de Boigne, and even the nawab. Martin was to amass such a collection of European art in Lucknow that rivalled those in Europe itself.

Colonel Mordant's Cock Fight by Johan Zoffany c 1784-86  - Europeans going native.These weekly events brought European and Indian together. Martin sits on the sofa in East India Company uniform. Some sources identify Polier as the standing figure in uniform. Others say that he is not represented (i think that he may be that figure - having seen a "key" to the identities of those in the picture. It certainly indicates it to be Polier). Unfortunately, this picture is reproduced only in b&w in the book.            
Returning to Switzerland in 1788, Polier was unrecognisable to his family. He left his Moghul wives and children in India. He bought with him, his sister was to record Oriental luxury…all the indolence of Asia, and he had lost the ability to correctly express himself in French and English. He regretted leaving Lucknow, lamented leaving behind his friends. He was restless and moved to France, where in 1795 he was assassinated as a Robespierrist.

I am about halfway through the book at the moment and have enjoyed it immensely. It is not written in an academic style and deals with people rather than dry facts. As Jasanoff says, academics should not write just for academics, and she has been successful in her purpose.
My only complaint so far is that, in the paperback version at least, the photos are poor quality and black and white. Such as this:
Polier as Moghul Noble - Probably the way it really was!
Painted by Mihr Chand c 1780 

Polier enjoyed being painted watching nautch girls. There are at least two more pictures along similiar lines:

Overall, highly recommended.


  1. And Polier was at the origin of the very first European translation of the Mahabharata -approximative as it was, and put in final written form but a canoness of his family.

  2. Hello,

    My name is Chris Boreham, I'm contacting you from the British Broadcasting Company in the hope that you can help us with an upcoming history programme.

    If you could please email me at as soon as you see this comment, I'd be very grateful.