Lucknow is what it is because of all the colourful people who have, over centuries, made this city their home. One of the most amazing citizens of Lucknow was Claude Martin, who died here in September 1800.
Martin was born in 1735 in Lyons (southern France) at a time when interest in South Asia was at its peak in Europe. At the age of 16 years, he enlisted with the French East India Company to be a soldier in India. He arrived in Pondicherry in 1752. After having escaped a sinking ship off the coast of Madras in 1761, he walked all the way to Calcutta, eventually obtaining employment with the army of the British East India Company.
The Calcutta that Martin reached in 1761 was a small, new town founded 70 years earlier by the English on land leased from Emperor Aurangzeb. The English had graduated by this time from being mere traders to kingmakers. Martin was, at first, part of the team that was responsible for collecting revenue from the countryside for the English. And his association with Lucknow coincided with Asafudaulah’s decision to move his seat of power from Faizabad to Lucknow.
Asafudaulah, the new ruler of Awadh, wanted to be at least 75 miles away from his mother, who continued to live in Faizabad. After the death of his father, Asafudaulah’s relationship with his mother had become difficult and he looked to start a new life in Lucknow.
This decision of Asafudaulah transformed the agrarian surroundings of this part of the lush Indo-Gangetic plains. The region woke up to a deluge of people, including artists, politicians, soldiers and prostitutes, not just from different parts of India but from Europe and the Middle East. All of them came to one of the richest courts in India to offer their services. From a rustic granary, Lucknow became a glittering new capital more beautiful than Istanbul.
As Asafudaulah and the court settled in Lucknow, so did Martin. It is unknown when Martin first met Asafudaulah but what we do know is that over time the two became friends and business partners.
In Lucknow, Martin made quite a bit of money as a supplier of military equipment and from the property market. Calcutta had appointed Martin superintendent of the Lucknow Arsenal and in 1794 he led Asafudaulah’s cavalry against the rebelling Rohila Pathans.
Then came news of chaos and lawlessness in post-revolution France, and Martin gave up the idea of returning to his place of birth. In Awadh, of which Lucknow was the capital, he found greater opportunities to make money by exploiting the growing interest of the rich ruling family here in goods and services offered by Europe.
The retirement plan he had had for himself in Europe was no longer feasible. Besides, he was shaken by news of the violent death of his old architect friend, Antoine Polier, in 1795. After making his money here, Polier had returned to France only to be brutally murdered at Avignon. He had settled there with his French wife and daughters but was killed in all probability by those jealous of the wealth he had brought with him from India. His house was set on fire, his wife burnt alive and his daughters raped.
Martin decided to remain in Lucknow. He began life in Lucknow in Lakhipeera (‘place with one lakh trees’). This was a rented accommodation. Soon, he bought several homes on the hill overlooking the Gomti river.
He owned a covered market below the hill and collected rent from all this property. His own home was the lavish Farhat Baksh (parts of which still stand), where he lived like a laatsaheb, a local corruption of the word ‘lord’, with many mistresses and adopted children. Joseph Queiros was his Spanish housekeeper who, along with the Qadri brothers, took care of Martin’s many properties.
Farhat Baksh is described as filled with European treasures, displaying a perfect museum full of infinite amusement. To walk through Martin’s room was to walk through the mind of a polymath. “There seemed nothing lacking which the 18th century world could provide for a man of intellect and technical skill,” writes historian Rosie Llewellyn-Jones in A Very Ingenious Man.
Some of this glory continues to be reflected in the magnificent Constantia, the grand house and memorial that Martin built for himself and which along with the Bada Imambara built by Asafudaulah continues to vie for the label of the most lovable landmark of Lucknow.