Monday, January 14, 2013

The Remarkable General Claude Martin

I think there have been some periods of history where it was just easier to be heroic, to attain a larger than life status.  The 1700s were such a time.  There were still unexplored places on earth and mankind's entire viewpoint was being reshaped by the Enlightenment of Jefferson and Rousseau.  These were the times of Claude Martin, a man whose life and posthumous memorials read like fiction.

He was born in 1735 in Lyon, France.  The name Claude is rather atypical for France as a whole, but was fairly common in Lyon since the discovery there of a massive bronze tablet called the Edict of Claudius.
to be seen in the Gallo Roman museum, Lyon

For reasons unclear young Claude Martin joined the French Army at age 16, much against his mother's wishes.  He shipped out for India which at that time was being fought over by France, Britain and their various local allies.  He never left.

Things did not go well for the French cause and in 1760 Martin simply defected and changed employers.  This may account for his somewhat diminished reputation in his home country.  But Martin was ever the opportunist, and working for the British East India Company was simply where the opportunities were.

And he grabbed at opportunity with both hands.  He served the British as a surveyor and as an army officer. He dabbled in real estate, grew indigo and loaned money at high interest rates to raj and raja alike.  He succeeded in getting himself appointed to a ridiculously profitable post as superintendent of an armory.  He made money hand over fist.

But he was not a simple money grubber.  He was an architect, building himself a magnificent palace of a home called Farad Baksh.  Among other things it had a treasure vault in the basement where he kept the money of other Europeans safe in a time where there were no banks.  Charging a 12% annual fee for the service of course.  But safety he provided, the house was a fortress with a couple of small artillery pieces guarding the front door.

He was also a scientific tinkerer.  In the hinterland city of Lucknow, India he seems to have launched the first manned balloon flight in Asia, in 1785. This was a mere two years after the first ever such flight took place in Paris.

He was a contemporary of Ben Franklin and also experimented with electricity.  He actually had some early  apparatus for electrical lighting, although it appears to have been more parlor trick than practical.

Claude was one tough hombre.  He once survived a ship wreck, subsequent detainment by unfriendly locals, and a cross-the-jungle trek to freedom in which at least one other castaway was eaten by "a tyger".

The tropics were a harsh environment to 18th century Europeans.  Most suffered ill health and many died there.  Claude Martin's particular cross to bear was bladder stones.  Not much fun at all, and a condition that tended to slowly progress to renal failure and death.  So he decided to operate on himself.

Yes, on himself.  The details are cringe worthy and involved daily use of a special metal catheter with a sharpened edge that he used to file away the stone---using it six to eight times a day over the course of several months.  He sent a written account of his novel surgical procedure to "a Medical Society in London" to be published.

By the time of his death in 1800 Claude Martin was the stuff of legend.  Fabulously rich, known by everyone of importance.  His palatial homes were social gathering places, his library one of the most extensive in India.

Oh, he was no saint.  Some of his letters allude to his urinary difficulties being in part due to venereal disease.  If so his self treatment seems to have done him wonders, at the time of his death he had seven mistresses, all scandalously at least 30 years younger than he.

His business dealings were dubious and he seems to have always held the Indians in contempt, referring to them as "blacks" and painting few positive pictures of them.

Perhaps it was an awareness of his shortcomings in life that prompted him to write a rather extraordinary will near the end.  European rule of India vanished.  But the legacy of Claude Martin endured....

Next:  The Legacy of General Martin.

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