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The French East India Company at Home and Abroad

Rila Mukherjee ( teaches at the University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad.

Commerce, Conversion and Scandal in French India: A Colonial Affair by Danna Agmon, New Delhi: Speaking Tiger Publishing, 2017; pp 238, 950.

French Scholars and the Preoccupation with India in the Nineteenth Century by Jyoti Mohan, New Delhi: Sage India,Yoda Press, 2018; pp 392, 995.

It is surely a coincidence to find two books published almost simultaneously on the exploits of the French in India and their reverberations in France, and a delight to be asked to review them. The authors of both books, Danna Agmon and Jyoti Mohan, are based in the United States (US). Are these two publications a sign that French colonial history is staging a comeback and is once again on the American academic agenda?

Although both books under review, Commerce, Conversion and Scandal in French India: A Colonial Affair, and French Scholars and the Preoccupation with India in the Nineteenth Century, deal with the French in India and similar notions of imperial power and authoritarian pageantry run through their volumes, their contents as well as the authors’ approaches are quite dissimilar. Moreover, the time span covered is different. The first book privileges the early 18th century when France was an ascending power on the Coromandel coast of peninsular India; in the second, the 19th century, when the French were finished off in India as an imperial power, is focal.

The focus of Agmon’s work is the exercise of French imperial sovereignty on the early 18th century Coromandel coast. Her concern is to understand how sovereignty was furthered (or hampered) by the interactions between the French administrators, merchants and missionaries (the celebrated Guy Tachard among them) on the one hand and local intermediaries on the other. The book sheds light on the dynamics of French cross-cultural networking in South India and the information contained therein provides a template for European interactions on the subcontinent. Using Tamil and French sources, Agmon sensitively sifts through the documentation available on a colonial scandal and its aftermath—punishment, exile, death, royal pardon, conversion and restitution—to understand the functioning of a different kind of imperial sovereignty in colonial India. Her focus on the French juridical system and her account of how French sovereignty was exercised at Pondicherry between 1716 and 1720 provides a counterpoint to the many studies on the operation of British imperial sovereignty in colonial Calcutta and Madras.

Mohan has very different interests. Her book is concerned with the process of knowing India in 19th-century scholarly circles in France or, as she puts it, with the French scholarly project of “claiming” India in the intellectual and academic sense.

Much of France’s fixation with India, Blake Smith (2018) points out in his review of Mohan’s book in Caravan, can be seen as a “troubled obsession.” The scholarly project in France was formed in the shadow of a failed empire. Although, in the imperial gamble, Britain won and France lost, France never lost its fascination with the Indian civilisation. Highlighting this preoccupation with India in 19th-century France, Mohan delves into the French tradition of Indology, wherein Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil Duperron, who pioneered European study of the Upanishads in the last decades of the 18th century, is the best known. His Oriental Legislation (1778) attacked the British variant of Oriental Despotism, which saw Asian states lacking any form of law. Officials of the British East India Company—such as Warren Hastings, governor of Bengal between 1772 and 1785—used this theory to justify arbitrary and rapacious rule, arguing that Indians did not understand any other form of government aside from oppression. Another variant of British Indology, which has subsequently been seen as orientalist or romantic, was personified by William Jones and a host of scholar–administrators who followed him, both at Calcutta and in Madras, but this more benign strain would never be dominant in the functioning of an empire.

Indology in Europe

German Indology was pioneered by Wilhelm von Humboldt, and should not be confounded with his younger brother, the polymath and natural scientist, Alexander von Humboldt and the orientalist Max Müller. The Indological knowledge of Parisian scholars did little for French imperialism, but it would kick-start German Indology and add fuel to Germany’s quest for national greatness. Many 19th century German scholars, such as Max Müller, studied Sanskrit in Paris in the first decades of the century. His friend Ernest Renan would start the discipline of Philology in France and also generate race theories based on language, which would subsequently feed into the racial strain in German Indology.

The Dutch never developed their own branch of Indology, despite the works on Hinduism by Philippus Baldaeus, probablybecause their colonial preoccupations were elsewhere in Indonesia. However, Byapti Sur’s (2017) recent work on colonial Chinsurah points to a developing Dutch interest in Bengali customs and fairs, which were depicted in Dutch paintings of the settlement. The Dutch school of painting predated the Company school of art in Bengal. This early Bengal school of oil painting—whose artists were mostly anonymous—was once designated the Dutch–Bengal school. The artists worked with oil on canvas or sometimes on wood, depicting mainly mythological and religious subjects, and they were encouraged by the Dutch in this enterprise. The Dutch pioneered two other fields. Their expertise in cartography influenced subsequent English cartography and the Dutch pilot service’s skill in sailing in the waters of the Hughly river upstream to Patna meant that by the first half of the 18th century, the Dutch had the lead in patrolling the inland waterways and interior arangs (manufactories) of southwestern Bengal.

Mohan’s book illuminates a branch of Indology about which we know almost next to nothing. She argues that a distinctive French perception of India’s great civilisational heritage marked out French Indology from the other branches of European Indology (I am not sure how far this argument holds because the Germans, who never had an empire in India, also emphasised India’s civilisational heritage) and this fact alone, according to Mohan, necessitates the study of how and why the French chose this intimate involvement in the study of India (p 349).

The history of India’s entanglement with the West is therefore far more complicated and interesting than just that involving British rule. Yet, we cannot escape the spectre of the British imperialist whose orientalist leanings informed the English Indological project. Anquetil Duperron’s career in India shows him working in the shadow of the emergent British Empire in India, Smith has pointed out. After an initial stay in Pondicherry, he travelled to the French trading post of Chandernagore in Bengal, from where he meant to begin a journey up the Ganga to Varanasi. Instead, he had to flee a British army under Robert Clive, which was then marching upcountry for the decisive Battle of Plassey, which in 1757 crushed the Nawab of Bengal—Siraj ud-Daulah—and his French allies. After a torturous overland escape to Pondicherry, Duperron decided to go to Gujarat, to Surat, to learn ancient Iranian languages from the Parsi community there. But war followed him again; a British fleet captured Surat in 1761. When Duperron finally left the subcontinent in 1762, he negotiated passage on a British ship, only to be thrown in prison when it docked in England. It was enough, Smith writes, to make anyone a harsh critic of British imperialism, and Duperron bore a grudge for the remainder of his career. His contemporary Jean-Baptiste Gentil allied with Awadh and fought the British in Bengal in 1763. Another compatriot, Louis Laurent Federbe, Count of Modave, who travelled in Bengal and upcountry between 1773 and 1776 on his way to offer his services as mercenary to the Mughal Emperor, was no less a critic of British rule than the other two; he did not hesitate to snipe at the layout of English Calcutta and what he saw as lugubrious and humourless English manners. He also criticised the tedium of English entertainments—balls, tea parties, masques, carriage rides and soirees (Deloche 1971). On the other hand, the Count of Modave admired the Dutch (possibly because they too were victims of British advance in India); he praised their market garden at the Chinsurah settlement and their commerce in Bengal and Bihar at a time when the Dutch were facing difficulties in face of British commercial ascendance in eastern India (Deloche 1971).

The British, by contrast, did not hesitate to critique the Dutch: An English letter of 1634 had already noted:

The Dutch, who in their imaginations would engrosse the whole worlds commerce, provide for it in one of the most important furtherances; for they have shipping in India [ie the Indies] above a hundred saile; with which they doe not onely infest all places but trade as it were in triumph. (Foster1911)

In 1682, William Hedges, English merchant and the first governor of the East India Company (EIC) in Bengal wrote: “by the way ’tis observable that ye Dutch omit no opportunity to do us all the prejudice that lyes in their power” and in 1684 he wrote again, complaining against the Dutch:

Here ye Duch boore showed himself in his natural colours (I believe it is impossible to know a Hollander’s temper and natural hatred to an English man so well in any other part of ye world as in India).1 (Wilson 1895; Barlow and Yule 1887; Foster 1908)

This English attitude toward the Dutch persisted throughout the 18th century and it is evident that the conflicts of the European powers on the ground in India coloured the tone of their Indological exercises on India.

Ressurrection of Lost Memory

Mohan deserves credit for bringing to light the French Indological exercise, which has been less known compared to the German Indological project of Wilhelm von Humboldt. And yet, the Germans never had an empire in Asia while, for many centuries, Smith points out, India was a French preoccupation, a source of precious commodities, vital alliances, literary inspiration and spiritual insight. Fortunes were sought, and sometimes made, by bringing the dazzling cotton cloth of India (known in French simply as “Indians”) to French shores. Fine varieties of cloth called bafta was a French perquisite, while the English usually contracted for the more coarse (and cheaper) varieties. In 1788, Parisian crowds flocked to see ambassadors from Tipu Sultan’s Mysore, and, during the French Revolution, French mercenaries stationed in Tipu’s capital were said to have hailed him as a “citizen-sultan.” French literature is filled with fantasies about India; some of its most notable characters have Indian connections. Captain Nemo, the great anti-hero of Jules Verne’s science-fiction novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, is an Indian prince whose participation in the anti-British revolt of 1857 forced him to go underground (or undersea).

Mohan shows how, in his 1773 book Fragments about India and other writings, Voltaire mourned the loss of India, presenting the subcontinent as a source of civilisation comparable to that of Greece and Rome. He outlined a vision of India that greatly influenced French thought and culture; French officials and scholars concluded that if their nation could no longer rival Britain for control of India’s present, they would become the masters of its past. This, according to Mohan, was the impulse behind a vogue for Indological scholarship in France from the second half of the 18th century, with Indian manuscripts at its centre.

Trade with India

The two volumes, one looking at the exercise of sovereignty and the other at India as a scholarly project, have, as their background, the French colonial adventure. Since the primary purpose of the French Company in India was trade, let us look at the state of French commerce in India, the character of its colonial possessions, and discover how the company fared compared to the English and Dutch companies.

The French Compagnie des Indes, in its various guises, was a comparatively small player in the Indian Ocean world, and it was a particularly weak commercial and military power in India. Unlike the joint-stock companies of the English and the Dutch, it was a royal company that entered the Indian Ocean world relatively late. Short-lived compared to the Dutch and English companies, it was established in 1664, underwent reorganisation in 1719, and became bankrupt before being liquidated, just after the French Revolution, in 1794. The revolution and the events following it were decisive for the company’s fortunes and it did not
survive into the Napoleonic period.

The French Company remained in existence for a period of 130 years. Compare this to 274 years for the English Company and 197 years for the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) or the Dutch Company. The English Company was founded in 1600, saw a merger of the Old and New Companies in 1708, and was liquidated in 1874 by the East India Stock Dividend Redemption Act (it was abolished earlier in India, in 1858). The Dutch Company was established in 1602 and liquidated in 1799, already having been nationalised in 1796 after the financially disastrous (for the Dutch) Fourth Anglo–Dutch War that lasted from 1780 to 1784 in Europe.

The French Failure

There were many reasons for the French Company’s short shelf-life. The chief cause was, as is well known, inadequate capital. Plagued by a chronic shortage of funds in India, the French Company was marked by infighting among its factors and the shortsightedness of its superiors in France. These negative factors reverberated at Pondicherry, the company’s headquarters in India (and also the centre of Agmon’s scandal) and at Chandernagore in Bengal, which became the most important French settlement in the 18th century.

The varying fortunes and the shifting centres of the French Company—Rouen, St Malo, Paris, Nantes, Brest and Lorient—also impacted on the company’s fate in India. The English and Dutch companies operated from single metropolitan bases—London and Amsterdam respectively—although the Dutch Company was in fact a combination of commercial organisations in the various cities of Holland and Zeeland. The two companies were also much less bureaucratic in nature as compared to the French Company, which had to depend on official permission from France before taking any action on the ground in India and elsewhere. Due to their centralised and less rule-bound nature, the English and Dutch companies moved as a single and uniform bloc when dealing with Indian polities and commercial rivals. This was in marked contrast to the fractious French Company’s affairs and was yet another, major reason for the French failure in India.

A third reason for the French failure is one that has not received due attention. The intelligence of the French regarding local politics was never as good as that of the Dutch or the English. The last read local politics very accurately and made strategic alliances, as can be seen from their success at Plassey in 1757. This deficiency on the part of the French throws a question mark on the quality of the information generated by their local informants, as well as French assessment of ground realities. For example, the French at Pondicherry saw the Nawab of Bengal as being subordinate to the Nizam at Hyderabad; this is manifestly absurd, as by the 1720s, quasi-independent successor states of the disintegrating Mughal Empire had emerged in many parts of India.2 These successor states or riyasat operated independently of each other, controlling large tracts of regional economies to the south, east, and north of what had earlier been Mughal India. How could the French have not known this?

There were other intelligence lapses. Post-1757, at a critical moment for Europe and Bengal in the transition to colonialism, Law de Lauriston envisaged a grand alliance between the native princes, the Marathas, the Ottomans, the Russians and the French to oust the English from Bengal (Martineau 1913). The French plan was to attack English-occupied Bengal through Maratha-ruled Nagpur, and advance into Bengal through Orissa where the English were already threatened by the Maratha occupation of Cuttack from 1751. The occupation of Cuttack endangered the coastal lines of communication between Bengal and the Bay of Bengal for the English Company while the French, who had pulled out from the Orissa coast in 1749, had nothing to lose in this endeavour. How this grand alliance was to be achieved was never satisfactorily explained, and the experiment never got off the ground.

A fourth reason is that because of such poor information and communication networks underpinning the French presence, the company could not generate durable local partnerships that could later be dispensed with, as was the case with the Armenians. This lack of trust is clearly visible in Agmon’s book. A French document of 1751 noted for Bengal: “The English and the Dutch ... have nicer goods than us, but they also operate in a different way” and the French commercial vision was critiqued on the grounds that:

The English are cleverer merchants than us ... why not imitate them if we cannot match them? They permit Armenians and other nations to settle at Calcutta on the Ganges, to do trade there, free of customs and other duties, they give all private traders or employees the freedom to build and charge ships to be used in coastal trade, to buy their wood, iron, cordages and tar wherever they want, their trade flourishes and it is a perpetual movement of big and small interests, why do we not give the same facilities to all the nations? ... the more there is facility and freedom in a factory, more there are weavers and traders and the more it results in advantages for all who have some interest in it. (C Roy 1919; Indranil Roy 1970)

The English settlements were very different from those of the French in nature and layout. They were more open, and this becomes evident when we look at their prime settlement of Calcutta. Unlike the French, the English welcomed merchants and seafaring men of all nationalities and religions, and many nationalities such as the Greeks and Armenians built their churches there. The English, attempting to establish a vibrant and inclusive commercial society, tolerated Hinduism, Islam, Presbyterianism, and Roman Catholicism, although they themselves were staunch Protestant Anglicans. Madras was the same; the presence there of members of the Tamil weaving caste who produced the essential export commodity, chintz, was vital to the city’s existence. The weavers, on their part, were willing to move into well-defended Madras because it offered greater security (Mitter 1986).

The Decline

The French remained aloof and therefore more isolated in their settlements, and they consistently faced difficulties in attracting merchants and weavers to settle at their settlements. The clear gridiron plan of Pondicherry distinguished very clearly the black and white towns compared to English Calcutta or Madras, betraying a conscious desire for segregation. My own work shows Joseph Francois Dupleix’s commercial undertakings at Chandernagore discriminating against indigenous Bengal-based merchants in matters of freight. Dupleix preferred to deal with Europeans, Greeks and Armenians as freight suppliers. Therefore, at least in the beginning, local merchants were more hostile to the French than to the English in their respective settlements.

But, like the English Company that recommended in 1683 “the Inhabitants may pay the full Charge of all repaires and ffortificacons, who do live easier under our Government than under any Government in Asia, or indeed any Government in the known part of the World” (and on one occasion, when the heads of the castes in Madras showed reluctance to pay up, they were confined in a temple by Thomas Pitt until they acquiesced) (Mitter 1986), the French too asked the merchants and artisans living within early 18th-century Pondicherry to contribute towards the expenses of building a city wall when the city was menaced by the Marathas. But this short-sighted, penny-pinching and indeed parsimonious measure devolved in time to an onerous and bitterly resented tax for locals. The French also levied entry and exit taxes on local merchants, leading many traders to flee Pondicherry, settle at the “free” port of Porto Novo and conduct business from there.3 This 18th century port sometimes functioned as a subsidiary of Pondicherry, but it remained open to Portuguese merchants and to Dutch and English private traders and shipping until the 1750s, when the Carnatic Wars affected commerce on the Coromandel Coast. By contrast, Madras embarked on a unique experiment far in advance of its time by means of the Royal Charter of 1687, namely the creation of a representative civic body with a mayor and aldermen drawn from all sections of the population, including three Tamil merchants (Mitter 1986). Local engagement with the factory towns was, therefore, more marked at the British settlements.

A final reason for the French decline was that ecclesiastical affairs—those of the Jesuits, Augustines, Capuchins, Carmelites, Franciscans and Ursulines—were closely intertwined with commercial affairs and densely embedded within the commercial enterprise of the Compagnie des Indes. This was particularly visible at Pondicherry (Diagou 1940). How far this impeded the development of a French empire in India, and indeed was a reason of the French failure, needs to be looked at. And, how far the separation of Church and Trade in the case of the English company enabled it to successfully establish an empire in India is also something that deserves attention.

There were also some external factors that had an impact on French operations in India. Their defeats in major European wars always meant the temporary loss of colonial possessions. In 1693, during the Nine Years’ War in Europe, Pondicherry was attacked by the Dutch. It was only with the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697 that this European war, which had pitted France against an alliance comprised of England, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and the United Provinces, ended. Peace was restored in the colonies. But the war affected French efforts to control the Indian Ocean trade and had an impact on French commercial standing in India. Again, France’s defeat at the hands of England in the European Seven Years’ War (1756–63) put paid to its dreams of becoming a global superpower. The war’s outcome saw France losing its Indian possessions and becoming, once and for all time, a subordinate power in India. Napoleon’s defeat by the English in 1815 at Waterloo (when the French Company had already been liquidated) meant that France’s colonial possessions were once again held by the English.

However, despite these shortcomings, under Dupleix’s far-sighted commercial leadership in the 1730s and 1740s Bengal, the French Company transformed into a serious rival to the English and Dutch companies. Alfred Martineau tells us that already in the mid-1720s, 15,00,000 francs were deployed for Chandernagore from France while Pondicherry was allotted only 10,00,000 francs. Mahe got only 1,10,000 francs. Regarding the value of goods brought from the two regions into France: in 1728, the Mercure brought in goods worth `2,82,625 from Bengal against goods valued at `28,745 sourced from Pondicherry. The same year, the Bourbon brought in goods worth `2,42,584 from Bengal against goods worth `93,988 from Pondicherry (Martineau 1920). But, despite additional funds, the overall trend was a much higher financing of the English and Dutch companies in India in this period. Although France–Asia shipping and tonnage picked up from the mid-18th century, they could never match that of the other two companies.

Also, despite Chandernagore’s central role in the France–India trade from the 1730s, Pondicherry remained the French Company’s headquarters, although the region in which it lies was subject to chronic famines, produced poor quality cotton fabrics for overseas trade and was frequently overrun by the Marathas. But the advantage of Pondicherry was that it offered direct sailing across the Bay of Bengal to Mergui, Achin, Manila, Macau and ports in China. Yet, in January 1741, the Pondicherry Consultations reported that an additional `6,00,000 had been sent to Chandernagore via Pondicherry.4 This trend continued into the mid-1740s after which French commerce declined steadily all over India.

Would the imperial story been different if France had made Chandernagore its headquarters in India? We shall never know.

cholarly Lineages

Surprisingly, although the French Company’s commercial presence in India was quite marginal compared to the English and Dutch companies, there have been numerous volumes written on the history of the French in India and so Agmon and Mohan’s volumes, although neither of them emphasise the France-India trade, follow a long and distinguished tradition of scholarship in this field.

There are books written in English and French such as George Bruce Malleson’s overview of French colonial history in his History of the French in India 1674–1761 etc (1868, 2nd revised ed 1893); Paul Kaeppelin’s La Compagnie des Indes Orientales etc (1908); Alfred Martineau’s Dupleix et l’Inde Francaise 1749–1754 (1927) and his other related works cited in this essay; Catherine Manning’s Fortunes a Faire: The French in Asian Trade, 1719–48 (1996); Jean-Marie Lafont’s Indika: Essays in Indo-French Relations (2000); Jacques Weber’s edited volume Les Relations entre la France et lInde de 1673 à Nos Jours (2003) and many others by him on a similar theme; and Philippe Haudrere’s Les Compagnies des Indes Orientales etc (2006) as also other books by Haudrere on the company theme. I might have missed quite a few in this list. For the complete list of historical books on France’s relations with India, see the website created by the University of Liverpool’s team led by Ian Magdera and funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council ( The print version of 2011, edited and introduced by Magdera, is published by the University of Glasgow’s French and German Publications and the University of Liverpool.

In India, S P Sen’s French in India 1763–1816 (1958) followed this generic style of history-writing as compared to the more nuanced overviews of Indo–French history that can be found in Indrani Ray’s collected works titled The French East India Company and the Trade of the Indian Ocean (which was posthumously edited by Lakshmi Subramanian in 1999); in K S Mathew and Stephen S Jeyaseela’s jointly edited volume Indo-French Relations (also 1999); in Arvind Sinha’s The Politics of Trade: Anglo-French Commerce on the Coromandel Coast 1763–1793 (2002); and in Aniruddha Ray’s The Merchant and the State: The French in India 1666–1739 (2004).

Other works on “French India” have explored the diverse and variegated facets of the French colonial experience. These usually concentrate on Franco–Indian relations on specific coasts privileging, as a general rule, the Coromandel and Bengal coasts. Among Indian scholars, mention may be made of Lotika Varadarajan’s publication of the diaries of Francois Martin in the Coromandel, S N Sen’s work on Chandernagore in Bengal and Ajit Neogy’s work on decolonisation of French India. Again, this list is by no means exhaustive.

Hardly any works by France or India-based scholars address the Indian west coast as the French largely withdrew from that region by the 17th century, the minor settlement of Mahe being the only exception. Between 1720 and 1725, the French practically wound up their operations at Surat, and by 1740, the Surat settlement was kept on only as a small establishment, limited to a chief and two officials for the Mocha (Red Sea) trade and to negotiate with the Arabs.

It will now be instructive to see how these studies of “French India” compare to similar studies on the other European colonies in their nature and numbers.

Scholars studying the British Indian Empire are well known and too numerous to be cited here. Comparatively minor powers such as the Danes will also not be mentioned. But if we compare studies on “French India” with those on other imperial powers, we see that Indo–Portuguese history continues to hold an important place in universities in India, the United Kingdom (UK), the US and in Europe, particularly in Portugal. Scholars such as Charles Boxer (UK), Lotika Varadarajan (India), Luis Filipe F R Thomaz and Joao Teles e Cunha (Lisbon), Genevieve Bouchon and Ernestine Carreira (France), and Sanjay Subrahmanyam (US) come readily to mind.

Surprisingly, the most meagre offerings on Dutch India have come from the Netherlands, despite the Dutch controlling an epic colonial empire in Asia. There was the overarching study of the Dutch sea borne empire by Charles Boxer in 1965, but the initial stimulus to studies of VOC–Indian Ocean trade that was pioneered by the likes of Jacob Cornelius Van Leur (1955), Kristof Glamann (1958) and Marie Antoinette Petronella Meilink-Roelofsz (1962) gradually tapered off, although Femme Simon Gaastra published his book on the VOC in 2003. Lennart Bes, Markus Vink and Jos Gommans work on Dutch archival resources on South Asia and, in the case of Vink, also on 17th century Dutch–Asian interactions, focusing on peninsular India.

In India, Kalikinkar Datta, although not using Dutch sources, pioneered studies on the Dutch in Bengal. A prominent historian working with Dutch sources on South Asia, and one who is closely affiliated with Leiden University, is Om Prakash, formerly of the Delhi School of Economics in India.

It is clear from the foregoing that after studies of “Portuguese” and “British” India, the greatest amount of studies were generated on “French” India.

The Stories

Other than highlighting relations between the rulers and the ruled en masse, Agmon’s work is significantly different for it also delves into the dynastic politics that were visible among the brokers. Her book focuses on the case of Nayiniyappa who was the chief commercial broker to the Compagnie des Indes at Pondicherry between 1708 and 1716.

We know of Ananda Ranga Pillai but not of Nayiniyappa.5 On 6 June 1716, the Sovereign Council of Pondicherry convicted Nayiniyappa on charges of tyranny and sedition. His wealth was confiscated and his three sons banished from the settlement. Sentenced to three years imprisonment, Nayiniyappa died just a few months later, in August 1717, in somewhat mysterious circumstances. According to his sons, Nayiniyappa’s death was “no accident but the work of Governor Hebert and his son” (p 93). We thus get a glimpse of a delicious colonial intrigue on the part of the French rulers. The interpreters—a French-speaking Tamil convert named Manuel Geganis, the Tamil-speaking Jesuit Pere priest Turpin and an India-born Frenchman called Cordier—formed the linguistic and social link between the rulers and the ruled in the French trading world of the Coromandel coast, much as Bernard Cohn showed us in “The Command of Language, etc” in Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (1996).

Ultimately, the story had a happy ending. In 1720, the French king pardoned Nayiniyappa, his name was cleared, and the family’s fortunes were restored. But it was at a cost. Nayiniyappa’s eldest son had to travel to France and convert to Christianity, with Philip d’Orleans, the Regent of France, acting as his godfather. He was made a chevalier and returned to Pondicherry where he was restored to his father’s position as chief commercial broker to the French Company.

It is difficult for this reviewer to link Agmon’s arguments to those of Mohan’s concerns, for Mohan concentrates, not on actual events on the ground, but on the process whereby images and histories of India were created in France for a particular audience. A specific colonial memory, marked by nostalgia, was consequently perpetuated. While the French colonial adventure in Algeria had a violent end, the France–India relation had no such abrupt ending, and so the imagination of India evolved gently and gradually in France. It was embedded in an artificial archive of knowledge, and expressed through academic monographs, postcards and museum exhibits. If the French language was imported into the Indian settlements, Sanskrit was exported, underlining the French desire to “preserve the civilisation of India” for “despite British territorial dominance in India, the conception of India as a land of spiritual and intellectual greatness was still strongly French and it continues to endure in Europe even today” (p 349).

New Geographies of Spatiality

Reading Agmon’s and Mohan’s work, I was struck by how far studies of Europe’s entanglement with India between 1500 and 1800 have moved away from the trade history that dominated the academic agenda from the 1960s until the end of the 20th century. Academic concerns shifted thereafter to notions of the maritime archive (Shanti Moorthy and Ashraf Jamal; Isabel Hofmeyr; Pamila Gupta; Meg Samuelson), the spatial turn in history—both maritime and continental (Philip Steinberg, Kimberley Peters, Matthias Middell and Katja Naumann, this author), and to studies of maritime cosmopolitanism (Mark Ravinder Frost, Sunil Amrith among others), the maritime cultural landscape and human-nature interactions (Christer Westerdahl, James Warren, Joseph Christensen, Greg Bankoff), littoral societies (Michael Pearson), modernity (Gerda Brunnlechner; Evelyn Edson), colonial power-knowledge (Bernard Cohn), and the exercise of sovereignty at sea (Elizabeth Mancke, Lauren Benton and Lisa Ford, Fahad Ahmad Bishara). Other than the functioning of colonial power-knowledge and a certain amount of reference to vernacular modernity, all these tropes and new, related concerns are absent in the two books.

Also, although both books have as their backdrop French commerce in the Indian Ocean, the sea is remarkably absent in their accounts. I am not so convinced whether that is a plus point. Even the missionary enterprise, embedded within the French state’s commercial project, was deeply braided with the sea. The idea of missionary enterprise as “mission civilatrice” was constantly evoked. The Capucin Francois-Marie de Tours, basing himself at Chandernagore from 1700 to 1718, tried to mount the Tibet mission by linking the Persia and China missions through Tibet via land and sea routes. Chandernagore was central in his vision because the French settlement was to be a hub in the passage from Lhasa to the Bay of Bengal. Chandernagore was to become a dual gateway, into Tibet and into the Bay where the missions arrived and departed.

De Tours asked the Propaganda Fide to place the Tibet mission under the protection of the French government and its East India Company. The whole chain of Capucin mission-stations from Chandernagore to Lhasa was planned to come under the designation of the “Thibetan Mission” and the keeping open of this line of communication with “civilisation” was considered essential to the welfare of the undertaking. In 1703 the Propaganda, with Pope Clement’s approval, awarded the Tibet mission to the Capucin order, but de Tour’s initiative failed due to French preoccupation with the War of Spanish Succession in Europe and also due to the hostility of the Jesuits who already had a foothold in Tibet. In 1725, Desideri, the star of the Jesuit mission to Tibet passed through Chandernagore on his way down to the Bay of Bengal from Tibet. Other missionaries to Tibet passing through Chandernagore were the Capucins Felice da Montecchio (1706) and Francesco Orazio della Penna di Billi (1713, 1735, 1739) (Hosten 1919; Gaudart 1936).

These missionaries, no less than the French colonial state, generated different spatialities and different notions of sovereignty, religion and civilisation.

As counterpoint to notions of European civilisation, India also emerged as a tropical “laboratory” for studying natural history, with botanical networks linking Pondicherry and Chandernagore to France. The linkage was most likely via Isle de France (Mauritius), a tropical Eden that was indispensable in the exchange of botanical samples between East and West and one that has been vividly evoked in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy. Two entries of 1737/8 in the French archives mention a Sr Binot, doctor cum botanist who was employed by the French Company and sent from France to gather plants in India, particularly from Bengal. His mission was to bring back plants for the Royal Garden, indicating again the French Company’s involvement in missions other than commercial. Binot arrived in Pondicherry on a company vessel, the Dauphin, and was sent on to Bengal, but he disappears from the records thereafter and we know nothing of his exploits.6

Merits and Demerits

Agmon’s volume awakens an interest in the French notion of colonial crime, punishment and justice. The library at the Institute of Chandernagor in West Bengal, India, possesses a volume titled La Criminalite dans les Comptoirs Francais de l’Inde au XVIIIeme Siecle (a translation of the title is “Criminality in the Eighteenth-Century French settlements of India”) by Edmont Gaudart. The book was published from Paris and Pondicherry in 1937. Suicides, murders, piracy at sea, robbery and petty thefts (on the part of both French and Indians) are the crimes covered. It is singular that the Nayiniyappa case is not mentioned in the volume. Agmon is therefore to be congratulated for weaving together a rich tapestry of information from the documentation available on this case and its tragic aftermath. However, as Agmon’s book contains no bibliography (a gross deficiency in my opinion) I was unable to check whether she has seen Gaudart’s book at all. The crimes and the proceedings against them mentioned in the volume might have offered her alternate windows to explore the operation of sovereignty in the colonies.

Besides an impressive bibliography, Mohan’s book contains numerous images (although not the author’s fault, these are very badly reproduced), and eight useful tables on articles published on India in French journals (pp 350–55). I wish she had devoted space to the politics of cartographic projection and representation that waged a war throughout the 18th-century at European settlements in India (and “back home”) because that too was a process of “knowing” India and the manner of presenting this new knowledge to the audience at home is significant.

Map makers and their maps were essential elements in the furthering of imperial sovereignty in distant parts of the empire. Two examples drawn from Bengal in 1780 suffices to underscore this point. Ian Barrow’s analysis of Renell’s A Bengal Atlas (1780) showed clearly that the compulsions of the empire and a desire to justify in Britain the English Company’s conquest of Bengal meant that Murshidabad, which was acknowledged by contemporaries to be a large city, was portrayed as a mere speck on Renell’s map, with the projection firmly centred on an enormous British Calcutta. This was hardly accurate for that time because Calcutta was then at the incipient stages of its growth. By contrast, Rigoberto Bonne’s map of the same year, titled “Carte de la Partie Superieure de l’Inde en Deca du Gange Comprise entre la Cote du Concan et celle d’Orixa, avec l’Empire du Mogol, le Bengale etc.” in Guillaume Reynal’s Atlas de toutes les parties connues du globe terrestre (also 1780) highlights “Chandernagor” and “Moxud-abad,” and not British Calcutta. It is the same story for French maps that depict Madras and Pondicherry. In fact, Robert de Vaugondy’s Asia (1762) marks “Chandernagor” and “Pondicheri” and completely ignores Fort William, Calcutta and Fort St George, Madras.

Relevance Today

Agmon and Mohan have continued the tradition of writing on “French India,” although I am not very convinced if such quasi-colonial nomenclature and accounts of European exploits have much relevance amid India’s present concerns. Does the caption “French India” still retain any meaning for the Indian youth of this generation? Mohan is sensitive to this fact, and her concluding chapter is titled “Was India Really ‘French’?”

Both books are long on facts but regrettably short on theory. A recasting of Agmon’s and Mohan’s stories away from the rubric of “French India” or France–India relations and incorporation of new theories on social communication and spatial networks could have, I feel, added more value to their arguments. I believe that a networked history—rather than a comparative or even a connected history—can open new windows on mobility, connectivity and colonial imaginaries and also bring the new geographies of circulation into focus. Both the scandal at Pondicherry and the scholarly project in France and its persistence in popular memory could have been seen in terms of social networks that worked for or against the French presence in India. Both authors have certainly anticipated the various kinds of spatialities that gradually unveil themselves in their accounts, because both Pondicherry and Paris ultimately formed part of the larger history of globality in the First Global Age from 1400 to 1800. Yet, it would have been more acceptable to this reviewer if Agmon and Mohan had highlighted such spatialities and their resultant networks, and also explored them further.


1 See Wilson (1895); Barlow and Yule (1887: entries of 11 October 1682 and 26 December 1684). For Dutch harassment of the English East India Company in the Indian Ocean, see Foster (1908).

2 Alfred Martineau, Correspondance du Conseil Superieur de Pondichery et de la Compagnie etc, Vol 2, 1736–1738, Pondichery, Societe Historique de l’Inde Francaise, nd. See entries dated 15 October 1737 and 18 January 1738, pp 250–51.

3 Proces-Verbaux des Deliberations du Conseil Superieur de la Compagnie des Indes, 1724–1735, Vol II, Pondicherry: Societe de l’Histoire de l’Inde Francaise, 1913–14, entries of: 3 June 1724, pp 28–31; 25 June 1724, pp 31–32; 28 July 1728, pp 189–92; 2 September 1728, pp 193–94; 22 July 1735, pp 420–21.

4 Martineau, Correspondance du Conseil Superieur de Pondichery, Vol 2, p 10; idem, Correspondance du Conseil Superieur de Pondichery, Vol 3, 1739–42, Pondichery, Societe Historique de l’Inde Francaise, nd. See entries of 13 February 1740 and 1 January 1741, pp 126–27.

5 The “Naniapa” case in mentioned in Diagou, Arrets, pp 106–09, 117.

6 Martineau, Correspondance du Conseil Superieur de Pondichery, Vol 2, p 253.


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— (2018): “Individual Interests behind the Institutional Façade: The Dutch East India Company’s Legal Presence in Seventeenth-Century Mughal Bengal,” Itinerario, Vol 42, No 2, pp 279–94.

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Updated On : 24th Nov, 2019


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