French India: The Lion’s Crown of Thorns

The English had been in India for half a century when Jean-Baptiste Colbert established, with the enthusiastic support of the same Cardinal Richelieu whom Dumas has made so famous in The Three Musketeers, the French East India Company (la Compagnie française pour le commerce des Indes orientales), headed by François Caron, a Huguenot exile who had spent thirty years in the employ of the VOC.

french war memorial
French War Memorial in Pondicherry, Photo from Flickr

Drawing on such expertise, the French made rapid progress establishing themselves despite their late start and were, by the early 1700s, a formidable naval power in the Indian Ocean and a serious competitor to British interests on the Subcontinent. With a strong foundation in the textile trade, the Company was turning profits of which even the EIC was jealous, and it was in part through his investments in the French East India Company that Voltaire grew rich enough to force the coining of the word ‘millionaire’. Pondichéry, which had once been an insignificant fishing village, had become, as the capital of the Company’s administration in India, a flourishing city.

Wealth, however, was not enough for Joseph François Dupleix, who was named governor in 1742; he wanted France to wield power in Asia as well, and sought to create a true territorial French empire on the Subcontinent over the objections of his superiors in Paris and, occasionally, in defiance of treaties signed with Great Britain. It was Dupleix who urged the young Prince of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, to turn against his kingdom’s former allies and openly attack the British Fort William in Calcutta—a manoeuvre that lead directly to the ill-fated Battle of Plassey, at which Ud-Daulah’s forces and their French allies were defeated. Ironically, Dupleix thus assured the creation of a true territorial British empire in India and condemned his successor to an endless retreat before the advancing influence of the EIC. Dupleix was summarily removed from his post and recalled to France in 1754, thus sparing him the indignity of seeing Pondichéry captured by the British and razed in 1760.

The aftermath of the Seven Years’ War, however, returned Pondichéry and other Indian territories to French control as part of the larger peace, and they continued to trade hands frequently over the next half-century. When the French administration returned permanently, in 1817, the city had lost most of its former glory. What was far more disconcerting, however, was that it had become anglophone.

Life expectancy in India at the time was only 40 to 50 years, comparable to France itself after the Napoleonic Wars, and an absence of twenty years after the last loss of the town was longer than it would otherwise have seemed. Only the very oldest of the city’s residents could still communicate in French; English had effectively become the only means of communication between European and Indian languages, as it was the only European language the native translators could handle with facility. Until 1954, when the French territories were de facto ceded to newly independent India, English would remain the official language of administration in the French colonies.

The native translators were the offspring of Britain’s realization for itself of Dupleix’s dream for France—the fruit of Indian soil made products of European education. They came from a new middle class brought into existence by European business and political interests, which found themselves constantly in need of individuals who knew local languages, cultures, and customs, but who were also wholly conversant with European systems of business and governance.

In the early nineteenth century, such men were essential pillars of European rule. Dwarakanath Tagore, for example, was one of the first Indian industrialists and entrepreneurs. His career began after leaving an English school for an apprenticeship under an English barrister. He operated privately as a tax farmer in addition to his direct employment with the EIC and died in London in 1846, after stating that “the happiness of India is best secured by her connection with England.”

By the late nineteenth century, however, the descendants of these men had become a positive danger. Tagore’s grandson came to Pondichéry to escape scrutiny from British authorities, who looked unfavorably on his public support of Indian independence and his sympathies for Indian nationalists; the city was a natural refuge for a man who, at the age of sixteen, had directed his brother’s Indian adaptation of Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme. Rabindranath Tagore was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and having been knighted by the British Crown for his literary accomplishments, he repudiated his knighthood following the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Two of his songs are now the national anthems of India and Bangladesh.

Sri Aurobindo had, like Tagore, attended school in England, where he won a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge to fulfill his father’s dream of seeing him enter the Indian Civil Service. Having no desire to do so, he purposefully came late to a horse-riding exam, failed, and returned to India, where he became involved with the resistance movement. His politics at that time were deeply influenced by his studies of French resistance to English rule in the Middle Ages and of the American Revolution. Following his release from jail, where he had been kept by the British authorities for writing articles against their rule, he too became a guest of the French administration in Pondichéry—one can only presume with a certain wry smile at the thought of the support France had lent to revolutionaries in the American colonies.

And yet, despite the refuge that French governors consistently gave to the politically disaffected of the new Western-educated middle class, the British were so far from objecting that they refused to let France leave. By the end of the nineteenth century, the five remaining French enclaves had been encircled over the years—it was actually impossible to move between them without British permission—and were all entirely dependent on trade with British territory not only for their economic health, but for their simple access to foodstuffs. The cost of maintaining them was unjustifiable and the French government was far more interested in investing in new colonies in Indochina. In the years leading up to the First World War, Paris tried to cede the territories to London for incorporation into the Raj, but the British government feared that a French withdrawal would further stoke the nascent independence movement by becoming a symbolic victory over a European power and refused to accept the transfer. Instead, the British government began cancelling requirements for travel permissions, lifting restrictions on maritime access to French ports, and otherwise facilitating life for their former rivals.

Ironically, the French would remain in India longer than the English, who withdrew in 1947. With the achievement of Indian independence, however, the new Indian government reversed the previous decisions of the British administration in an effort to force the French out, and went so far as to blockade the port of Pondichéry in sympathy with the Vietnamese forces fighting France for independence in Indochina. Paris quietly negotiated the transfer of its territories to India between 1951 and 1954.

To understand Britain’s exit from the Subcontinent, however, we will have to return and visit some of Rabinadrath Tagore and Sri Aurobindo’s more radical friends. Before we do, however, there is one more European power whose story remains to be told.

Author: R. Joseph Capet

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