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The Failed Empire

France’s troubled obsession with India

By BLAKE SMITH | 1 March 2018

IN THE FALL OF 2017, the French government launched “Bonjour India,” an ambitious programme of cultural diplomacy in India, promising to tell Indians “the story of how and when we met.” Over the past winter, it brought over a hundred events to more than thirty cities across India, including film screenings in Kolkata, a regatta in Pondicherry and an automotive show in Chennai. Yet one would hardly know from the programme’s boat races and book discussions that the story of how France and India met is a rich and troubled tale.

For many centuries, 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 early-modern India (known in French simply as “Indians”) to French shores. 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 (1870), is an Indian prince whose participation in the anti-British revolt of 1857 forced him to go underground (or undersea). India’s spiritual heritage fascinated two of the most singular French women of the twentieth century: Mirra Alfassa, who was later the head of Sri Aurobindo’s ashram, and the mathematician Maximiani Portaz, who became convinced that Adolf Hitler was an avatar of Vishnu.

Much of France’s fixation with India formed in the shadow of a failed empire. For a few decades in the early eighteenth century, it seemed that France might be a major power in India. It made and unmade rulers at its will, casting its influence across much of modern-day Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana. The memory of this fleeting glory haunted French culture over the next three centuries, stoking nostalgia and regret. Today, as witnessed by “Bonjour India,” the French government and the cultural institutions it funds tend to discreetly avoid many topics of the Franco-Indian past. But a new generation of historians is telling a more complete story.

One of them is Jyoti Mohan, who, in her recent book Claiming India, traces how France developed a unique relationship with the Indian subcontinent. She builds on the work of pioneers such as Kate Marsh, who explored the French fascination with India in the eighteenth century and the postcolonial era, and the great French historian Jacques Weber, whose study of Pondicherry between 1816 and 1914 runs to over 5,000 pages. Mohan’s path through this challenging field of history focusses on how French thinkers imagined India. In Claiming India, she argues cogently and carefully that as the French state failed to build an empire in the subcontinent, French intellectuals constructed a substitute: an India of their own built through scholarship and imagination.

FRANCE WAS A LATECOMER to the subcontinent. While Britain and the Netherlands created companies to challenge Portugal’s control of Indian Ocean trade at the beginning of the seventeenth century, France did not do so until 1664. It acquired Pondicherry, the first and most important of its Indian trading posts, in 1674, nearly two centuries after the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498. Initially struggling to enter markets already under the sway of the British and the Dutch, by the 1740s the French Company became at least an equal to its rivals. Its headquarters, in Pondicherry, grew into a major commercial centre, and new French trading posts appeared as far afield as Bengal and Kerala.

Under the leadership of Joseph-François Dupleix, between 1742 and 1754, the company transformed itself from a commercial enterprise into a military machine. Dupleix initially focussed on crushing the British, whose trading post at Madras was uncomfortably close to Pondicherry. The British called on their ally Anwarrudin Khan, the nawab of Arcot, who controlled northern Tamil Nadu and whose armies vastly outnumbered Dupleix’s small force. At the Battle of Adyar, in 1746, a few hundred French soldiers defeated the nawab’s twenty-thousand-strong army. This inspired Dupleix to pursue a new strategy, and he used his military superiority to drive Khan from his throne and replace him with a puppet ruler. Dupleix then tried this trick again, placing his own candidate in Hyderabad as the subahdar of the Deccan. At the same time, the French reached out to the nawab of Bengal, promising him support against the British in Calcutta. French historians such as Alfred Martineau (who was also the governor of French India during the 1910s) have insisted that Dupleix was the pioneer of European imperialism in India, and that he invented the strategies of indirect rule that the British officer Robert Clive would later deploy in Bengal. But these inventive techniques of political manipulation only gave the French a taste of Indian empire.

The conflicts between Pondicherry and Madras, as well as between Britain and France’s respective Indian allies, were part of a much larger struggle. Over the eighteenth century, the two European rivals clashed all over the world, drawing many local powers into conflict. Diplomacy among Indian and European leaders alike turned on the question of whether they would join the French or the British. While France was often militarily successful in Europe, it lacked Britain’s ability to project force overseas, often leaving its allies unprotected. In the globe-spanning Seven Years War, fought from 1756 to 1763, the French were soundly defeated by the British everywhere from North America to South Asia, including in south India and Bengal. France’s Indian clients abandoned it, leaving it only five scattered trading posts: Pondicherry, Chandernagore, Mahé, Yanaon and Karaikal.

With the victory in 1763, Britain became the world’s foremost imperial power, and seemingly unbeatable in India. But the French government and French soldiers employed by Indian rulers continued to resist Britain’s growing might. France supported Indian rulers such as Tipu Sultan in fighting the British, just as it supported rebels in Britain’s North American colonies. After Tipu’s death in 1799 and Napoleon’s fall in 1815 France abandoned any military ambitions in India, restricting itself to the management of its five small and isolated colonies. It was not for another generation that the French government dreamt of empire again, and then it focussed on North Africa (where the French seized Algeria in 1830) rather than South Asia. But French mercenaries fought on against Britain in the service of Indian rulers such as Ranjit Singh until the 1830s.

THE COLLAPSE OF DUPLEIX’S EMPIRE in 1763 might have inspired French intellectuals to forget about India. In the same year, Britain also seized France’s far larger possessions in North America. Voltaire, the pre-eminent French writer of his day, spoke for many when he dismissed the vast arc of lost territory stretching from New Orleans to Quebec as a “few acres of snow.” India, however, was a different matter. Voltaire, like many of his peers, felt France’s defeat there was a real trauma, and he participated in debates about how India had been “lost” and who should be held responsible. In his 1773 book Fragments about India, he exonerated his favoured generals while excoriating others. More importantly, in this and in other writings, he outlined a vision of India that became widespread in French culture, presenting the subcontinent as the source of civilisation.

Jyoti Mohan presents a sophisticated analysis of what made Voltaire’s ideas on India so influential in France, and so different from those prevalent in Britain. Like many thinkers on both sides of the English Channel, Voltaire was fascinated by Brahminical religions. Europeans at the time knew little about the content of Indian religious traditions, but Brahmins had been a byword for wisdom and spiritual power ever since the days of ancient Greece and Rome. Early-modern European travellers to India sent back reports of what seemed to be outrageous and horrifying superstitions: the worship of animals, fearsome idols, self-mutilation and, most famously, widow-burning. Practically every European travel-writer reported having seen, or at least hearing about, a widow being burned. The Widow of Malabar, first presented for the Paris stage in 1770, won international success with its depiction (and denunciation) of widow-burning. It even inspired a “Malabar” hairstyle, in which women piled brightly coloured feathers on their heads. While theatre-goers and fashionable ladies were frightened and thrilled, intellectuals asked themselves how India, known since antiquity as a source of wisdom, could also be home to such disturbing practices.

Mohan shows that British and French thinkers developed different responses to this question. Scholars and officials of the British East India Company argued that India must have degenerated from an original purity. They blamed Islamic invasions for this supposed decline—as much right-wing historiography continues to do. This theory allowed the British to argue that their role in India was to restore it to its former glory. It also allowed them to disparage many aspects of contemporary Indian culture while affirming a pious respect for ancient Indian traditions.

Voltaire, as Mohan shows, punctured this self-congratulatory nonsense with his typical wit. He wrote in Fragments about India that “it would be very difficult to reconcile the sublime ideas which the Brahmins preserve of the Supreme Being with their superstition and fabulous mythology, if history did not present the same sort of contradictions among the Greeks and Romans.” If Europeans could wink at the ridiculous aspects of their own spiritual traditions, they should extend the same courtesy to India. The great writer deflated other stereotypes about India as well. Many travellers and scholars insisted that India was populated by lazy natives who were unfit for industry or trade. Such views again provided a justification for the British conquest of India, particularly the imposition of colonial commerce, but as Voltaire observed, they had little truth. History shows, he noted, that Indians have been “of all times a trading and industrious people.”

His enthusiasm for India led Voltaire into trouble as well. Equipped only with vague ideas about Indian knowledge—it was only in the following decades that Sanskrit texts began to be seriously translated for Western readers—he and many other French intellectuals of his day were hoodwinked by “the Ezour-Vedam,” purportedly a “lost Veda.” Voltaire was given a manuscript of it in 1760, and for many years passed it around among his friends before securing its publication in 1778. The book showed Voltaire exactly what he wanted to see; it presented Indian religion as an enlightened monotheism. Only after Voltaire’s death was the Ezour-Vedam revealed to be a forgery, concocted by a Jesuit priest.

UNTIL VOLTAIRE’S TIME, the only Europeans who knew much about Indian languages, history and religion were missionaries, who aimed at understanding the faiths they sought to displace. Since the seventeenth century, they had filled European libraries in Paris, Oxford and elsewhere with Indian manuscripts. For decades these precious documents in Sanskrit, Pali and other classical languages gathered dust, since no one in Europe could read them. Gradually, 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. As Mohan shows, such was the impulse behind a vogue for Indological scholarship in France, beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century, with Indian manuscripts at the centre of it.

The most well-known French Indologist was Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil Duperron, who pioneered European study of the Upanishads in the last decades of the eighteenth century. Anquetil began his scholarly career as an agent of the French Royal Library, when he came to India at the age of 24 to gather manuscripts and learn the languages necessary to read them. His dream was to travel to Varanasi and study Sanskrit with the greatest pandits of the subcontinent: a feat no European scholar had accomplished. Anquetil had the misfortune, however, of arriving in India on the eve of the Seven Years War. 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 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, Anquetil decided to try a different approach. He headed to Surat, in Gujarat, to learn ancient Iranian languages from the Parsi community there. But war followed him again; a British fleet captured Surat in 1761. When a distraught Anquetil finally left the subcontinent the following year, he negotiated passage on a British ship, only to be thrown in prison when it docked in England. It was enough to make anyone a critic of British imperialism, and Anquetil bore a grudge for the remainder of his career.

One of his books, Oriental Legislation (1778), attacked the British theory of “‘Oriental despotism,’” which claimed that Asian states such as the Mughal Empire lacked any form of law. Leaders of the British East India Company—such as the notorious Warren Hastings, who was the governor of Bengal between 1772 and 1785—used this theory to justify their arbitrary and rapacious rule, arguing that Indians did not understand any other form of government aside from despotism. Drawing on sources such as the Akbarnama, the vizier Abu al-Fazl’s chronicle of the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar, Anquetil showed that the Mughals did employ the rule of law. The British, he argued, brought despotism to India. Even the index was a weapon in Anquetil’s hands. It directs readers searching for “The English,” to search under “barbarous behavior towards the Marathas … injustice to the French … conquer Hindustan to pay off their national debt.”

The masterstroke of Anquetil’s revenge on the British was his publication of a translation of the Upanishads, which until then had been unavailable, and unknown, in Europe. While he had been unable to study in Varanasi because of the British invasion of Bengal, Anquetil kept up a correspondence with a French agent behind enemy lines. Jean-Baptiste Gentil fought the British in Bengal alongside Siraj ud-Daulah before fleeing to Awadh in 1763. Once there, Gentil found a new ally, the nawab Shuja ud-Daulah, and organised a contingent of French mercenaries for his army. A copy of the Upanishads was among the many manuscripts he supplied to Anquetil from there. The scholar worked painstakingly in Paris from 1775 to 1802 to craft a translation.

Anquetil insisted that the Upanishads were the equal—and the source—of the philosophies of Plato and Immanuel Kant, then the most revered figures in European thought. As Mohan observes, Anquetil “was convinced that the key to all European culture” lay in ancient Indian texts. He noticed many parallels between the philosophy of the Upanishads and the teachings of the ancient Greeks as well as modern European thought. He developed an elaborate theory that Brahmins travelled to the Mediterranean in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, and inspired the Greeks. Their teachings had disappeared in the Christian era, he argued, but surfaced again as thinkers such as Kant unconsciously rediscovered the Indian wisdom in European traditions.

Anquetil’s ideas were not always correct or original. His claims that the Upanishads were the basis of Greek philosophy were false, although India did influence Greek philosophy to a degree. Having mastered only the basics of Sanskrit, he worked via the Persian translations of Mughal-era scholars supported by the prince Dara Shikoh. Dara and his circle had also systematically compared the Upanishads to Islam, and Anquetil drew from this template for his comparison of the Upanishads and Western traditions. This, in turn, shaped later European Orientalism.

This work opened a new chapter in intellectual history. Henceforth, European intellectuals would have to confront India’s philosophical traditions. Anquetil, who styled himself as a humble sage filled with Brahminical wisdom, could not resist bragging. A Frenchman, harassed at every turn in his travels through India by British armies, had triumphed over British scholars. He scornfully observed that the British “are the masters of everything in all of India, from the Ganges to the Indus, with Brahmins, pandits, authority and wealth at their disposal,” yet “they have not a single Sanskrit grammar, nor even a dictionary.” This was somewhat unfair to British Orientalists such as William Jones and Nathaniel Halhed (who wrote his own incomplete and unpublished translation of the Upanishads in 1787). These scholars, who were part of the administrative system of the British East India Company, had to divide their time between translating ancient texts and compiling legal codes—and they did publish dictionaries and grammars. But Anquetil, giddy with vengeance, was perhaps entitled to his scorn.

ANQUETIL HOPED THAT Indological expertise could help the French re-establish themselves in India. After being routed in the Seven Years War, France partnered with Mysore, which then seemed Britain’s most formidable Indian enemy, hoping to create a rebel alliance that would bring together Mysore, the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad. But expeditions in support of Mysore during the American Revolutionary War, between 1777 and 1783, did little to thwart the growth of British power, and efforts to help during the Third and Fourth Anglo-Mysore Wars, in the last decade of the eighteenth century, came to nothing. Mysore was crushed. Throughout this period, Anquetil sent countless letters to French officials warning them that Mysore’s rulers, Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan, were seen by many Indians as untrustworthy usurpers, and that there was no hope that the Marathas and the Nizam would join them. Even as France’s most knowledgeable expert on India, he was ignored.

Anquetil died in 1805, after several years of embittered isolation. While finishing his translation of the Upanishads he had become something of a hermit, withdrawing himself from a rising generation of scholars whom he had inspired. Due in part to his efforts, at the dawn of the nineteenth century Paris was the place in Europe to study Sanskrit. Anquetil’s successors were left to decipher Sanskrit on their own, using the manuscripts that he and others had gathered in the national library. Mohan describes the difficulties of their endeavour, demonstrating the perseverance of Antoine de Chézy, the “self-taught Sanskritist” who would train the next generations of scholars, and of Louis Langlès, who laid the basis for modern Indology in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

The Indological knowledge of Parisian scholars did little for French imperialism, but it would add fuel to Germany’s quest for national greatness. Many nineteenth-century German scholars, such as the orientalist Max Müller, studied Sanskrit in Paris in the first decades of the century, while others, such as the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, were inspired by Anquetil’s translations. It was such Germans who gave a sinister twist to Anquetil’s hypothesis that the term “Aryan” as it appears in ancient Persian sources might be connected to the Sanskrit “arya.” Anquetil had suggested that there must be—as indeed there is—a linguistic and cultural connection between the ancient peoples of South Asia and the Iranian plateau; his German successors, on the other hand, imagined that this connection implied the existence of a distinct (and superior) Aryan race. By the middle of the nineteenth century, inspired by vague notions of “Indo-European” heritage, Germany was creating a network of modern research universities that would transform Indology into one of the most prestigious—and politicised—fields of scholarship. France became at best a second-rate centre of Indology, lagging far behind.

Beaten in both imperial and academic competition, France now nurtured no ambitions regarding India, only nostalgia. In novels, plays, songs and postcards, French culture continued to play out fantasies about the distant land. Kate Marsh, among other scholars, has shown how the prevailing images of a “lost India,” where the French once could have ruled, became detached from any substantive references to India’s present or future. The realities of Indian history and France’s role in it disappeared behind a fog of comfortable memories about the “good old days” of Dupleix (a similar process now seems to be underway in Britain regarding the Raj).

CLAIMING INDIA CANNOT COVER the whole story of France’s relationship with India, nor does Mohan pretend that it does. She recognises that her book has a narrow scope, covering a significant period of the Franco-Indian encounter. With skill and sophistication, she analyses missionary reports, Indological treatises, museums and exhibitions, and much else besides, to present an excellent overview.

Much of the early, pioneering work on Western views of India—by scholars such as Ronald Inden, Berhard Cohn and Robert Travers—focussed, naturally enough, on the views of British colonialists. But the history of India’s entanglement with the West is far more complicated and interesting than just that involving British rule. Scholars such as Ines Županov and Sanjay Subrahmanyam have revealed the fascinating negotiations by which Portuguese traders, missionaries and soldiers became participants in the political and cultural life of early-modern southern India. There is still much to learn about the Dutch, Danish and other European empires in the subcontinent. By showing that France developed its own unique view of India, Mohan contributes to a growing body of scholarship that de-centres the British Raj.

Readers may be unconvinced by certain elements of Claiming India’s conceptual framework. For instance, Mohan borrows from Kate Marsh the idea that France’s position in India must be seen as that of a “subaltern colonizer.” This term seems at best a puzzling oxymoron and at worst a wrong-headed appropriation of the idea of the “subaltern.” Mohan’s work, like that of Marsh, often elides the realities of France’s presence in India. The French ideas about India that Mohan traces were connected to colonial realities, both shaping them and being shaped by them. Scholars such as Julie Marquet and Gauri Parasher have shown that French officers in Pondicherry, like their British counterparts elsewhere, were guided by Indological and Orientalist stereotypes as they tried to make sense of Indian society. Searching for supposedly timeless customs, they imagined that the caste system was a permanent, immovable hierarchy—and tried to remake Pondicherrian society in the image of their fantasy. Enriched by Mohan’s study, scholars must now take the further step of seeing what French visions of India meant for colonial rulers and colonial subjects.

The rich and complex history between the two countries makes Bonjour India’s “story of how we met” seem rather tame. But while Paris and Delhi seem to ignore that history in their diplomatic efforts, the legacy of Franco-Indian contact continues to bear fruit. In India, writers such as the Malayalam novelist M Mukundan from Mahé and the playwright K Madavane from Pondicherry (who writes in French), continue to explore the colonial and postcolonial worlds of French India. In France, the public is beginning to rediscover this legacy through the newly refurbished French East India Company museum. A modest facility on France’s western coast, near the port of Lorient that was once the Company’s headquarters, the museum has received increasing support from the central government and boasts of over a million and a half visitors in the last decade. India and France remain entangled in a challenging and stimulating history, one that they could benefit from embracing rather than trying to avoid.

Blake Smith, a fellow at the European University Institute, is a historian of French exchange with India. His essays appear in such outlets as The Atlantic, Aeon and The Wire. He translated To Die in Benares, K Madavane’s forthcoming collection of short stories.


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