Dupleix, Bussy, La Bourdonnais, Lally-Tollendal, Lauriston, the overview of civil or military administrators in India resembles a stroll through the streets of Paris. This is easily explained by the heroism to which they were subjected by the Third Republic. But if we are to really understand them, we must place ourselves in the perspective that was theirs, that of belonging to a Company whose activity was not limited to India.

A career with the French East India Company meant being part of a corporation of traders. One is almost astonished by the narrowness of the administrators' backgrounds, which were largely Parisian. At the beginning, specialists were needed. François Caron, a defector from the Dutch V.O.C., and the travellers Tavernier and Bernier were among them, but so were De Faye, Blot, Gueston, financiers and merchants who knew nothing about India until they had set foot there. In 1719, Philippe Haudrère reminds us that five groups formed the pool of officers for the Company: the financiers of the Mississippi Company, the shipowners, the ministers' protégés, the senior staff and their children. This heredity contributed to a strong "company spirit”, which was not synonymous with entitlement. It aimed at transmitting a collective experience: before accessing the leadership positions of the offices, the officier de plume must first be an under-commissioner, a clerk, an under-merchant, an adviser and finally a governor with authority over his council and the Indian staff.

It therefore took twenty years to become an administrator. Those who benefited from protection, such as the young Dupleix in 1720, sometimes gave up a quick promotion in the face of general disapproval. The fact that making a fortune was the motivation for a stay in India, thanks to trade from India to India, did not exclude respect for precedence. The military man, imbued with noble morals but who also practised private trade, was subordinate to the civilian, which led to serious tensions. Moreover, this fortune served an ambition: for some, it was the purchase of a seigniory or office that brought titles and income; for others, when the nobility was old, it was the restoration of a compromised family fortune. However, nobility was the exception among officers, even though an article of the 1664 edict allowed for recruitment without derogation, less than 2% among officiers de plume, and about 8% among the officiers d’épée, but it remained the main motivation for an Indian career and this aspiration certainly played a part in the extraordinary French hegemony in India in the middle of the 18th century.

Three cardinal facts must be taken into account: the regionalisation of the Mughal Empire; the accumulation of tensions in Europe during the century; the slowness of communications which made the trading posts almost independent. This probably explains why Pondicherry was at the head of "large settlements" and dominated a third of the peninsula from 1746 to 1759, without the Company or the Court having considered it. The responsibility of the local administrators was immense. Governor Dumas thus interfered in Indian affairs during the acquisition of Karikal (1739). Dupleix learnt the lessons of this 'nawabism' in 1746 with a striking change of scale. The support given to the pretenders to the Arcate throne, Chanda Sahib, and to that of Golconde, Muzaffar Jang, made Dupleix a nabob and Bussy the protector of the Deccan. The Company stopped this process in 1754 because it saw itself as a commercial enterprise and because Dupleix ceased to be victorious. However, when it sent Godeheu to replace Dupleix, it was in order to preserve his achievements. What took him, during the next war, to appoint Lally Tollendal, an Irish Jacobite with no ties to the Company, who had only his Anglophobia and his reputation as Louis XV's first soldier?

The ensuing loss of India in 1761 was due, in addition to English logistical capabilities, to the conflict between the civil and military officers that cost Lally his head in 1766. Those who succeeded him, from 1764 onwards, took no risks. Relations between the Choiseuls, the Directorate and its officers were marked by a growing distrust which led to the suspension of the privilege of 1769. The transfer propriety of the trading posts to the King in 1771 was the beginning of an administrative "normalisation" which was completed in 1827. But Pondicherry was already no longer a centre of impetus under Law de Lauriston. However, these officers were not undeserving. When the settlements were taken, Law, Chevalier, Courtin, Marchand and Fisher led small wars alongside Shah Alam II, Shujauddaula, Haidar Ali Khan and Yusuf Khan. Why did they do it? For money, adventure or to escape the conditions of captivity? Possible but doubtful. In the correspondence, which is certainly shrouded in justifications, one reads rather an immense need for recognition. The expression "for the greater glory of the king" is soon replaced by that of an aristocratic "honour" of a "nation" which no longer refers only to the French living in India.


Published in january 2022