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The dawn – La Compagnie des Indes Orientales – initial settlements – Chandernagore and dependencies – predecessors and successors of Dupleix – the golden era – trade network – fall of French settlements in Bengal – Urban settlement – devastation in British hand – Revolution.

The Dawn

To respond to famous 'Appel de la Mer', the French, like many other European nations started to venture in overseas trade and commerce in India. Under royal patronage finally the French East India Company started venturing in 'Les Indes Orientales' as a flagship project of Colbert's political achievement in 1664. Their trade setup differed from other similar organisations in its pyramidal structure as king of France as crown, headquarter of French India Pondicherry as second on command, then Chandernagore as primary commercial hub, with other dependencies like Cassimbazar, Patna, Dacca, Balassore, Chattagram and in the bottom line stand small harems (Arats) or warehouses. Chandernagore in Bengal enjoyed a different status than other "comptoirs" with these dependencies.

In 1673-74 French company agent Duplessis brought some area in of Chandernagore by paying Rs. 401/- to Bengal Nawab Shayesta Khan to start trade.  André Bourreau-Deslandes was the creator of French "comptoirs" in Bengal, who in 1689 founded the loges in Balassore, Cassimbazar; acquired land in Dacca in 1690, revived old possession in Chandernagore and started construction of a loge in April 1690, where later came up Fort d'Orléans and French had judicial right as the centre of French administration and trading activities in Bengal with surrounding moat, bastions towers and shops. A cluster of three villages in 1701 – Boro-Kishanpur, Gondalpara and Khalisani during Dupleix's era consisted 300 bighas of land, with a population of around 25,000. This town used to fetch maximum trade for French India, as reveals from Dupleix's own impression[1].

Cassimbazar French Kuthi came into existence with legal approval of Raja  and Firman of 1707[2]  and Dacca Kuthi in 1711 A.D[3]. Though loosing political importance, Dacca was the supply centre of best Muslin, which brought business of Rs. 4,00,000/- . Patna, Balassore, Jaugdia and Chattagram were other trade centres. The correspondences, accounts books are bearing the evidence of the commercial aspirations of French. These Kuthis, loges and harems played important role, keeping Chandernagore at the centre of trading activity.

The role of predecessors of Dupleix in shaping Chandernagore

The nominal French presence saw a sea change with the arrival of Père Charles de Montalembert in 1715 who became the defacto in charge of Chandernagore till his return to Pondicherry in 1728[4]. As a visionary, he started initial urbanisation process, by establishing school and hospital, by easing complex ritualistic practices and by improving the living condition of local farmers. The first reference of Chandernagore appeared during this era – Topiwala Mahal or Ville Blanche, pakkabari, ghats and police posts. Finally the right to pay reduced customs duty at  2½%, which was granted by Aurangzeb, was supported by the 'Parwanas' of the Nawab and Diwan of Bengal[5].  It was reconfirmed on 9th January 1722 by Murshid Quli Khan.

Initial religious conflicts for power between the Capucins and Jesuites, were resolved by the Concordat of 1734 and the church registers of St. Louis Chapel are a treasure trove in formulating this period’s history. Five in number, they kept records of baptism, marriage, death[6]. There were purely Europeans, the crossbreeds and native Christians. But the records of other religious communities can be sketchily found from French company's salary registers, with the hierarchy of employees. From Courtier Dubash-Dadni, Izaradar, Banians, Gomostas, Sircars weavers’ even slaves can be found[7].

Golden era

The name of Joseph François Dupleix and Chandernagore became almost synonymous, though observation would show it was an inevitable circumstantial change, happening all over Bengal. The trade graph reached its peak under Dupleix’s' able management. The biggest market of French product in India included consumable food and beverages: French brandy, apart from ship building equipments, sailing cloth and cowries. Silver bullion was sent to China through India against gold export. It is revealed after each voyage the profit level could reach 60,000-72,000 livres[8].(9) The incentive of company employees in private trade and profit of 'Commerce d'Inde en Inde' reached 50-80% per annum.

A huge trade network was built to cater different area demands from Bengal, like silk for Surat, rice for Maldives and Coromondal coast. Shipment used to sail to Basra via Mocha, Jedda, Bandar Abbas in west and to Borneo and Manilla to East Asia. But as it was riparian port based network, with the devastation of Chandernagore the entire system crumbled.

Fall of Chandernagore (March 1757)

The devastation of Chandernagore in the hands of British (March 1757) is the main constraint to formulate the history of French Bengal from Post-Plassey era as after this, the English company never accepted any proposal of zonal division as it was vehemently tried by Jean Batiste Chevalier to relocate French commercial existence in Bengal. But the Grand Livre show sporadic efforts to revive those trade links through even Dutch and Dane counterparts were taken by the French official realising still the prospects[9].  Being the "Commandant of Chandernagore", Chevalier befriended Badshah Shah Alam II and even exploited the contacts with Clive to get funds. But repeated requests by him made to the Board of Directors in Calcutta to respect Peace Treaty and trade condition fall in vain. The anonymous report most probably penned down by Law de Lauristan described the pathetic condition of French[10].

French Revolution and aftermath

After the outbreak of French Revolution, the French National Assembly took over the trade right in 1790. Montigny, the French commandant in Chandernagore was the victim of circumstance[11] and the Comité des Citoyens took hold of administration and army. His replacement Fumeron was called back in Pondicherry and in June 1793, Chandernagore fall again in British hand.

The French story in Bengal was the story of some dedicated visionaries like that of Dupleix, Chevalier or Law who missed the fair wind to sail their boats in the sea of prosperity. But it brought some changes in social fabric of Bengal. Presence of missionaries in political life, health, education, urban setup and an introduction of proper land revenue system and law and order were introduced before 1765, the acquisition of Dewani by British. Chandernagore, as an exception from other European settlements, stood apart as a bastion of freedom fighters in India's war of independence with the morals of equality, liberty.


Published in january 2022

[1] ‘It is sufficient to say that there are abundant and ideals (goods) for all variety of commerce, which produces a considerable profit in Europe. "It suffit de dire qu'elles y sont en abondance et propres à touts les différents commerces, qu'elles produisent en Europe un profit considérable." Archives Nationales – Col c² 85 f 89 – Le journal de Godeheu – 9 Octobre 1754, Paris.
[2] Parwana of Murshid Quli Khan – October 1707. Source: l'Institut de Chandernagor.
[3] Mémoire sur le commerce de l'Inde et sur la politique à mener envers les Anglais et les princes Indiens, Série Géo Inde, Carton 372, dossier 368 Archive d'Outre mer, Aix-en-Provence, France.
[4] H. Castonnet de Fosses: Missionnaires aux Indes au XVIII ͤ siècle – Extrait des Annales d'Extrême Orient et de l'Afrique – Paris, 1886, p-7.
[5] Parwana given to the French East India Company director Claude Boisvin d’ Hardancourt by Nawab in 1718 – Source: l'Institut de Chandernagor.
[6] The church registers kept in Archives d'Outre Mer – Aix-en-Provence, France, manuscrit no.-2652.
[7] Indrani Roy: Chandernagorer Adiparba (Bengali) in Jijnasa Journal, 2nd year, 2nd issue, Calcutta, 1981, pp-709-721.
Copie d'un Registre concernant sentences rendu par Messieurs des Conseil de Chandernagor (24 Janvier 1721) – document no.444 (1721-1745), Chandernagor sentences – Une grande pièce – kept in Pondicherry State Archives – Pondicherry – India.
[8] "Un voyage en Chine met en état de se passer … 25 et 30,000 roupies (60,000-72,000 Livres) sont bien tôt mises en poche" – Dupleix à Vincens, Chandernagor 23 Mai 1732, Col C² 199.pièce 54 f° 2v° Archives Nationales – Paris, France.
[9] Livre Journal 1752-58, RI (Chandernagor Divers) Archives d'Outre Mer, Aix-en-Provence, France.
[10] Manuscrit no. 216, daté 21 Janvier 1776, Mémoires sur l'administration des établissements Français des Indes Orientales – Série CB² dossier no.- illegible, Archives d'Outre Mer, Aix-en-Provence, France.
[11] "Qui peut penser dans ce comptoir miniscule, il y a l'Assemblé National, Le Comité Nationale, Garrison Nationale … Nous, qui sommes les froids spectateurs … Manuscript titled 'La Révolution de Chandernagor' dated 1 Novembre 1790, Indes Feuilles Volantes – Série B no.-2783., anonymous writer, Archives d'Outre Mer, Aix-en-Provence, France.


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