Europeans in India Part 9 The French Arrive in India Section I: Pondicherry is Established

Canberra 2 April 2023

France was the fourth European nation to enter the race to establish commercial relations with India and for cornering the spice trade, if the minor incursions of the Danes are discounted as being almost insignificant. The French had noticed that the Portuguese, Dutch and the English had profited considerably from their trade with the East, the Indian Ocean region. When France started the enterprise, the earlier three powers had already established their footholds in India.

In the 17th and 18th centuries France was a restless country, fomenting disturbances in Europe. Its inattention to maritime trade and the benefits to be accrued could be attributed mainly to the preoccupation of the French government with foreign wars, compounded by domestic dissentions. However, once the decision to embark on trade with the East was made, they caught up with the rest very rapidly. This effort was no doubt helped by the French monarch who dreamed of universal dominion in the West and the attainment of a French Empire in the East. This royal aspiration gave the much-needed impetus for the Indian Ocean enterprise. There is also no doubt that the French, as a nation, were innovative and not lacking in ambition. Once embarked on the enterprise, they kept pace with the developments in India, especially activities of the English East India Company who were already trying to establish a path to dominate the Indian Ocean trade.

By the end of the 16th century, Portuguese power in India had completely waned and was restricted to Goa and a few other smaller holdings—they had ceased to be of any significant consequence. The Dutch were active in the Coromandel coast but by mid-17th century, had already started the gradual shift in their focus to Java and other islands in that region, whereas the English were steadfastly concentrated on the Indian sub-continent. It was inevitable that the English and French would end up as the two major contestants to dominate and monopolise the Indian trade and subsequently the country itself.

Faltering Beginnings

The French kings had always harboured ambitions of expanding maritime trade and establishing a maritime kingdom. As early as 1503, King Louis XII had two ships fitted out and they sailed for the East, unfortunately never to be heard from again. His successor Francis I issued orders in 1537, and then again in 1543, asking seafarers to undertake long voyages, enumerating the pecuniary benefits of such voyages, and emphasising that it would enhance national prestige. However, France was deeply engaged in exhausting continental wars and his exhortations went unheeded. Francis I’s grandson, Henry III repeated the orders on 15th December 1578, to no avail, since the country was enmeshed in far too many civil dissentions.

The peaceful and relatively prosperous reign of Henry IV opened new prospects for maritime enterprises. On 1st June 1604, a new company was established under the king’s patent with exclusive trading rights with the ‘Indies’ for the next 15 years. However, a paucity of funds and incessant infighting by the proprietors of the company precluded any progress from being made. The company became defunct with no actions having being undertaken.

The company was revived during the reign of Louis XIII. In 1616, two ships finally sailed for the Indian Ocean and having reached, met with severe opposition from the Dutch in Java. The French ships’ crew had several Dutch sailors, who were instructed by the VOC officials to leave and join the Dutch. The French had to sell one ship for lack of manpower, with all the French sailors returning to France in one ship. The trading negotiations were more successful, and the expedition was able to break even. The French declared the voyage a success, in as much that it was not an absolute failure.

A second expedition of three ships was even more successful, even though one ship was lost at sea with all its crew and cargo. The expedition was led by Commodore Beaulieu, who was convinced that the Dutch had sunk the ship, a distinct probability, although there was no evidence to prove the point. Surprisingly, for the next twenty years the French did not send out any expeditions to the East, the company remained almost inactive.

In 1642, Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642) was firmly in control in Paris as the Chief Minister of King Louis XIII. He wanted to revive the trade with the East, both for its financial benefits to the nation as well as for the prestige it would bring. He formed a new company with the avowed purpose of re-opening trade with India, named La Compagnie des Indes. A letter of patent was issued on 24th June 1642, granting the company exclusive privileges for 20 years. Although Richelieu died almost immediately after the patent was issued, the company pursued its objectives with vigour. Initially they focused on developing the island of Madagascar to be used as a half-way staging point between Europe and India, especially since the Cape of Good Hope had by then been taken over by the Dutch.

France also took over contiguous smaller islands like Mauritius that was possessed in 1672 and remained French territory till 1810. In the same year that Mauritius was taken over, Madagascar had to be relinquished because of concerted opposition from local warlike tribes who were fired with hatred for the foreigners who had treacherously seized some local people and transported them as slaves to Mauritius.

Renewed Efforts

In 1661, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683) took over as the First Minister under Louis XV and served in that position till his death in 1683. His activism on behalf of the country saw France quickly rise to a pre-eminent position in Europe. Colbert re-invented the French navy. Within a few years of assuming power, he had massively increased the strength and power of the French navy—with more than a hundred ships of war and around 60,000 sailors on its rolls. Colbert created naval ports and facilities at Brest, Toulon and Rochefort, and bought Dunkirk from the English.

Colbert’s core belief was that the wealth and economy of France should serve the State. Based on the concepts of mercantilism, he believed that State intervention was needed to secure the larger part of limited resources and that to be prosperous, a country needed to sell more goods abroad than it bought. He was a strict administrator and the order and discipline that he introduced to the running of the State had a lasting effect on France. From the perspective of this narrative, his greatest achievement could be considered to have been the founding of France’s merchant navy, the marine merchants, while he personally took over the position of Secretary of State for the Navy in 1669. 

Prior to becoming the First Minister, as Controller of Finances, he had witnessed and closely monitored the advantages that had accrued to the Portuguese, Dutch and the English from their trading efforts and possessions in India. As the First Minister, he encouraged the creation of grand trading company based on the English model. He promised the new company, when it was formed, strong support from the administration; a charter granting exclusive rights of commerce with India for 50 years; exemption from taxes; and reimbursement of all losses the company would incur for the first ten years after its formation.

In 1664, the French Compagnie des Indes (French East Indies Company, similarly named to the now defunct effort of 1642) was formed with enormous support from the government—a full one-fifth of the initial capital came from the Royal Treasury. The prospects of the company at its formation were considered to be brilliant. Even though the first attempt to establish a colony in Madagascar had failed miserably earlier, one more attempt was made in 1665 to re-establish it as the half-way staging post for voyages to India and back. This effort also faced the same challenges—bad climate, poor quality of the soil and, most importantly, hostile and warlike local population intent on driving the foreigners out. The French withdrew and at a much later date colonised Mauritius.

Early Voyages and Expeditions

Francois Caron (1600–1673) was a French Huguenot refugee in Holland who served for 30 years in the VOC, rising from being a cook’s mate to the Director-General of Batavia. He left VOC service in the early 1650s and was appointed by Minister Colbert to be the Director-General of the newly formed French East Indies Company in 1665, a position he held till his death in 1673. In 1667, Caron led an expedition to India, touching Cochin on 14th December 1667 and continuing north to reach Surat in early 1668. He established the first French factory in the Indian sub-continent at Surat.

In the next year the French decided to expand operations in India. On 5th December 1669, they obtained permission from the Qutb Shah of Golconda to undertake commercial activities in his kingdom without having to pay the normal customs and taxes. This was a victory for Caron and the fledgling company. At this early stage in the narrative of French activities in India an aside to elaborate on the French behaviour is necessary. More than one report of the time, and even later-day analysis, mention the inherent jealousy that was overtly visible among the higher-ranking officials of the French company. It would seem that persons holding high office could not endure that fact that some great or good feat had been achieved by someone else, who would then gather all the credit. Love of country, patriotism or even a sprinkling of national spirit could not reconcile a senior civil servant to applauding the success of another. In fact, the corollary was also true; they secretly revelled at the failure of a peer or senior official. This peculiar character flaw contributed in later times to the French failures in India and elsewhere.

Caron was a vain person but also strategically astute. He advocated obtaining a firm footing in India, territorially having ‘absolute possession’ over the lands on which their factories and forts were to be built, to be used as French strongholds to conduct commercial activities. In pursuance of his own strategy, in 1672, Caron led an expedition to capture parts of the coastal region of Ceylon. The French managed to overrun Trincomalee and garrison it. However, the prompt arrival of Dutch ships to contest the invasion made the French carryout a hasty withdrawal to St Thome (current day Mylapore) in the Coromandel coast.

The jealousy between French officials that has been mentioned above now made itself felt in full measure. The Minister in Paris was briefed of the debacle in Ceylon, obviously with added frills, and Caron’s misdemeanours in India were listed with sufficient vitriol for the Minister to recall him. However, Caron was told that he was being recalled for being felicitated for an excellent job done in India. It was only when he neared the Straits of Gibraltar on his return journey that Caron became aware that he was being recalled in disgrace for being tried and punished for the failure of the Ceylon expedition. He immediately altered course to land in Portugal. However, his ship floundered on some rocks and all on board, except for one son, perished.

Francois Martin (1634–1706)   

In the failed expedition to Ceylon, Francois (Francis) Martin a French officer, had paid a prominent part. There is very limited information available regarding his life and activities prior to the expedition, other than for the mention that he had served with the Dutch VOC prior to joining the French enterprise. However, in French records he is mentioned as one of the prime movers of the Ceylon expedition. On the French retreating to the south of the Coromandel coast, Martin was instructed to contact the Adil Shahi governor, under whose jurisdiction the region fell, and beseech him for the grant of some land in the Tanjore–Karnataka region. Martin managed to convince Sher Khan Lodi, the governor, to sell a plot of land on the seacoast to the French, at the mouth of River Jinji (Gingee), north of River Kolrun, in the Jinji province.

Meanwhile, not satisfied by the French retreat from Trincomalee, the Dutch prepared to retaliate for the invasion. In 1674, Dutch and Qutb Shahi forces attacked the French camp at St Thome. The French put up a spirited defence but were outnumbered and outclassed, finally surrendering to the Dutch. They were permitted march out of St Thome and ‘go anywhere’ that they pleased. The Dutch objective had been to evict the French from the Indian sub-continent, but the terms of the treaty concluded at the end of the battle, inexplicably dictated otherwise. While the two French directors and most of the merchants opted to sail out to Surat, 60 French soldiers under Francois Martin opted to go to the plot of land that had been purchased earlier, north of River Kolrun.

On reaching the piece of land, Martin was an independent commander. He had with him some funds that had been gathered and taken out of St Thome, which he gave as a loan to Sher Khan Lodi who was in some personal financial strife. In return, Lodi permitted Martin to build fortifications and dwellings on the land that they held. Gradually a small village of local population, mainly of people working for the French, grew within the walls of the fortification that was built—locally called ‘Philcheru’ (later Puducherry) and known to the Europeans from the beginning as Pondicherry. Within two years of Martin and his Frenchmen reaching there, Pondicherry was a well-settled trading colony.

Even as Martin, with perceptive management and a conciliatory approach to local traders, was making Pondicherry a stable trading post, the fledgling colony also faced some challenges. In 1676, Bijapur ruled by the Adil Shahi dynasty, from whom the French had purchased the land for the settlement, was occupied by the Mughals and ceased to exist as an independent entity, bringing into question the legitimacy of the French possession. The next year, the kingdom of Golconda under whose aegis most of the Coromandel trade was being carried out, was annexed by the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb. This development threw the trading activities into turmoil and questioned the legitimacy of the foreign factories in the coast. At the same time the Maratha king, Shivaji, had started an aggressive campaign of annexation and of levying contribution from the lands that he invaded. For Pondicherry, a small European settlement with extremely limited power, these were daunting challenges to be faced.

The biggest challenge that Martin faced came from the marauding Maratha king. By mid-1677, Shivaji, now crowned Maharaja of the Marathas, had overrun the entire Carnatic region, defeated and captured Sher Khan Lodi, and threatened to overwhelm the French colony. Martin cleverly managed to placate the Maratha king with the promise never to fight against him and managed to retain the independence of the French settlement. This was diplomacy at its best.

By 1689, Pondicherry was a flourishing settlement and Martin had started to collect revenue from the lands in the adjacent districts with the tacit approval of the local ruler. In the same year, war broke out in Europe between France and Holland. In August 1693, a strong Dutch fleet appeared before Pondicherry; while Mughal forces that had been overrunning the Maratha holdings in South India had sold Pondicherry to the Dutch. The Dutch fleet laid siege to the French colony and after a heroic resistance for 12 days, Martin had no option but to surrender. The French capitulated on 8th September 1693 and the entire French holding was transferred to the Dutch VOC. Francois Martin had succeeded in building a thriving colony by perseverance, personal integrity and an innate sense of justice that had made him treat the local people honourably and fairly, with gentleness. These were qualities not generally displayed by Europeans in India when dealing with the local population. He returned to France, not as rich man, for he had been scrupulously honest in his accounting of State finances, but as respected leader with great experience in the distant lands of the East. Martin’s honesty and personal integrity stands out almost as an ‘aberration’ among his contemporary European officials operating in India.

French Initiatives Elsewhere

When Maharaja Shivaji raided Surat a second time on 3rd October 1670, the French offered him free passage through the territory of their factory, purchasing neutrality and avoiding being plundered. Perhaps as a reaction to kowtowing to the Marathas, the French strengthened the Surat factory in 1672, although their holding started to decay soon after that. The commercial value of the French factory started to decline, and they abandoned their territorial holdings in Surat around 1701, at the beginning of the 18th century. On leaving Surat, the French left large unpaid debts to local chiefs, common people and other traders, which did no credit to French status among the merchants and larger trading community.

In 1669, the French had established a small trading station at Masulipatam on the Coromandel coast. However, the loss of St Thome reduced this factory to insignificance. In 1693, they somewhat revived the Masulipatam station, building fortifications and a square inside their holdings. Sometime during 1676, a French fleet entered the River Hugli and disembarked some settlers in Chandannagar. In 1688, they persuaded the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb to cede the village to them through a royal edict. However, trade from Chandannagar languished. Through a Royal decree dated February 1701, Chandannagar and all other minor French factories dotting the Coromandel and Bengal were placed under the central control of the Governor of Pondicherry. The French settlement in Pondicherry had been returned by the Dutch when the Treaty of Ryswick had been signed on 21st September 1697. Even so it would be three decades before Chandannagar would become a flourishing settlement of the French company.         

Francois Martin Returns to India

When Pondicherry was handed back to the French, Francois Martin was persuaded to return to India and to the settlement that he had laboriously built up as its governor. On reaching Indian soil, he immediately embarked on an ambitious program of enlarging and strengthening Pondicherry’s fortifications, mindful of his earlier failure to defend the settlement from Dutch attack. He also renewed his cordial relationship with the local rulers and chieftains, moving to increase Pondicherry’s prosperity. As mentioned earlier, in 1701, Martin assumed the position of Director General of all French factories in India, when Surat was abandoned.

Even though Pondicherry was a profitable factory, mis-management of the company finances, both in India and at home in France, had brought it to complete exhaustion and the brink of bankruptcy. The Directors were forced to sell licences to trade to private individuals to keep the company afloat. In turn, these licensees, mostly private traders, flourished at the cost of the French company. There is absolutely no doubt that Francois Martin was a Director General of outstanding and conspicuous ability, capabilities buttressed with unquestionable integrity. However, even with his efforts the downslide of the company into bankruptcy could not be halted. Unfortunately for the company, at this critical juncture in the French company’s development, Martin died on 30th December 1706.

An Obituary to an Extraordinary Man

In an era of vain and corrupt men flooding the sub-continent intent on making their own fortunes at the cost of everything else and the integrity of senior Europeans was sold to the highest bidder, Francois Martin stands out as a man of extraordinary honour. This author feels that an obituary would be in order; honesty and fairness must always be acknowledged.

After 32 years of labour on a small plot of land, Martin left behind a large and flourishing town under the control of the French, while the broader French enterprise was facing financial ruin. He had personally amassed no wealth and riches; he died poor but honoured. Martin laid a solid foundation upon which industrious and far-sighted men following him could build a French India. He established and maintained cordial relations with all the local rulers by openly recognising and accepting their power and authority over their lands and people. He was scrupulously honest and fair in all his dealings, making the French a trusted partner in trade, while he was personally esteemed by all who had dealings with him. His dealings were based on a policy of conciliation, adopted pragmatically as the only safe way to maintain French independence in Pondicherry, especially in the early days of the settlement when he was alone with no more than 60 soldiers in a sea of hostile kingdoms. Martin further developed this policy of diplomacy into one that was a viable option for growth and prosperity.

Unfortunately, Martin’s success, and more importantly his contribution to the French enterprise in the Indian sub-continent is normally dismissed as a footnote in the French narrative of its Indian enterprise. In reality, he set up the basis for the later success of the French enterprise. The French failures were purely the result of the incompetence and lack of foresight of his successors in forsaking diplomacy and permitting risky ventures. Martin’s success opened a vision for his successors to become more ambitious—his splendid vision was one of supreme domination, a vision that appealed to the more adventurous of his successors, who believed that they had the special powers necessary to achieve greatness.     


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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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