"A gentleman whom I met in Pondicherry described the Franco-Pondicherrians as being Indian in France and French in India. Perhaps this description is not entirely accurate as me Pondicherrians of ile-de-France are not completely Indian and the Franco-Pondlcherrians in Pondicherry are not fully French."
It is merely an accident of history that India was a British colony rather than a French one. France, however, did occupy some enclaves scattered across the country. The French presence in India can be viewed as the symbol of a failed enterprise. What were the causes of this failure and what are its implications? Is it entirely insignificant?
This book proposes to study the history of French presence in India from the beginning of colonization to recent times. In particular, it will try to determine whether or not nearly three centuries of French presence have resulted in a new reality which makes the former French territories different from other parts of India.
This new reality is often known as creolization. What are the criteria which can be used to define creolization in these territories? Are these criteria relative or are they absolute? These are some of the questions which will be answered while examining the situation of the former French territories in the larger context of India.
The methodology used is an examination of the facts of history starting chronologically from the rime of the commercial occupation and expansion of the Compagnie des Indes Orientales in these territories in the seventeenth century up to the time of their formal transfer to the Government of India and of its ratification in the French parliament. This historical analysis has been complemented by personal visits to the former French territories during the summers of 2003, 2004 and 2005. The problematization of creolization in these territories is the underlying theme of the book.
The author, born in 1967, earned a doctorate in French literature from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York under the guidance of the Martinican writer and leading theorist of creolization, Edouard Glissant. He has taught French language and literature at the Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania and at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York. He speaks Hindi, English and French.
This rather uncommon term is used to designate those territories occupied by France within the immensity of India whilst it was still a British colony. These exiguous territories, distant from one another, were always grouped together as Pondichery, Chandernagor, Yanaon, Karikal and Mahe, giving the impression of a single body of land or, rather, of a fairly integrated archipelago. Comptoirs also implied that French occupation was specific and comparable to the establishments sown around the Mediterranean by the Carthaginians, or to the forts raised by the Portuguese along the coasts of Africa, all of which were initially dedicated to trade. These trading posts usually overlooked the sea and centred around a great deal of, mostly maritime, activity. French interests in India did not at first appear to be either territorial or cultural. For a long time, one of the functions of the comptoirs was to compete with Britain (out of Calcutta) for Indian trade in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, in conditions similar to those of the traditional slave trade. The descendants of those transported people today travel almost every year from Trinidad, Guadeloupe and Martinique (as well, most probably, as from the countries in the Indian Ocean) to their land and their families of origin in South India, where they renew their links with their customs, languages and religion which they have not, in fact, ever completely abandoned.
We find here a remarkable instance of creolization: these pilgrims are Indian and Trinidadian, or Indian and Guedaloupean, and none the worse off for it. As well, there was instituted in the islands of the Caribbean a theory or a poetics of "Koulitude ", based on Aime Cesaire's "Negritude "; the word "kouli" (derived from "coolie", a rather pejorative term boldly claimed in this case), in this part of the Caribbean, designates those coming from India. Once, on a visit to the north of Martinique, I was present on the occasion of a ritual celebration which the Martinicans call a mange kouli, a kouli feast (because baby goats are sacrificed and then cooked), with the family whose head officiated at the ceremony and he showed me, in a secret drawer, the family chronicle, a thick bound notebook which had been preserved through the vicissitudes of the journey, in which all births and deaths were recorded in the original language.
It seems that, little by little, and long before the comptoirs were handed over to the Indian nation, commercial interest, already very much weakened, gave way to something resembling a particular kind of life style: a provincialism, distinguished but not narrow, consisting of a mixture of moralities and all the more fragile for being contained within the limits of tiny enclaves. As a result there was leeway for a fundamental inclination for mixtures of another sort, especially cultural (and perhaps administrative). It was an original process of creolization.
It would appear too that this state of affairs continued after the territories had been returned to the Indian nation and that French influence decreased progressively without any loss in the general character and atmosphere of creolization. What I call creolization is a phenomenon of cultural mixing at a given time and place without the elements brought into contact being dissolved in the mixture: creolization is not dilution.
Animesh Rai is to be credited with having approached the question of the comptoirs with all the comprehension that can be brought to bear on a complex situation in which justifiable feelings of Indian national pride are tied to a concern with preventing an historic past from being lost, even when it is in the form of an occupation. Dr. Rai's work reveals infinities of nuance in the nature and reality of these five towns, territories or comptoirs and an infinite richness of types of inhabitant, as well as a variety of specific situations which lead us to consider these places as treasures of diversity and originality. Dr. Rai's book is an essential contribution to the non-sectarian plurality of the world.
For many years, India was controlled from London. What if it had been controlled from Paris? Would it have been different? Perhaps, this question can be answered very quickly by substituting in one's mind the French colonizer for the British one and then making extrapolations. One would presumably be led to the conclusion that India would now be Francophone with French as its lingua franca and administrative, judicial, as well as educational institutions modeled on France. The colonial experience would probably have been different in as much as the spirit of French colonialism was different from that of British colonialism. There would now be no cricket playing, gentlemanly Indians but rather ones with a Gallic outlook of a different kind.
Fortunately for us, we can be spared this level of imaginative effort as' history was kind enough to leave a distinct, albeit marginal, French legacy in India. We do indeed have an actual laboratory in South India. As it so happens, its constituent parts are dispersed in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and for that matter, in West Bengal. What if we decided to focus on this laboratory? But then it would be a laboratory only in terms of our initial question. Can we say that it has a distinct reality which is different from the rest of mostly Anglophone India?
The existence of such a reality is often known as creolization. According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, creolization is "a broad anthropological term, which describes any coming together of diverse cultural traits or elements, usually in the context of the West Indies or Louisiana, to form new traits or elements. In the context of linguistics, creolization occurs when two or more languages converge to form a new, indigenous language," As Salman Rushdie says, "Melange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.": It would be noteworthy to ponder on the diametrically opposite ways in which the notion of mixture is generally interpreted. On the one hand, it can be viewed as an enrichment to the extent of enhancing diversity but on the other hand, it can also be viewed as an impurity in terms of diluting the original content. What can be said about the former French territories of India? The level of intensity of creolization in the Caribbean, for example, is very high. Creolization occurs at different levels of the continuum in other parts of the world. When we reach India, in particular the former French territories, creolization is perhaps not very clear cut and evident at first glance. The time span for the French presence in India is very long: nearly three centuries from 1674 to 1954.
The Martinican writer and leading theorist of creolization, Edouard Glissant, has made a fundamental distinction between globalization and "mondialisation'. While the forces of globalization strive to reduce everything to its lowest common denominator while striving for uniformity, "mondialisation" is presented as that aspect of culture, which preserves our distinct individualities. The basic conflict between the two, according to Glissant, produces "plural, multiplying, fragment identities" which are no longer viewed as a problem but as a "huge opening and a new opportunity of breaking open closed gates." The emergence of new identities resulting from this clash is what Glissant calls a "world in Creolization." For Glissant, creolization is not a simple cross breeding known as metissage in French and whose English language equivalent is hybridity as theorized by the Caribbean writers Wilson Harris and Edward Brathwaite but a dynamic process whose end results are unpredictable. It will be emphasized that the element of unpredictability distinguishes creolization from hybridity and that creolization is considered to be an extreme form of hybridity Homi Bhabha also describes creolization as a dynamic process, which prevents the emergence of absolute identities .
In 1673, the Compagnie des Indes Orientales established an enclave in Pondicherry. Francois Martin is regarded as its founder. It was initially a lodge which he developed into an enclave and then into a town. According to the definition at the time, a lodge was a commercial installation in a place of which one was not the proprietor whereas an enclave was a territory of which one was the proprietor. The concession which had been obtained by Francois Martin from Chir Khan was never officialized. It was a de facto transfer as one would put it today which Francois Martin obtained in return for military services provided by him to Chir Khan. Francois Martin was then recalled to Surat on the northwest coast. He returned from there in 1686 with the title of "Director of the Coromandel and Bengal Coasts and of places in the South where the Company would carry out its commercial activities." In 1688, Francois Martin obtained the authorization to engage in trade in Karaikal, an old town on the delta of the Cauvery, known in the country as the town of the mystical Shaivaite poetess Punitavatiar of the 6th century whose alias was Karaikal Ammaiyar.
In 1690, the enclave of Chandernagore was founded and whose original name was Chandernagar, "moon-town", so called because the river in this place forms an arc in the form of a crescent of the moon. In 1721, the French obtained a piece of land at the mouth of the Mahe river with the right to keep in place a garrison. In 1731, an enclave was created in Yanam. Since 1701, the importance of Pondicherry to the Compagnie des Indes Orientales was recognized. It became a headquarter. The Company, considering that owing to the increase in the extent of its commerce and of the number of its establishments the sovereign council established in Surat was not enough for its purposes, created another independent one in Pondicherry. Its jurisdiction extended to all those establishments which it had and could establish on the Hooghly and on the Coromandel coasts. As a result, the jurisdiction of Pondicherry extended to Chandemagore in Bengal, Karaikal and Yanam on the east coast and Mahe on the west coast.' These five enclaves are now collectively referred to as the former French territories of India. They also included eight lodges: the five lodges of Cassimbazar, Jougdia (which has now been submerged by the sea), Dacca, Balassore and Patna all of which were dependent on Chandemagore, the lodge of Masulipatnam which was near Yanam, and the two lodges of Calicut (near Mahe) as well as the lodge of Surat on the Malabar coast.
For the Compagnie des Indes Orientales, its organization in India differed profoundly from that of the Mascarenes. This was because the productions from Asia formed the essence of the commerce of the Company, in value as well as in volume, and then it consisted of densely populated regions, having a coherent political organization. The Establishments are usually presented according to their geographical location: the Coromandel coast in the South East, around Pondicherry, seat of the Conseil Superieur and of the government, Bengal, with Chandernagore and a provincial council; the Malabar coast in the South West, with Mahe as headquarters, also the seat of a provincial council.
On the Coromandel coast, the site of Pondicherry had very early on caught the attention of foreign powers who had come to trade in Asia: since the time of the Romans, it seems to have been occupied by merchants. That is because it offers many advantages. Undoubtedly the harbor is very accessible, as all those of this region, and the coast is low, sandy and cluttered with lagoons, but the mouth of a river created the possibility of penetration towards the interior, and above all the drinking water came naturally out of the land through artesian wells, a unique situation, which contributed to the richness of the region. After 1617, the French attempted to settle in Pondicherry; dislodged the following year, they tried on several occasions, during the 17th century, to re-establish themselves, in spite of the hostility of the Danes and the Dutch. French occupation became definitive in 1697, when Holland recognized it through the Treaty of Ryswick.
The territory of the town of Pondicherry does not form a coherent whole. It consists of a series of enclaves, acquired at random due to circumstances in three great phases. In the first phase, in 1697, Francois Martin had bought back from the Dutch the rights which he had obtained previously from the Nabab of Arcot, on the town and the nearby land; then from 1702 to 1710, the Compagnie des Indes Orientales had taken, against an annual tax payable to the Nabab, successively the village of Calapett, whose forest provided the wood necessary for the constructions of Pondicherry, the garden of Oulgarett, and the land of Mourgapacom. In the second phase in 1740, the Nabab, in order to thank the governor Benoit- Dumas for his protection against the Mahratta invaders, had granted him everything which he could extract from the lands of Archiouac, Cottecoupom and Villenour. The head of the French establishments had hastened to cede these territories to the Company. In the third phase in 1750, the French received the lands of Bahour and Valdaour with their dependencies. At this time, the total area of the territory was 29.000 hectares in fourteen enclaves. It is difficult to form a precise idea of the nature and the extent of the ceded rights. According to the terms of the grant, the trader had the right to collect the existing taxes of all kinds, that is in general the basic tax, indirect contributions, customs duties, and he could also create new ones; he could put in place a police force and administer justice, mint coins, consolidate the lands of which he had become the proprietor. In fact, these concessions became what the traders wanted them to be: under the authority of an active Company and under the flag of the King of France, they became, in the face of the weak Indian authorities, foreign territories.
The town can be situated in the Portuguese colonial tradition: it combined a port, fort and lodgings, and one could distinguish a well-defined "white" town, with a regular plan, according to the expressed wishes of the directors of the Company, and a "black" town. On the sea side was the elevated zone of the white town, established on the ancient dunes at the center of which was erected the fort; to the west of the white town was a depressed middle zone, an ancient lagoon which was being filled in and which was moderately drained by the Ariancoupam river, then the land rose towards the Indian town, which was previously located to the south of the white town, and transferred to the West, on more stable and available land during the course of the 18th century.
An initial principle guided the administrators In charge of developing the town: to impress the imagination of the natives by an urbanism of quality, by the choice of good materials of construction, by the development of important buildings. In 1719, Father Bouchet observed that the houses of Europeans were built of bricks whereas those of Indians were built only of earth coated with lime. Eleven years later, the mayor Simon de La Farelle remarked that this town had gained much. Earlier, the people used to construct their houses in wood and in earth; Mr. Lenoir decided to build only in bricks and to cover only with tiles; and one built magnificient houses and in large numbers. The verdant appearance of the town struck an officer who said that all the streets were planted with trees on both sides, which was of a charming aspect and soon after the sailor J.F. de Gennes exclaimed that this was properly speaking neither a town, nor the country, or rather it was one and the other together. This optimistic picture was nuanced by the long description of a specialist, the engineer Charpentier de Cossigny, who was closer perhaps to reality, even if his judgment was often characterized by systematic denigration. He said that there was no minister, no engineer in France, who, seeing the plan of Pondicherry, would not imagine that this was one of the most beautiful cities in the world: it was a multitude of symmetrical houses, of long and wide aligned streets, straight as a die and mostly planted with trees; they were dressed canals, gardens, ponds.
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