By the late 18th century, the French presence in India was on the decline. Once the only serious challenger to British dominance on the subcontinent, by the 1780s l’Inde Fran?§aise had been reduced to a series of demilitarized and economically neutered stations on the subcontinent’s east coast. Though all of these territories had experienced substantial decline since their mid-18th-century peak, none had fallen so far as Pondicherry. What had once been a thriving and cosmopolitan city had declined to a remote outpost with a fraction of its peak population. Largely to blame for this decline were the successive losses of the French during the Seven Years’ War and the resulting political instability in the former possessions of the French East India Company. By 1788, Pondicherry was a marginal backwater of the First French Empire, a sorry remnant of what had once been a thriving French presence in India.
It is in this position that Pondicherry found itself when revolution consumed France in 1789. Already forgotten by Paris and more than two months removed from the French capital by boat, Pondicherry’s French and Tamil inhabitants reacted with anxiety to the news of revolt in the metropole. To the Tamils, the Revolution raised questions as to their relationship with their colonial overlords and the true nature of their status in the French nation. To the small Franco-Indian population, the Revolution brought a chaos that threatened their precarious dominance over Pondicherry’s economic and political life. To both groups, the Revolution threatened to topple what remained of the French Empire in India altogether. The stakes, in short, could not be higher. In a colony where European military and political dominance was so precarious, and where the colonial state had been substantially weakened by decades of war fatigue, one might expect the chaos of the Revolution to have induced a native uprising. Further, stronger French colonial presences in St. Domingue and elsewhere would succumb to similar power vacuums and ultimately be consumed by Revolutionary violence. But in Pondicherry, the Revolution did not produce violence. The uniqueness of La Revolution Pacifique is grounded in the stability of the political and cultural relationships built between the French and Tamil inhabitants of the territory, and the consequent goodwill that existed between the two populations when the news of revolution reached Pondicherry’s shores in 1790.
The Revolution swept the French Empire when Pondicherry was at its weakest, forcing the French and Tamil populations to engage with one another to preserve the territorial integrity of their city in the face of a British Raj at the zenith of its power. However, while the directness of the conversations that took place might have been novel, the interactions themselves were notrather they drew on a tradition of political and cultural engagement between the French and the Tamils that had been developing in Pondicherry since the colony’s establishment in 1674. And though the British would put an end to Revolutionary activities when they occupied Pondicherry in 1793, the three-year long conversation between the Franco-Indian and Tamil populations constituted an exceptional manifestation of what had already been an exceptional relationship in 18th century colonial South Asia. Examining primary and secondary literature regarding the Revolution in Pondicherry, it is clear that the anomalous upswing in peaceful political discourse that took place was due to the stability of the rapport between the territory’s European and Indian populationsa stability that was formed over centuries in the unique conditions that existed at the margin of France’s empire.
The existing secondary literature on this subject is sparse. The vast majority of sources that discuss the nature of French rule in Pondicherryof which there are still exceedingly fewfocus on the tenure of colonial governor Joseph Francois Dupleix in the 1750s and 60s, a period that is widely considered the zenith of French rule in India. The number of historical analyses available declines sharply as one enters the 1780s and 90s, and thus the unique conditions created in the territory leading up to the Revolution have not been as thoroughly analyzed, particularly by English-speaking authors. This is perhaps due to the fact that the vast majority of primary literature on this subject is written by French visitors to and inhabitants of the colony. These sourcesand analyses of themhave been monopolized by a small number of French-language secondary works. The flagship example of such French scholarship is Marguerite Labernadie’s La Revolution Et Les etablissements Francais Dans L’Inde, which remains the only example of French or English scholarship that focuses on the revolution in French India and from which this paper will borrow heavily. However, like other French-language works, Labernadie’s piece does not include references to the small number of crucial Tamil sources from 1790s Pondicherry. In combining analyses of pre-Revolutionary Pondicherry from both the English and French secondary literature with a renewed look at court and personal documents from the Revolutionary period, this paper will attempt to trace the roots of the French Revolution’s peaceful manifestation in Pondicherry.
The French East India Company began its relationship with Pondicherry in 1674, when the Company made the coastal town the headquarter of their operations. Prior to the arrival of the Compagnie des Indes, Pondicherry had been a minor settlement in a series of great South Asian empires and had most recently fallen under the suzerainty of the Vijayanagar Emperor and the Sultan of Bijapur. At the time of Pondicherry’s establishment as a colonial outpost, the mission civilatrice that would come to dominate the French Empire in the 19th century was not yet a priority for Paris’ imperial projectthe French had established Pondicherry solely on strategic and economic grounds. Though its pre-colonial history and founding have not been thoroughly explored by historians, Pondicherry’s position as a strategic outpost, rather than an economic colony, would prove essential to the nature of everyday life in the city. Unlike in St. Domingue or Quebec, where resource extraction in the form of sugar and fur would predominate, Pondicherry would remain an imperial outposta waystation for the spice trade and other goods flowing out of South and Southeast Asia. Thus, as the city was merely an imperial outpost, King Louis XIV established a Sovereign Council in 1701 to preside over basic municipal governance but excluded from its purview local legal issues. Though we cannot presume to know the exact motivations behind the decision, a pattern of French colonial governance suggests that Paris so completely considered Pondicherry a strategic outpost that the city’s civil administration did not warrant attention or resources.
Though it came from a place of dismissiveness, this decision to procrastinate on the establishment of a local court would eventually lead to a degree of enfranchisement for native Tamils somewhat rare in 18th century imperial history. As Pondicherry began to grow and a spike in local disputes demanded the creation of a more active administration, the Sovereign Council would charter le Tribunal de la Chaudrie. The Chaudrie Court, as it is referred to in English secondary literature, would oversee cases of inheritance, marriage, property, and other disputes through indigenous legal interpretations. And as the colonial government recognized Frenchmen were not well equipped to rule on such cases, the court was made up of native Tamils. The importance of this decision can to be understated: a colonial government empowering indigenous justice is not a common sight in early 18th century global history. Though it might be nice to imagine otherwise, it is unlikely the move was informed by notions of racial equality or civic progressivism. Rather, as the docket of Indian civil cases had already grown dauntingly large, it became clear that local justices were clearly the best equipped to handle the cases quickly and without controversy. Thus the Tamils of Pondicherry experienced decades of devolved judicial administration, interrupted only briefly by English occupations of the territory, and this responsibility likely helped establish goodwill and ease tensions between European and indigenous inhabitants of the territory.
Such a laissez-faire approach, though its impact on intercommunal relations would be felt for years to come, was not to last. Under the leadership of Joseph Francois Dupleix, the political component of French rule in India took on an increasingly interventionist character. Though the transition from economic to political colonialism in South Asia is often viewed as a British phenomenon, there is bountiful evidence to suggest that the British learned this lesson from the French. Just as it would in the Raj, such an adjustment in imperial priorities during the Apogee, as Dupleix’s tenure is referred to by French historians, demanded increasing intervention in local customs by the colonial authorities. However, it should be stressed that Pondicherry did not figure prominently in Dupleix’s plans for a future French India, as he focused his attention on other cities on the subcontinent, and therefore he did not take pains to completely overhaul the intercommunal system at play in the territory. Further, whatever discontent was caused by increasing French intervention into local administrative affairs was likely offset by a convergence in cultural and religious values between Europeans and South Asians in the territory over decades of exposure and intermingling. By the arrival of Dupleix in the 1730s, there had already been profound social changes under previous administrators that had altered the social life of Pondicherry in a way that was amenable to positive intercommunal relations. Primary among these alterations were the religious transformations that preceded Dupleix resulting from the influx of French missionaries, who had flooded into l’Inde Fran?§aise in large numbers from its founding well into the 18th century.
This influx notwithstanding, the French had displayed remarkable levels of religious tolerance that had helped established goodwill with the local populations over the first half of the 18th century. The relative religious tolerance combined with prolific missionary activity in the early 1700s profoundly impacted Pondicherry society, converting large segments of the lower caste population into casteless Christians, whose new religious affiliation bound them to French culture and custom. This cultural and religious transformation had reverberations in the political relationship between the native populations and their European government. With the Catholic population steadily growing, particularly among marginalized castes, the authority of the Catholic church presented large segments of disenfranchised Tamils with the opportunity to appeal to a supremeand distantauthority in cases of discrimination and segregation. In both 1745 and 1761, lower caste Christians appealed to Rome to intervene on their behalf in caste disputes. Though the papal authorities expressed no sincere interest in pursuing a more equitable policygoing so far as to sanction discrimination in Catholic colonies in 1783the repeated instances of civil disobedience in Pondicherry were significant in the precedent they established if not in their actual effectiveness.
Extensive primary source evidence regarding the motivations behind the 1745 and 1761 unrests does not exist, but one can only extrapolate from their repetitive peaceful resolution that these interactions helped establish a relationship in which civil disobedience and peaceful acceptance of the results became normalized. It was the unique conditions of French Indiawhere caste, Catholicism, and benign neglect coexistedthat enabled this relationship to form over the 18th century. The relationship between the French and South Asians was further improved by the governing philosophy of Dupleix, who allowed for Tamils of all castes, religions and creeds to serve alongside Europeans in the colonial government. On the Eve of the Revolution: British Occupation and the Collapse of the Old Order In order to illustrate the unique character of the colonial project in Pondicherry, it is important to stress that much of these colonial governance strategies existed in direct contrast with the modus operandi of the neighboring British Raja contrast that is easily discernable due to the nature of the British occupation of Pondicherry in the 1780s. In the 1770s, the relatively liberal French colonial government had created a consultative Chamber of Indian Notablesa body that even further empowered segments of the Tamil population in Pondicherry. In 1778, when the British occupied Pondicherry during the Anglo-French war, this chamber was abolished as intercommunal relations were reconfigured along the British model.
This paper by no means intends to paint a picture of French colonial governance as the pinnacle of social progressivism and political liberalism. But such actions taken by the Raj during its brief occupation of Pondicherry at the very least illustrate the relative liberalism of the city’s colonial government and highlight the ways in which the conditions in the city were unique among other South Asian colonies. More than just sharpening the contrast between British and French colonial governing philosophies, the occupation of Pondicherry by the Raj had a lasting impact on life in the colony in that it undermined any sense of security that was still felt among its population. Above all of these currents running through life in Pondicherrythe uncommon cultural exchange, judicial independence of the locals, and unique interplay of faithsit would be this element of instability that would inform Pondicherry’s experience during the Revolution. Beginning in the 1760s, life in the colony would be rendered almost intolerable by a series of military skirmishes with English forces that would reduce the territory to only nominal independence. In 1763, Pondicherry was reduced to ruins by British forces in a conflict that ousted Dupleix and would end the period of L’Apogee. Then, during the hostilities surrounding the American Revolution, the British would occupy Pondicherry for 5 years from 1778 to 1783. Though it was returned to French sovereignty after the conclusion of the war, life in the city would never be the same. While French institutions abolished under British ruleincluding the Chamber of Notableswere restored, the entire city, and the French colonial project in South Asia more generally, had been irreparably traumatized. The total population of the city declined dramatically, with the number of European inhabitants declining even more precipitously. On the eve of the Revolution, only 260 French soldiers remained in the territory.
Government documents from the period show a desperate lack of resources on the part of the French military and government establishment. French primary sources from this period illustrate the dread and discontent among the Europeans who remained in the colony, with colonial administrators reflecting on their critical and unhappy position and disastrous circumstances in the aftermath of the British occupation. The secondary literature on this period draws similar conclusions from the evidence available, calling the conditions of poverty and disorganization nearly impossible to solve. It was in this environment that news of the French Revolution arrived in Pondicherry. Brought to the shores of South Asia by the French vessel La Bienvenue, news of the events in France were met with unease by the European population in particular. Complaints from the period declare that the incomplete and vague stories emanating from France had thrown the colony into the greatest worry, and the Europeans waited with great impatience for news of what sort of kingdom or state would emerge at the end of the rebellion.
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