“Vue de Pondichéry”: Looking at India from Paris in 1750 and 1931

By Danna Agmon

Vue de Pondichéry dans les Indes orientales. The 1750 engraving, published in Paris by Jacques-Gabriel Huquier, depicted the bustling port of the French colony in India. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France, http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b8494887g In 1750, a well-established Parisian engraver and print-seller, Jacques Gabriel Huquier, published a hand-painted engraving titled "Vue de Pondichéry dans les Indes Orientales." The image presents a view from the water of the colonial French city of Pondichéry on the Coromandel Coast in India. The engraving depicts Pondichéry at a successful moment in its often-challenging history. The French governed Pondichéry beginning in 1674, but encountered significant difficulties in establishing their authority there and beyond in the early decades of the 18th century. With threats from both the neighboring English and the Dutch, and depending on the goodwill of local Indian rulers, the French foothold in the subcontinent was often precarious. But the mid-18th century was a high-water mark for French power in South India, and the engraving celebrated that achievement. It highlighted the commercial hustle and bustle that made Pondichéry the center of French ambition in the East, and depicted the naval prowess that backed such power, showing no less than three armed vessels in the harbor, carrying dozens of cannons on board. With the dense waterfront scene of battleships, commercial vessels, small coastal rigs, fishermen at the shore, and strolling observers in a well-defended city, the image celebrated a cosmopolitan world of profit and exchange and an imposing French fort commanding the coast, and by implication, the Tamil hinterland.

Almost 200 years later, French power in India was a distant and gauzy memory for most metropolitan Frenchmen. Pondichéry and its satellites were still French colonies, and would remain so until Indian independence. But unlike the ambitious and bellicose French colonial officials in the 18th century, French administrators in India in the first decades of the 20th century needed to operate in a strangely murky political context-rulers with very little to rule. French presence in India, tiny in both territory and population, posed no threat to British rule, and was understood by the British to be, as a historian of the period suggested recently, little more than an "anachronistic nuisance."[1] "French India" became a hybrid political creature, marked by French pretension to authority crossed with British tolerance for such pretension.[2]   

L'Inde française. Exposition coloniale internationale, Paris 1931. The cover page of the catalog for the French India pavilion in the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris presented a stylized and compressed version of the French colonies. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Philosophie, histoire, sciences de l'homme, 4-LK10-1110 For French colonial administrators in India in the 20th century, I argue, the glory days of the 18th century were a governmental preoccupation. A group of them, led by Pondichéry's governor Alfred Martineau (1859-1945), took on large-scale projects of preserving historical documents from the 18th century, and were themselves devoted historians of the period. After two decades of intense historiographical production, their efforts culminated in the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris, where the resources devoted to the French establishments in India were incongruent with their place in French empire, and two giant elephant statues welcomed visitors to the lavish French India pavilion. The Colonial Exhibition also entailed a slew of attendant meetings and historical publications, all focused to a surprising extent on the 18th-century past. Among them was a catalog of the French India pavilion, which opened with a map, another object offering a view of Pondichéry. This map was a highly stylized and abstract image, not one that could convey a sense of the geographic reality. For example, the map was compressed, so that the colony of Chandernagor in Bengal seemed to be almost as close to Pondichéry as is Karikal. In reality, Karikal is only 130 kilometers south of Pondichéry, whereas Chanernagor is almost 2,000 kilometers to the north. With its abstract contours and imaginary geography, the map argued for French India being a land for imaginative musings. It depicted a meandering sailboat and a cluster of trees, but no people, no buildings, no sense of the commercial and political exchanges that were the reason for France's presence in India in the first place. It was an image of a lost geography. These two disparate images, a view of Pondichéry from 1750 and a map of French India from 1931, are "entangled objects" of a sort, marking the changing contours French India held for Frenchmen in the 18th century and during the Third Republic, especially in the context of the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition. The first conveys ambition, while the second is tinged with regret and resignation, marking a present that has very little place for French action.  

By bringing together these two views of Pondichéry, I aim to reveal the import of 18th-century history for modern French colonial efforts. Given the fact that France's glory days in India were all firmly located in the 18th century, the 1931 French India pavilion, unlike other parts of the exhibition, was not an exercise in the demonstration of colonial power and the benefits of la mission civilisatrice. Rather, it was historiographical in nature. Unlike the much better-studied projects of creating ethnological and historical knowledge of a colonial "Other," in an Orientalist vein, the work of French colonial historians in India was entirely self-regarding. These amateur historians devoted their efforts entirely to an excavation of the French colonial project itself, its institutional, bureaucratic, and political history.      

Historical work made sense for colonial administrators in India, I suggest, because the entirety of French India in the early 20th century can be understood as a historical monument. The tiny French colonies, still in existence in this period only due to the good-humored dismissal of the British government, were a relic. They acted as a historical marker of an empire that almost was, a living marker of dashed ambition. Administrators, with very little to administrate, focused on historical work as a counterpart to their bureaucratic existence. Historian Kate Marsh has recently suggested that the entire colony of Pondichéry is a "site of memory," best understood as a town-sized archive.[3] As such, its officials were facing toward the past. It was the bustling, exciting past of the 1751 image that occupied French historian-administrators, not the serene present of the 1931 map.

[1] Akhila Yechury, "Imagining India, Decolonizing L'Inde Française, c. 1947-1954," The Historical Journal 58, no. 4 (December 2015): 1145.

[2] Jacques Weber, a historian of Pondichéry and French India, has referred to the "Lilliputian dimensions" of French India. Jaques Weber, "Chanemougam, 'King of French India': Social and Political Foundations of an Absolute Power under the Third Republic," Economic and Political Weekly 26, no. 6 (February 9, 1991): 291.

[3] Kate Marsh, "Pondichéry: Archive of 'French' India," Francosphères 3, no. 1 (January 1, 2014): 9-23. 

Danna Agmon is an Assistant Professor in the History department at Virginia Tech, and a 2015-2016 Long-Term Fellow at the Huntington Library in California. She was trained in an interdisciplinary program, receiving a PhD in Anthropology and History from the University of Michigan. Her specialty is the history of French empire in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Currently she is completing a book manuscript titled "The Nayiniyappa Affair: Commerce, Conversion, and a Colonial Scandal in French India," which explores the fraught intersection of trade and religion in the eighteenth-century French colony of Pondichéry, India. Her research has been supported by a Bourse Chateaubriand, the American Philosophical Society, and the Council for European Studies, and has appeared in the journals Eighteenth-Century Studies and French Historical Studies