French India

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Établissements français de l'Inde
French India
French colony

French India after 1815
Capital Pondichéry
Languages French

Also spoken; Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam

Political structure Colony
Historical era Imperialism
 -  Abolition of French East India Company 1769
 -  De facto Transfer November 1, 1954
 -  1948 508.03 km² (196 sq mi)
 -  1929 est. 288,546 
 -  1948 est. 332,045 
Currency French Indian Rupee
Map of the first (green) and second (blue — plain and hachured) French colonial empires.

French India is a general name for the French establishments set up by the French East India Company in India from the second half of the 17th century onward, and officially known as the Établissements français dans l'Inde from the resumption of French rule in 1816 to their de facto incorporation into the Union of India in 1947 and 1954.[1] They included Pondichéry, Karikal and Yanaon on the Coromandel Coast, Mahé on the Malabar Coast, and Chandernagor in Bengal. French India also included several loges (subsidiary trading stations that all European East India companies maintained in a number of Indian towns), but after 1816 these were to be nominally French only.

The total area amounted to 510 km2 (200 sq mi), of which 293 km2 (113 sq mi) belonged to the territory of Pondichéry. In 1936, the population of the colony totaled 298,851 inhabitants, of which 63% (187,870) lived in the territory of Pondichéry.[2]


France was the last of the major European maritime powers of the 17th century to enter the East India trade in a significant way. Six decades after the foundation of the English and Dutch East India companies (in 1600 and 1602 respectively), and at a time when both companies were multiplying factories on the shores of India, the French still didn’t have a viable trading company and a single permanent establishment in the East.

Historians have been pondering the reasons why France was so late in entering the fray. They cite geopolitical circumstances such as the inland position of the capital, the size of the country itself, the numerous internal custom barriers, the lack of cohesiveness of the merchant communities of the Atlantic coast set in their parochial ways and reluctant to invest significantly in a large-scale company that trade with the distant East Indies called for.[3][4]

The first French expedition to India is believed to have taken place in the first half of the 16th century, during the reign of François I, when two ships were fitted out by some merchants of Rouen to trade in eastern seas; they sailed from Le Havre and were never heard of again. In 1604 a company was granted letters patent by Henri IV, but the project failed. Fresh letters patent were issued in 1615, and two ships went to India, only one returning.

From 1658, François Bernier (1625–88), a French physician and traveler, was for several years the personal physician at the court of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.

La Compagnie française des Indes orientales (French East India Company) was formed under the auspices of Cardinal Richelieu (1642) and reconstructed under Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1664), sending an expedition to Madagascar. In 1667 the French India Company sent out another expedition, under the command of François Caron (who was accompanied by a Persian named Marcara), which reached Surat in 1668 and established the first French factory in India.[5][6]

In 1669, Marcara succeeded in establishing another French factory at Masulipatam. In 1672, Saint Thomas was taken but the French were driven out by the Dutch. Chandernagore (present-day Chandannagar) was established in 1692, with the permission of Nawab Shaista Khan, the Mughal governor of Bengal. In 1673, the French acquired the area of Pondicherry from the qiladar of Valikondapuram under the Sultan of Bijapur, and thus the foundation of Pondichéry was laid. By 1720, the French had lost their factories at Surat, Masulipatam and Bantam to the British.

A portrait of Ananda Ranga Pillai. Ananda Ranga Pillai was a dubash in the service of the French East India Company, whose private diaries published in the early 1900s provide a detailed insight into the lives of European colonists and the Indian inhabitants in South India during the 18th century

On February 4, 1673, Bellanger, a French officer, took up residence in the Danish Lodge in Pondichéry and the French Period of Pondichéry began. In 1674 François Martin, the first Governor, started to build Pondichéry and transformed it from a small fishing village into a flourishing port-town. The French were in constant conflict, in India, with the Dutch and the English. In 1693 the Dutch took over and fortified Pondichéry considerably. The French regained the town in 1699 through the Treaty of Ryswick, signed on September 20, 1697.

From the beginning until 1741, the objectives of the French, like the British, were purely commercial. During that period, the French East India Company peacefully acquired Yanam (about 840 kilometres or 520 miles north-east of Pondichéry on Andhra Coast) in 1723, Mahe on Malabar Coast in 1725 and Karaikal (about 150 kilometres or 93 miles south of Pondichéry) in 1739. In the early 18th century, the town of Pondichéry was laid out on a grid pattern and grew considerably. Able governors like Pierre Christophe Le Noir (1726–35) and Pierre Benoît Dumas (1735–41) expanded the Pondichéry area and made it a large and rich town.

Maximalist view of the extension of French control and influence (1741-1754)

Soon after his arrival in 1741, the most famous governor of French India, Joseph François Dupleix began to cherish the ambition of a French territorial empire in India in spite of the opposition of his far-away superiors and the French government that didn't want to provoke the British. Dupleix's ambition clashed with British interests in India and a period of military skirmishes and political intrigues began and continued even in periods when France and Great Britain were officially at peace. Under the command of the Marquis de Bussy-Castelnau, Dupleix's army successfully controlled the area between Hyderabad and Cape Comorin. But then Robert Clive arrived in India in 1744, a British officer who dashed the hopes of Dupleix to create a French empire India.

After a defeat and failed peace talks, Dupleix was summarily dismissed and recalled to France in 1754.

In spite of a treaty between the British and French not to interfere in local politics, the intrigues continued. For example, in this period the French were also expanding their influence at the court of the Nawab of Bengal, and expanding their trade volume in Bengal. In 1756, the French encouraged the Nawab (Siraj ud-Daulah) to attack and conquer the British Fort William in Calcutta. This led to the Battle of Plassey in 1757 where the British decisively defeated the Nawab and his French allies, and extended British power over the entire province of Bengal.

Dupleix meeting the Soudhabar of the Deccan, Murzapha Jung.

Subsequently France sent Lally-Tollendal to regain the French losses and chase the British out of India. Lally arrived in Pondichéry in 1758, had some initial success and razed Fort St. David in Cuddalore District to the ground in 1758, but strategic mistakes by Lally led to the loss of the Hyderabad region, the Battle of Wandiwash, and the siege of Pondicherry in 1760. In 1761 Pondichéry was razed to the ground by the British in revenge and lay in ruins for four years. The French had lost their hold now in South India too.

In 1765 Pondichéry was returned to France after a peace treaty with Britain in Europe. Governor Jean Law de Lauriston set to rebuild the town on the old foundations and after five months 200 European and 2000 Tamil houses had been erected. In 1769, the French East India Company, unable to support itself financially, was abolished by the French Crown, who took responsibility for administering the French colonies in India. During the next 50 years Pondichéry changed hands between France and Britain with the regularity of their wars and peace treaties.

Suffren meeting with ally Hyder Ali in 1782, J.B. Morret engraving, 1789.
Colonial India
British Indian Empire
Imperial entities of India
Dutch India 1605–1825
Danish India 1620–1869
French India 1769–1954
Portuguese India
Casa da Índia 1434–1833
Portuguese East India Company 1628–1633
British India
East India Company 1612–1757
Company rule in India 1757–1858
British Raj 1858–1947
British rule in Burma 1824–1948
Princely states 1721–1949
Partition of India

In 1816, after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, the five establishments of Pondichéry, Chandernagore, Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam and the loges at Machilipattnam, Kozhikode and Surat were returned to France. Pondichéry had lost much of its former glory, and Chandernagore dwindled into an insignificant outpost north of the rapidly expanding British establishment of Calcutta. Successive governors tried, with mixed results, to improve infrastructure, industry, law and education over the next 138 years.

"Lost in the midst of the vast British domain, these ports are of little worth. Rather, they are of sentimental value to France."

By decree of the January 25, 1871, French India was provided with an elective general council (Conseil général) and elective local councils (Conseil local). The results of this measure were not very satisfactory, and the qualifications for and the classes of the franchise were modified. The governor resided at Pondichéry, and was assisted by a council. There were two Tribunaux d'instance (Tribunals of first instance) (at Pondichéry and Karikal) one Cour d'appel (Court of Appeal) (at Pondichéry) and five Justices de paix (Justice of the Peace). The agricultural produce consisted of rice, earth-nuts, tobacco, betel nuts and vegetables.

The independence of India in August 1947 gave impetus to the union of France's Indian possessions with former British India. The lodges in Machilipatnam, Kozhikode and Surat were ceded to India in October 1947. An agreement between France and India in 1948 agreed to an election in France's remaining Indian possessions to choose their political future. Governance of Chandernagore was ceded to India on 2 May 1950, then it was merged with West Bengal state on 2 October 1955. On November 1, 1954, the four enclaves of Pondichéry, Yanam, Mahe, and Karikal were de facto transferred to the Indian Union and became the Union Territory of Puducherry. The de jure union of French India with India did not take place until 1962, when the French Parliament in Paris ratified the treaty with India.

French India postage stamps.jpg

List of Governors of French establishments in India[edit]

Bellin's map of India (Indoustan), 1770


Governors General[edit]

Colonial Yanaon

French India became a Territoire d'outre-mer of France in 1946.


de facto transfer to Indian Union

High Commissioners[edit]

  • Mr.Kewal Singh November 1, 1954–57
  • M.K. Kripalani 1957–58
  • L.R.S. Singh 1958–58
  • AS Bam 1960
  • Sarat Kumar Dutta 1961–61

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ In France, the official name Établissements français dans l'Inde was mostly found in official documents. The expression Inde française was not often used as it was found too grandiose since the territory of French India was minuscule, particularly compared to British India. Among the population and in the press, the expression Comptoirs de l'Inde was (and is still) universally used. However, a comptoir is a trading post and therefore not a very appropriate word to denote the French possessions in India, which were colonial possessions rather than mere trading posts.
  2. ^ Jacques Weber, Pondichéry et les comptoirs de l'Inde après Dupleix, Éditions Denoël, Paris, 1996, p. 347.
  3. ^ Holden Furber, Rival Empires of Trade in the Orient, 1600-1800, University of Minnesota Press, 1976, p. 201.
  4. ^ Philippe Haudrère, Les Compagnies des Indes Orientales, Paris, 2006, p 70.
  5. ^ Asia in the making of Europe, p. 747 .
  6. ^ The Cambridge history of the British Empire, p. 66 .


  • Sudipta Das (1992). Myths and realities of French imperialism in India, 1763–1783. New York: P. Lang. ISBN 0820416762. 459p.

External links[edit]