Aug 1, 2007

Book Review: History of the French in India: From the Founding of Pondichery in 1674 to the Capture of That Place in 1761

Malleson, George Bruce
Delhi, India: Renaissance Publishing House, 1986 (1868), 614 pages

George Bruce Malleson was an officer in the British army, and also served in the British civil service in a number of capacities. Born at Wimbledon in 1825, he was educated at Winchester College. He obtained a cadetship in the Bengal infantry in 1842, and served through the Second Burmese War. His subsequent appointments were in the civil line, the last being that of guardian to the young maharaja of Mysore, and Malleson retired with the rank of colonel in 1877.

Malleson was a prolific writer, and his first work to bring him fame was a government document entitled the "Red Pamphlet," published at Calcutta in 1857 at the height of the Sepoy Rebellion. This document, a prime example of British divide-and-conquer tactics, urged Hindus to avoid interaction with Muslims. As a historian, Malleson considerably rewrote the six-volume History of the Indian Mutiny (1878-1880), which was begun but left unfinished by eminent British military historian Sir John William Kaye, the man who took John Stuart Mill’s place as Secretary of the India office. Among Malleson’s other books includes The Decisive Battles of India (1888).

History of the French in India had its first printing in 1868, although the book was slow to sell at first. The second printing in 1893 was in response to growing demand for Malleson’s work, which surely benefited from his decades in the British military and civil services in the East.

Malleson began his work with an overview of French efforts to enter the lucrative Asian trade by emulating the Dutch and Portuguese. He described a number of early incarnations of La Compagnie française des Indes orientales that fizzled out for a variety of reasons. The French did not achieve any success, according to Malleson, until the administration of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister under Louis XIV. The 1664 founding of the Company was bankrolled with 15 million livres torunois, 3 million of which was advanced by the French treasury as seed money to attract investors. Colbert, according to Malleson, was “one of those men who stamp their name on the age in which they live” and “was one of the glories of France.” He also captured the Asian exploits of former VOC employee Francis Caron, who elevated corruption to new levels during his tenure with his new French employers.

French finance minister Jean-Baptiste ColbertLeft: French finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert

Malleson argued that Francis Martin was the man most responsible for the founding of Pondicherry, the first and most enduring of the French ports in India. Unlike most of his countrymen, who were regularly dismissed by Malleson as prone to, among other negative traits, “jealousy” and “the inherent vice of their government,” Martin was “single-mided, liberal, large-hearted without a thought of envy or jealousy, and a true patriot.”

The author next laid out the connections between La Compagnie française des Indes orientales and the wild financial schemes of the Scot John Law, whose creative financing makes Johnny-come-latelies like Enron and WorldCom pale in comparison. The financial disaster known as the Mississippi Bubble got its start after the death in 1715 of Louis XIV. The French economy, thanks to Louis' extravagant spending, had fallen into a depression. Law went to Paris and became friends with the regent of France, who was ruling temporarily. Law convinced the regent that the economy could be stimulated by issuing paper money, which could more easily circulate. Money in France had previously consisted only of silver or gold coins. Law chartered a company named La Compagnie d'Occident and persuaded the regent to grant it exclusive rights to all trade between France and its Louisiana territory, which centered on the Mississippi River; the company was known in the English-speaking world as the Mississippi Company. The monopoly on the fur trade was the hook to draw in investors in the new firm. Through a series of complicated amalgamations that included the French public debt, royal tax farming, and La Compagnie française des Indes orientales, Law managed to effect a complete implosion of the French economy.

The focus of Malleson’s text turns next to Bertrand-François Mahé, count of La Bourdonnais, who was a French sailor and Company administrator. Born in Brittany, La Bourdonnais served as governor of the French islands of La Réunion and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, and achieved military success against the British with the capture of Madras in 1746. Malleson also highlighted the rivalry between La Bourdonnais and Joseph François Dupleix, upon whom the author gushed endless praise. Dupleix, in the eyes of Malleson, possessed a “brilliant genius” that was destroyed by the “universal corruption, which, during the reign of Louis XV, consumed the very vitals of France, ruled in her palaces, and tainted all her public offices.” Malleson went so far as to compare the France of Louis XV with the Greek mythological figure of Medea, claiming that “often did she, with her own hands, immolate her offspring, and, failing this, she treated the best and bravest of her sons as enemies.” Malleson devoted nearly 400 pages to the development of a romantic epic between these two heroic rivals. He frequently peppered his narrative with passages of the following sort about the competition between La Bourdonnais and Dupleix:
Success had now been attained [the capture of Madras]; the two men were about, for the first time, to come into contact. Which of them was to take the lead? It was in the chance of some disagreement between these two strong natures, both conscious of the possession of genius, both customed to command, that lay the best chance of [British] Governor Morse and Madras.
Thus, the crafty British were once again able to best the French, who were always so prone to emotional outbursts and fits of pride. As a son of the Empire, Malleson was certainly prone to exhibit such bias toward British rule in India; after all, he served the British Crown in the India service, and it would be unreasonable (as well as blatantly presentist) to assume that he could engage in detached, objective historical inquiry. He defended the capitulation by Madras Governor Thomas Saunders of the British port of Madras by pointing out his ability to make alliances:
It was his constancy and resolution, his determination, when the English fortunes were at their lowest, to support Muhammad Ali, in order that through him he might stop the progress of Dupleix…that tended, by a slow and certain procedure, to lower the pride of France…

Bertrand-François Mahé de La BourdonnaisNever mind that Saunders had surrendered an important British outpost on the Coromandel coast; in Malleson's eyes he was a bastion of steely resolve, ready to fight another day for the Empire.

Left: Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais

Malleson made fairly extensive use of French sources for this book, bringing many of the details about the Company to English readers for the first time. There are but three maps in the book, which is unfortunate, since he used archaic spellings in his text; Hyderabad, for example, is spelled "Haidaradad," and Tiruchirappalli is spelled by Malleson as "Trichinapalli." The author provided reference years on every page, so that readers are able to have a ready guide to where the narrative is at any point. Malleson also provided a wealth of detail on internal Indian geopolitics, especially the Mughal battle for succession that accompanied the death of Aurangzeb Alamgir.


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microdot said...

Sigh, another great book I want to read. I have been spending time in Bordeaux lately and learning about that cities importance in France's colonial history. I usually go there with a French man who is a passionate amateur historian in regards to Bordeaux. I am seeing a lot of the structures that were the administrative and shipping centers for the empire during the time this book covers.
I plan to be back there in late September. I am also going to go to Blaye and have a tour of the huge citadel there built at that time.