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A Review of La Première Compagnie des Indes : Apprentissages, échecs, et héritage 1664-1704

Updated on January 10, 2021

The first phase of the French First Company was a failure, it has to be said. An organization established by Colbert in 1664, it had the mission of trading with a vast territory stretching across the entirety of the Indian and Pacific oceans. In its 40 years of existence, from 1664-1704, it failed to establish itself broadly in India, other than a few scattered trading posts and Pondichery, to gain security, to make profits, to compete with the other European companies and above all else face off against the Dutch. But it also left behind important lessons and experiences for later French involvements in India which would be critical : rather than viewing it as a failure in of itself, it might be better to view it as an expensive learning experience, one which European companies had to do in India before they were to be successful. It is to examine its experience, its problems, and what it brought, that Marie Menard-Jacob has produced the quite excellent French-language history book La Première Compagnie des Indes : Apprentissages, échecs, et héritage 1664-1704 (the First India Company : Lessons, failures, and legacies 1664-1704) which covers the history of the French East India company during this time period. Having not long ago read Silk and Tea in the North: Scandinavian Trade and the Market for Asian Goods in Eighteenth-Century Europe, I figured that the book would be an interesting contrast of the French as compared to the Scandinavians and their experience in Indian, as compared to Chinese trade, and this volume turned out to be an extremely different, but still quite interesting and valuable tome.

Arms of the French East India Company.
Arms of the French East India Company.

This book starts out with a preface which outlines the difficulties facing the Compagnie des indes. This is followed with a general introduction which deals with the sources utilized, and again certain institutional problems plaguing the company from its start. Its actual opening begins with the chapter "L'apprentissage structurel : Genèse de la Comagnie" (Structural experiences : The foundation of the company), in the first part, Les apprentissages d'une compangnie (the lessons of a company) concerning its organization and its directors, such as François Caron, the director general. Poor Caron did not have a very successful service, facing extensive personality conflicts and suffering extensive losses to the Dutch in conflicts in 1672. A variety of other directors and some of the difficulties (such as the lack of prestige or influence for those newly arrived in India) follows. Chapter II deals with the nature of communications back to Europe ; principally, this passed at sea on company or other European ships, but there was also an overland route across Iraq and Syria. It also discusses the level of ships sent on commerce with India, their fates, and destinations, and the manner in which sufficient (actually insufficient most typically) credit was provided for them in India to buy products. Their rotation and the cycle which merchant ships trading with India underwent throughout the year is also shown, with the comment that it was inferior to the faster English rotation, although the reasons for why the English had a faster cycle are largely left unexplained.

French corsairs and English trading ships fighting in the Indian ocean in 1757 : in this time, the conflict would probably be against the Dutch instead.
French corsairs and English trading ships fighting in the Indian ocean in 1757 : in this time, the conflict would probably be against the Dutch instead.

Section 2, "L'experience de l'inde (the experience of India) then commences, dealing with where the French put their efforts and the establishments of their trading factories in India and other regions in the East. Most important however, was its analysis of the lives of the people within, talking about their promotion, recruitment, profiles, and the effects which life in India had upon them - an often difficult experience, subsisting in an alien land. This was particularly hard for many employees who were sent to India at an early age, just 15-18, which had advantages for better learning the traditions of the country yet which also further reinforced the problems of cultural alienation. Social relationships were more complex than just men though, and the book also dealt with the relationship to women, which often happened with Indian women - actually Indian-Portuguese women, from a long history of mixing between the Portuguese and Indians. This was a complex subject which often engendered conflict, and raised difficult questions concerning widows, and it is one which the book paints an intriguing social history of. Religion also made an apperance, with the relationship to the Jesuits, the Capuchins, and other religious groupings, and the policy difficulties that emerged as a result (the conflation of religious and economic objectives in India and in Siam). A final element in this section is about the non-Company people involved in the work, such as French in India not in the Company, Armenians, or indians. These people knew India well but were not part of the company, while those who were part of the company didn't know the land well : this divide is an important part of what caused the Company to fail.

French and other European settlements in India : the French, British, Portuguese, Dutch, and Danes were present.
French and other European settlements in India : the French, British, Portuguese, Dutch, and Danes were present. | Source

Section 3, "Le poids de conjoncture" (the weight of conditions), tasks itself first with the relationship of the Company to the Indian leaders, discussing the general political situation in India and what the effect was upon the Europeans in general and the Frenc in particular, divided into three regions. The first was (particularly as relating to the Marathas), the second the Coromandel coast, and the third Bengal : all had different structures and relationships. French political relations passed with both leaders but also the Brahims, and were almost uniformly bad : the French image of the Indians as barbarians was met by the same by the Indians on the Europeans, but the Indian attitude was in particular negative towards the French, who were often in debt and presented a poor image in India. This section of the book is quite fascinating for seeing the stereotypes of both sides. Following this the relationships of the various European companies is put into the spotlight. Between the Dutch and the French there was an extremely potent and vicious rivalry - in fact, between the Dutch and all of the East Indian Companies such a rivalry existed, as the Dutch were by far the most powerful and hence attracted the envy and the opposition of all. Between the French and the British there was a cautious alliance (even when they were officially at war in Europe, such as during the War of Spanish Succession, when the English supported their French "enemies" against their Dutch "allies" in India, while the situation was the reverse in Europe), the same as between the Danish and the French, while the Portuguese constantly aided and assisted the French despite receiving nothing but the scornful French opinion of them as being a decadent nation in decline in return : power politics against the Dutch still drove the Portuguese. It was thus a poltiical environment different than Europe, one marked by Dutch dominance and by the religiously-inspired thought of cycles of power and decadence, which would see the Dutch fall as the Portuguese did before them, with the French hoping despite their mediocre means to one day take their place. Chapter 8, Echecs, sursuats, et crépuscule (failures, bursts, and twilight), the last specific chapter, dealing with particular events and naval conflicts, the relations between military and commercial leadership, and the events of the War of Spanish Succession which brought an end to the French East India Company, as the Company lost its monopoly and sold its ships. It had left behind however, a French community in India which would endure and would be vital to future events. A general conclusion ends the book, detailing the legacy of the French First Company upon successor organizations.

A French ship leaving for the Indies
A French ship leaving for the Indies

Throughout, superb graphics, illustrations, and charts back up the points levied within. As mentioned, a previous book which I had read, Silk and Tea in the North: Scandinavian Trade and the Market for Asian Goods in Eighteenth-Century Europe, had not had anything nearly the same detail about the actual operations of the company itself. This books forms an excellent base for those who are interested in the detailed aspects of how European East Indies companies worked in the 17th and early 18th century, such as the schedule of ships, transmissions of information, promotion, social communities, religious linkages, cooperation among the European companies, life in India, opinions upon the Indians and Indian opinions on the French, diplomacy, organizational structure, and geographic partition. For the most part, this is purely related to the company itself, but there is incorporation into broader issues, and I found the depictions of relations to Indians and Indians to the French to be in particular fascinating, as well as the social community and social structures present. Furthermore it helps provide for a better general understanding of the structures of the East India companies, and the book discusses its context among these in regards to stages and the experience needed to be truly efficient in India.

A flag used by French East India Company troops.
A flag used by French East India Company troops.

The book is consistent in that a thoroughly excellent description of the details of the company is given, admittedly perhaps lacking some cargo statistics such as a table which might otherwise have been useful, although it does do a good work of describing what sort of cargoes were sent, those bought, dynamics, and the position of the French in this trade. However, the book I feel possesses a flaw of not placing it into context of the other companies: why were the other European East Indian Companies successful? Was it simply because they started earlier, and so they had completed an inevitable learning process which was inevitably arduous and difficult? There is the occasional note upon this, such as the faster English shipping cycle, but again, it isn't explained as to what the factors beyond the most direct leading to this were. Furthermore, the book doesn't place it into the context of the world system and of the impact which it had upon the general world : what were the effects of the First French East India Company upon the broader Kingdom of France, Europe, and India, beyond laying the groundwork for the second company? Were there cultural or political ramifications back in France of its event, or political discussion about its place in the political economy of the nation? While the book is quite excellent in just its depiction of the French East India Company, it could have been better on these questions.

A French 1771 map of the region : earlier maps were much worse.
A French 1771 map of the region : earlier maps were much worse.

Overall, despite this omission, I believe that this book is an extremely valuable one for those with French-language competences who are interested in structural histories, French colonialism, the history of India, and the rise of global capitalism and Early Modern Europe. Its extensive amounts of detail and its comparative placement of the French India Company gives it a great capability to enable one to understand the processes which were shaping European companies in India and India itself, and it is a book which contains a great deal of information that one would be pressed to find elsewhere. It provides a particularly fascinating counterpoint to the extensive literature available on the EEC, which enables one to pull lessons from it that wouldn't be available otherwise. A useful and important book which has few others capable of giving the same amount of information on as broad of a subject!

4 stars for La Première Comagnie des Indes

© 2018 Ryan Thomas


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