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French, The


French, The had set up trading posts on the west and east coasts of south India in the mid-seventeenth century. In 1674 Francois Martin founded Pondicherry, the future capital of French India, on a small piece of territory ceded by a native ruler, 85 miles south of Madras. In the same year contact was set up with Bengal though formal trading posts were established much later. A factory was built at Chandernagore (chandannagar) on the Hughli in 1690, 16 miles above Calcutta on a site given by the nawab earlier in 1674. In January 1693 the French received a farman on payment of Rs. 40,000/- in installments. Besides Chandernagore, factories were also built in kasimbazar and Balasore.

The European war saw the fall of Pondicherry to the Dutch in September 1693 and the French now concentrated on Bengal since their Surat factory was heavily in debt. Deslandes could procure saltpetre and silk from the armenians but could not send the ships as the dutch had blocked the mouth of the Ganges. The revolt of shobha singh and rahim khan had allowed the French to add a ditch and two bastions at Chandernagore, although the rebels plundered their factory at Kasimbazar. By 1695, the French had received another parwana from the dewan Kafayet Khan allowing them to pay 4% customs duties, as did the Dutch. With the return of peace, two French ships laden with goods could leave Europe in 1697. Yet the French were in difficulties, as they did not have the cash to advance to the weavers.

From 1700 it had become difficult for the French to continue trade and commerce in Bengal, mainly because of financial problems. The chowkies of tolls on the river added problems for the French as the lack of liquid cash had increased the prices of goods, excepting those of costly varieties of textiles. The French Company, starved of funds at home, had begun to send ships with more European goods than bullion, but these could not be easily sold in India. The outbreak of another European war and the Dutch blockade of the French ships in Bengal created further problems. Du Livier, succeeding Deslandes, could not improve matters.

At the end of 1708, when Flacourt took charge of Bengal, the French had incurred a debt of more than 300,000 livres (livre was the currency of France until 1795). The employees were living miserably by selling saltpetre from stores and begging in the streets of Chandernagore. The situation was further aggravated when the ships of the merchants of St. Malo, who had taken over the rights to the Indo-China trade arrived in Bengal. They did not pay the debts nor did they pay the salaries. The creditors had complained to the dewan who gave the French one year to clear the debts. From 1715, the Company of St. Malo began to pay the debts in France while their debt in India went up to 5 million livres, including half a million in Bengal, although the St. Malo Company had sent ships regularly to India.

In 1719, Jean Law formed a new Companyin Paris with enormous funds. Hardancourt, the new Director in Bengal, acquired several villages on which Chandernagore stood. In 1719, he managed to get a farman from the Emperor farrukh siyar by which the customs duty was reduced to 2BD. This was confirmed by a parwana of Nawab murshid quli khan issued in 1721. The new company had sent more than four million livres to pay off their debts and to purchase saltpetre and costly textiles. By 1721, the intra-Asian commerce of the French was organised on a big scale with the export of rice, sugar and textiles to Persia. Private commerce was still forbidden, including the commerce of slave girls. But Paris did not object to sending slave boys to the island of Bourbon where plantations had been started.

The French however needed another farman from the new emperor Muhammad Shah without which they were forced to pay more taxes, often leading to violent clashes with customs officials. Meanwhile there was a reorganisation of the structure of the company in France. By an Edict of 27 January 1726, private intra-Asian trade was allowed. Dumas was sent to Pondicherry to reorganise finance and Dirois was sent to Bengal. This gave new life to the French establishment as ships began to come from Persia, the Red Sea and African coasts where the French had been trading.

The renewal of commercial activities brought weavers and other artisans to Chandernagore. Dirois bought marshy land full of stagnant water at Chak Nasirabad, which was cleared. The settlement extended with Boroguichempore becoming one end of the colony. Dirois also reactivated the Kasimbazar factory and in 1726, got the permission to open a factory at Dhaka.

It appears from the Memoirs of F. Martin (died 1705) that Deslandes used to purchase goods from Dhaka in 1689 and was trying to build a factory there, but was unable to do so due to the outbreak of European war. He had sent Gregoire Butet, who later left the service, to Dhaka, but there was no acquisition of land. Martin, who gave details of purchase of land in the Hughli area, did not mention the failure. The French house at Dhaka was bought in 1752, which was located in the site of the latter day ahsan manzil. The French also had a garden at Tejgaon.

With the opening of private trade, despite its restriction to intra-Asian trade, the prosperity of Chandernagore began to increase from 1723 onwards. By 1726, commercial transactions had averaged one and a half million livres annually, which rose to 250,000 livres by 1730. The import of bullion was nearly two million livres annually in some years. The profit after sale in France came to nearly 200% on average though rice and saltpetre were bringing in more than 300%. After deduction of all costs, in France and in India, this profit was reduced to 10%.

The description of Chandernagore by the visiting Chevalier d'Albert in 1737 showed that among the three European settlements on the Bhagirathi, the French one was the least well-fortified. There were four bastions but the gates were weak. The houses of the Director, merchants and other employees and warehouses, chapel and barracks of soldiers were commodious. The houses, aligned on the riverbank, were of one storey. Both the Jesuits and Capuchins had churches and there were also some Hindu temples. At that time, there were nearly 500 Europeans, including portuguese, apart from the Armenians, Hindus and Muslims. There were nearly 1500 Christians, probably of Indian origin, and slaves. The French had taken land extending up to four miles for an annual payment of Rs. 2000/-. The French administered justice within the town according to their laws, the final appeal resting on the Pondicherry Council. The French continued to purchase different varieties of muslin of sonargaon along with other goods.

Without a farman, relations between the French and the nawab's men often deteriorated, as in 1728. A French officer was offended at Kasimbazar and the French decided to get satisfaction from the nawab, who refused to recognise the French without a farman. French boats were stopped and two Frenchmen were killed. The French decided to start a war on the Ganges. At this moment, Dupleix came to Chandernagore as Director and settled the affair amicably. The French continued to pay 2BD% as customs duties. The same kind of incident occurred again in 1732 and Dupleix once again pacified the nawab by sending some presents in cash and kind.

In eastern Bengal, the French were given permission to open a factory in Dhaka in 1722, but they did not utilise the permission. In 1735, the Jougdia factory, now on the seabed near Sandwip, was opened. Two Asian Christians named Ignace and Techere were sent there to collect garas, buftas and sanas. It is difficult to find out the exact position of this factory, which was controlled from Dhaka. In 1757, it was about three kilometres away from the river. In 1735, the French purchased cloth worth Rs. 40,000/-.

In 1736, a French ship returning from Pegu stopped at Chittagong and the local officials seized the merchant Vige and a part of the cargo, as the French had no legal right to stop there. Dupleix wanted to have a parwana like that of the English who had got it in 1736 for customs free trade there. Haji Ahmed however claimed so much money that Dupleix gave up the idea.

The English and the Dutch had the parwana to take foreign coins and bullion to the Bengal mint for conversion into Mughal coins without going through a broker or Shroff. Deslandes was given this permission long ago, but the French did not utilise it then. Dupleix had been trying to get this parwana since 1731 but Fatehchand, who controlled the exchange, thwarted him. In 1737, this reached a crisis point and Dupleix had to pay Rs. 50,000/- to the nawab for getting the parwana, which was issued on 10 January 1738.

On reaching Bengal, Dupleix had got a parwana from the nawab, allowing the French to pay 2.5% customs duty like the Dutch. By that time funds were flowing in as in 1731 for the purchase of garas, sanas, rumals, malmal, tany silk, tanjeb, nayansukh etc. Often Dupleix used to take loans and used to load goods more in value than the investment sent by the Company. By 1736 the Company began to invest more than two lakh rupees for Bengal goods. In 1740, Dupleix received more than eight lakhs.

Dupleix had organised his private trade in intra-Asian commerce, often by forming a Company with the English, French or Dutch merchants, some of whom he used to invite for entertainment to his villa at Satgachia. It is difficult to determine the private investment of Dupleix, which hovered around Rs. 80,000/- for a particular enterprise, giving him a profit of between 20 to 50%. From Chandernagore, he organised voyages to the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Maldives, Achen, Malacca and Manila.

After the departure of Dupleix to Pondicherry in 1741, Bengal factors got permission in 1747 to open a factory in Chittagong. Chevalier was sent to organize the Assam trade from Goalpara in 1753, but it did not succeed. His successor, Laval, also failed and the factory was closed down. Yet from Dhaka, the French did export, between 1746 and 1755, goods worth 28.5 lakh rupees (on an average Rs. 28,000/-annually), through the Dhaka brokers.

While Dhaka supplied luxury items the Jougdia factory was supplying coarse textiles and it was brought under the control of Chandernagore. Albert was the chief of the Jougdia factory in the pre-Palashi period. Even when the English factory had shifted in 1755 from Jougdia to Lakhipur, the French continued there. Jougdia was important to Chandernagore as late as April 1786. After the departure of Albert, one Sobharam, broker of Aminabad, managed the factory for six years when a Frenchman, Broclay, was sent. He dismissed Sobharam and had appointed one Mallick as the banian. By that time, however, the situation of the French had undergone a change in Bengal.

The English captured Chandernagore on 24 March 1757. It was restored to the French on 25 June 1765, by which time the old Fort D'Orleaons lay totally destroyed and most of the buildings in ruins. The population had come down from 60,000 in 1757 to only 20,000 in 1765. By the treaty of Paris, 1763, the French had got back their commercial rights but the English despite the continuous protests of the French constantly obstructed their operations.

In 1769, the French company was dissolved in France and commerce was opened to private individuals. In 1778, Chandernagore again fell into English hands, who restored it along with five other subordinate factories in early 1785. A separate Anglo- French commercial convention in 1787 eased the problem of the French a little, by which time a new company of Calonne had started in France. A revolutionary committee, on the line of Pondicherry, was set up in Chandernagore. With the capture of Chandernagore by the English on 11 June 1793 it's bickering finally ended and the French ceased to be an effective commercial and political power in Bengal. [Aniruddha Ray]