French East India Company

French East India Company

From the humble beginnings in trade, the English and the French Companies were inevitably drawn to the politics of India. When the Mughal central authority weakened, the viceroy of the Deccan proved to be incapable to protect the trade interests of the European Companies. Subsequently the European came to a firm conclusion that in order to protect their interests, they must be prepared to unsheathe their swords occasionally.  Steeped in the ideology of Mercantilism, the English and the French Companies looked for a huge profit. To secure this it was necessary to eliminate all competition and get monopoly rights. The French and English have always been on the opposite side of every conflict in most of the European wars of the 18th century. With the outbreak of Austrian War of Succession and the Seven Years War, India became one of the theaters of these conflicts. Thus for any party to win, it became necessary to gain control over the land of India. The conclusion changed the entire political scenario which echoed throughout Indian history.


The French East India Company’s coat of arms. The motto reads Florebo quocumque ferar (“I will flourish wherever I will be brought”)

The Early French and their Expeditions

Of the five great European maritime powers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, France was the fourth to enter into the race for commercial communication with India. The fifth power, Spain, never attempted the contest, and Portugal, Holland, and England had reaped considerable benefits from their enterprise before the attention of the French people had been sufficiently attracted to the trade. Nevertheless, though the French were the last to enter upon the venture, their natural genius asserted itself in a manner that speedily brought them on a level with the most securely planted of their European rivals.

On June 1, 1604, a Company was established under the French King’s letters patent, granting it an exclusive trade for fifteen years. But, though the services of Gerard Leroy, a Flemish navigator, who had already made several voyages to the Indies in the employ of the Dutch, were engaged, disputes amongst the proprietors, and the paucity of funds, hindered the action of the Company.  Seven years later the project was renewed under Louis XIII., but owing to the same causes, nothing was undertaken during a period of four years. But in 1615, two merchants of Rouen, dismayed with the inactivity of the Company, petitioned the King for the transfer to them of the privileges accorded to it, expressing at the same time their readiness to fit out ships that very year. This petition was opposed by the Company. The King, however, after hearing the arguments on both sides, decided in favor of a coalition. The expedition gained neither profit nor loss. For upwards of twenty years after this, the Company affected nothing.


Cardinal Richelieu

Under Cardinal Richelieu, a powerful minister, a new Company was formed called ‘La Compagnie des Indies’. They began to make serious preparations to justify their right to the title. Their first ship had scarcely started on its expedition when Cardinal Richelieu died. This event, however, did not affect the expedition at all. The first French vessel equipped by the French India Company reached Madagascar in the summer of 1642. Here they failed to find a successful colony.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert

Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683)
*oil on canvas
*92.1 x 72.4 cm

Cardinal Mazarin, the chief Minister of King Louis XIV died in 1661. His successor, Jean- Baptiste Colbert, was one of those men who stamped their name on the age in which they lived. Colbert was one of the glories of France. Born in the middle rank of life, he was a son of a merchant. A self-educated banker, he had gained such confidence of Mazarin, that on his dying bed he recommended him as a man of immense capacity, strict fidelity, and unwearied application.

Colbert succeeded him, first only as Controller of Finances, but not long after he was invested with the entire administration of the country. Under his guiding hand, France quickly assumed in Europe a position she had never held before. Her finances, commerce, industry, agriculture, art, all felt the impulse of his strong will and firm direction. Colbert made the French navy. In a few years after his accession to power, France possessed a hundred vessels of war, and there were 60,000 sailors inscribed on the rolls. He created the naval ports of Brest, Toulon, and Rochefort, and bought Dunkirk from the English.

Formation of French East India Company

Colbert had been neither blind nor indifferent to the great advantages which had accrued to the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the English from their possessions in India. Thus he made it one of his greatest objectives to encourage the formation of a grand Company, somewhat on the English model, to open out a regular traffic with India. He offered the Company a charter granting it the exclusive right of commerce with India for fifty years. It was to be exempted from all taxation, and the Government agreed to engage to reimburse it for all losses it might suffer during the first ten years after its formation. On these conditions, in the year 1664, the French “Compagnie des Indes” was formed. Its capital was 15,000,000 livres. However, the entire sum was not subscribed. A fifth of the amount, 3,000,000 livres, was advanced by the Treasury. This example had a great effect upon the nobility and rich courtiers, and these at once became eager to join an undertaking which the Government seemed to cherish as one of its most favored projects. The prospects of the Company on its formation were thus brilliant. Starting under the auspices of a monarchy, it was then a fast rising project. Nevertheless, its first movements were neither well considered nor fortunate.


Regiment’s flag of French East India Company

French Settlement in India

The first French factory was established in Surat in 1668. In the following year, the French started a second factory at Masulipatnam (Machchalipatnam). In the expeditions undertaken against Ceylon and St. Thome in 1672, a very prominent part had been taken by Francis Martin. He was a Frenchman who had commenced his career in the service of the Dutch East India Company and later joined the French.

The French had provoked the hostility of the Dutch by attacking their possessions and inflamed against them with a particular animosity. The Dutch had retaken Trinkamali (Trincomalee), and the French could scarcely hope that they would allow them to retain peaceable possession of St. Thome. With a view, to provide themselves with a place of refuge in case of evil days, Martin communicated with Sher Khan Lodi, the ruler of Bijapur, for the grant of a piece of land which they might call their own. Martin was given permission to purchase a plot of ground on the sea-coast in the province of Jinji. It was called Pondicherry. After the conclusion of this arrangement, Martin returned to St. Thome. In 1674, it was no longer a secret that the Government of Holland, highly enraged by the attack of its possessions in Ceylon, was no longer satisfied with the recapture of Trinkamali. The Dutch were determined to strike out the French from the list of rivals in Indian trade.

Determined by their motives, the Dutch set to work with the native allies. They communicated to the King of Golkonda that the capture of St. Thome by the French was a deliberate and wanton attack upon possessions which they held only in mutual obligation to him; that the newcomers were an enterprising and energetic race, who would not be content with merely a port on the sea-coast; and that it concerned his safety, as well as his honor, to expel them. Convinced with incoming dangers, the King of Golconda detached a considerable force to besiege St. Thome by land, whilst the Dutch attacked it by sea. The French were forced to surrender and St. Thome was captured forcibly.

In 1674, Shaista Khan, Governor of Bengal, granted a site to the French, which developed into the factory of Chandranagar on the Hugli. The European rivalry between the Dutch and the French adversely influenced the position of the French in India. Pondicherry was captured by the Dutch in 1693 but handed back to the French by the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697.

By 1720, the French control got relaxed over Bantam, Surat and Masulipatam. But there was a revival in the fortunes of the French by next year. Mauritius, the halfway island to India, was occupied in the same year, and Mahe and Karaikal in 1725 and 1730 respectively. Thus, the French like the English fostered the aspiration to establish a French Empire in India. Initially, the French ambition was purely commercial but after 1742, they began to entertain political ambitions. They strengthened and fortified its settlements against the Indian rulers. When the French Governor Dupleix proceeded to fulfill this aspiration of the French, he faced opposition from the British. This resulted in a series of armed struggles between the French and the British. Thus, the clash between the French and the English companies constituted a new chapter in Indian history.


The Company’s first trading settlement was at the disease-ridden town of Bantam

Anglo-French Power Politics

The English East India Company was a private enterprise and so, possessed a lot initiative and vigor. It was a prosperous company and carried out a lot of trade. The Englishmen were looking forward to their good prospects in the future. As compared with the English, the French East India Company was more controlled by the state authority. There was too much control and intervention of the government and it only destroyed all initiative on the part of the officials of the French company. Hence, the volume of the trade carried on by them was not much. As a result, the French company was poor in economic resources. The English had a brilliant record of progress and growth. The people of England looked upon the English company, which failed to fire the imagination of the Frenchman. This, it is evident that the French were handicapped in their race for supremacy with the English company. All the resourcefulness of Dupleix could not alter the state of affairs. The conflict between England and French largely molded the future of India. The expansion of the British in South India was basically the outcome of the hostilities between the English and the French East India Companies. When the Mughal central authority weakened and the Mughal viceroy of the Deccan proved unable to protect the trade interests of the European came to this firm conclusion that in order to protect their interests, they must be prepared to go to war. This ultimately led to a series of battles between the two sides in the form of support to native kingdoms.

First Carnatic War, 1746-48

The French and the English Companies fought the three Carnatic Wars in the Deccan. These wars sealed the fate of the French in the Deccan. The first Carnatic War was merely an echo of the war of Austrian succession, which broke out in Europe in connection with the succession of Maria Theresa to the throne of Austria. The news of the war of Austrian succession reached India in 1744. However, both the English and the French were preparing to oust each other. Dupleix was the Governor of Pondicherry and he suggested the Madras Governor to observe neutrality.

The English Governor did not accept the suggestion. But Dupleix persisted in his efforts in his efforts to save the French. Ultimately, he appealed to Anwar-ud-Din, the Nawab of Carnatic (Karnataka). The British troops along with its squadron reached India but Commodore Barnett died soon after. The French on their part made preparations. Dupleix has also sent a word to La Bourdonnais, the Governor of Mauritius, asking him for help. The result was that La Bourdonnais hastened to India with a fleet and reached the Coromandel Coast in July 1746. The French and British squadrons faced each other for some time. The English squadron left for Ceylon after sometime. Finding it favorable, Dupleix asked La Bourdannais to besiege Madras. When the latter did so, the English approached the Nawab of Carnatic to direct the French to leave Madras if the latter allowed the French to conquer it. The Nawab agreed.


La Bourdonnais, the Governor of Mauritius

The French captured Madras in September 1746, but the difference arose between Dupleix and Bourdannais. La Bourdonnais accepted the bribe of one lakh pagodas and restored Madras to the English for £40,000. But Dupleix recaptured Madras repudiating the action of La Bourdonnais. Also, he had ignored his promise of restoration of Madras to the Nawab of Carnatic. Consequently, the Nawab sent an army to fight against the French. The army was defeated in the battle of St. Thomas or the Battle of Adyar, a place near Madras. Dupleix tried to capture Fort St. David also but failed. The English tried to capture Pondicherry but the French defended it successfully.

The Treaty of Aix-La-Chappelle of 1748 bought the first Carnatic War to an end. The net result of this treaty was that the English got back Madras and the French Louisburg in North America. Although the treaty did not bring about any changes, it did mark a significant epoch in Indian history. It demonstrated the influence of the sea power and displayed the superiority of the European methods of war over those followed by the Indian armies. It also revealed the political decline that had set in India.

Second Carnatic War, 1749-54

The death of Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah died triggered the war of succession between his son Nasir Jung and grandson Muzaffar Jung. This war of succession and related events are referred to as Second Carnatic War. Similar conflict was going on in the Carnatic between Anwaruddin and Chanda Shahib. The French were eagerly waiting for such a situation and lent support to Chanda Shahib in the Carnatic and Muzaffar Jang in Hyderabad. The English soon realizing the potential danger from this combination immediately supported the rival claimants. Chanda Sahib, Muzaffar Jung and the French waged a war against Anwaruddin. He was killed in the Battle of Ambar. His son Muhammad Ali sought asylum at Trichinopally (Tiruchirappalli) and Chanda Shahib ascended the throne.


Joseph François Dupleix

The British did not allow this situation to prevail for long and sided with, Nasir Jung and Muhammad Ali. However Nasir Jung was assassinated and Muzaffar Jung ascended the throne of Hyderabad as a Nizam and the `Subeder’ of the Deccan. Dupleix, as a reward, was appointed as the governor of the territories south of the river Krishna, coastal Orissa and Masulipatnam. The French found them in a politically comfortable situation with friendly rulers in Hyderabad and Arcot. The English company however, refused to accept this new situation. The English general Robert Clive captured easily the capital Arcot of the Carnatic. The Treaty of Pondicherry was signed in 1754 and the second Carnatic war came to an end. Muhammad Ali became the Nawab with the help of British.

The whole of the Carnatic fell into the hands of the English. Dupleix tried to recover his possessions but was soon recalled and replaced by Godeheu. The French and the English retained their old positions by the terms of the treaty signed after the Second Carnatic War and promised not to interfere in the local politics in future. However, this marked the beginning of the decline of the French influence and the ascendancy of the English in India.

Third Carnatic War, 1756-53

The Second Carnatic War did not settle the issue between the English and the French and with the outbreak of the Seven Year’s War in 1756 AD. The English made themselves stronger by capturing Chandannagar (1757 AD) in Bengal defeating Siraj ud-daulah at the Battle of Plassey.

NPG 124; Sir Eyre Coote attributed to Henry Robert Morland

Sir Eyre Coote

In 1760 AD in the Battle of Wandiwash, Sir Eyre Coote, the British general defeated the French general Count Lally. Madras, Pondicherry, Jinji, Mahe, Karaikal fell to the British. The French practically lost everything to English. In 1763 AD, the Peace of Paris concluded after the Seven Year’s War, ended the Anglo-French rivalry over the Carnatic. Though the French got back their territories as per the terms of the Treaty of Paris they were not allowed to fortify them. It brought an end to what Dupleix and France had strived for and heralded the age of British imperialism in India.

The British succeeded as the company was the private one that acted on the principle of reward and punishment. Then there was the naval supremacy and possession of a naval base in Bombay and richer trade centers like Calcutta and Madras. Moreover French generals like Dupleix, Lally and Bush were no match to Lord Clive, Lawrence and Eyre Coote.

Minting of Coins under the French East India Company

The French East India Company wanted to mint Sikka rupees at Pondicherry under their authority. Though, the issue of minting coin in Pondicherry was fired up in 1730, the Company was already making efforts in this direction from the time of François Martin.

In the last decade of seventeenth century, when the Dutch occupied Pondicherry for a short period (1693-1697), they acquired the right to mint coins from the Nawab of Arcot and started minting copper coins. After French reoccupied the place, they continued the same contract and minted coins called caches. These were copper coins and used by Indian settlers of Pondicherry.

Copper Doudou

Copper Doudou, Pondicherry Mint, 3.63g

Obverse: Fleur-de-lis, the symbol of royal house of France

Reverse: Pondicherry Mint name written in Tamil

The French Company also minted the Semi-Doudou and Foudou, respectively equivalent to two caches and four caches. The French cache was stamped upon with a fleur-de-lis, the symbol of royal house of France. Apart from this, the French Company also minted a silver coins called Fanam that were marked with a flower-topped Indian crown on one side and with five fleurs de lison the reverse.

Silver 2 Fanon

Silver 2 Fanon, Pondicherry Mint, 2.87g

Obverse: Ornamented Crown

Reverse: 5 Fleur-de-lis

The French Company acquired the right to mint it from the Nawab of Arcot. However, they faced certain problems in issuing Fanam. The Company had appointed some money-changers (saraffs) so that people who wanted to trade with the French Company could exchange their money. However, it became a drawback for the Company because some people imitated the French Fanams and changed them from the originals.

François Martin got the authority to mint gold pagoda in the beginning of eighteenth century. The French issued their own coins with the design and fabric of the coins circulating in the region that is of a single figure with a granulated reverse. But the use of a Hindu deity on the coin was disapproved by the Church. The Director General in Paris looked into the matter and turned down the objection of the Church. The coins were put back into circulation only to be withdrawn again at a later date.

Gold Pagoda

Gold Pagoda, 3.40g

Obverse: Lord Vishnu standing, facing front

Reverse: Crescent within a granulated field

The French Company also wanted to mint rupee in Pondicherry, which was chief currency in all over India. Indian princes were aware of what was happening in Pondicherry through the networks of their informers. These princes allowed to mint caches, Fanams, and pagodas but when the Council of Pondicherry wanted to mint even rupees, they interfered and claimed that this could only happen in their authority. Princes demonstrated the inclination to retain their authority/monopoly on minting rupees. It was a chief source of their income, because rupee was in demand across the subcontinent. Officials of the Company commenced negotiations and finally acquired the right to mint rupees from the Nawab of Carnatic.

Silver Fanon Pondicherry Mint

Silver Fanon of 1/5 Rupee, struck at Pondicherry Mint for Mahe, 2.28g

End of the French Rule in India

Even as the company was headed consciously toward extinction, it became embroiled in its most infamous scandal. The Committee of Public Safety had banned all joint-stock companies on 24 August 1793, and specifically seized the assets and papers of the East India Company. While its liquidation proceedings were being set up, directors of the company bribed various senior state officials to allow the company to carry out its own liquidation, rather than be supervised by the government. When this became known the following year, the resulting scandal led to the execution of key Montagnard deputies like Fabre d’Eglantine and Joseph Delaunay, among others. The infighting sparked by the episode also brought down Georges Danton and can be said to have led to the downfall of the Montagnards as a whole. In 1794, the French East India Company was finally liquidated.




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