Surat: the first steps of the french adventure in india
date de sortie
The French “comptoir” in the great Mughal port of Surat (1668-1778) tells the story of the first enterprising steps of the French colonial adventure. Surat, one of the greatest port towns of both Indian Ocean and Indian History, presents a complex and fascinating socio-political picture, which is repeatedly re-discussed. In this colourful debate, the French presence goes practically unnoticed. Yet its resonances in 19th and 20th century Gujarat demands to raise the question of the French presence in Surat and its meaning for the French episode in India.
17th century Surat was a populous and extremely dynamic port town: it was the gateway to Mughal India and the place to be for European Companies developing commercial links with the East during the late 16th and early 17th century. Following the English and the Dutch East India Companies, the French East Indian Company (Compagnie Française des Indes Orientales, CFIO) founded a factory in Surat in 1668. The French representative of the CFIO soon sensed the limits of their economic perspectives in Surat as late comers in an extremely complex socio-economic system. Their efforts pushed them towards other local and extra-regional littorals, to the benefit of other factories and settlements (with Pondicherry as the most successful enterprise). The French factory of Surat lost all major commercial activities within few decades after its foundation. It bitterly impacted the French economic and political expectations, and in Versailles, the question of Surat was a recurrent trouble spot. The French establishment (reshaped in 1773 into a Consulate) was forgotten soon after the takeover by the British in 1778.
Yet the French factory and consulate of Surat laid the foundation stone of the construction of the French presence in India, and in this light, it represents the first diplomatic and cultural encounter between France and India. Rather than questioning the economic and politic meaning of the French Factory in Surat, my study aims to reconstruct the reality of the French presence in the port town. What are the topographical and architectural traces of this presence in and around Surat? A pluridisciplinary study based on historical and archaeological evidences conducts me to reconstitute the picture of the French political and economical establishment. This reconstruction brings essential elements of understanding concerning the place and visibility of the French presence in Surat. It also opens the question of the cultural and informative flow between the French nationals and other individuals and social groups from Surat.
Though the main economic activity of North-West India shifted from Surat to Mumbai during the late 18th and early 19th century, Surat remained a busy urban center which underwent multiple development phases. Very few remains from the glorious age of Surat are visible today, and the architectural elements of the French establishment in Surat were not spared by this modernizing urge. This infrastructural silence brings fuzziness around the meaning of the French presence in Surat. The plurality of terms used in archives regarding the French establishment contributes maintaining the misunderstanding concerning the reality of the French factory. The reason is that the French establishment was not a unique infrastructure, but a set of plots and buildings distinguished by complex jurisdictional realities. The French print on the surti territory can be reconstituted with the help of historical documents produced in the second half of the 18th century. On the one hand are the maps created by the French and British administrations, on the other hand the written surveys done by the French agents in the 1770s, that is, in the framework of the reshaping of the factory into a Consulate, and following the seizure of the Consulate by the British authorities. In these regards, the archival documents of the consulate (1773-8) conserved at the “Archives Diplomatiques de Nantes” represent an extraordinary source of data which proved to be the core information of my study.2 My residence at the Institut d’Études Avancées de Nantes offered me the opportunity to access this archive in excellent conditions. My topographical and archaeological survey done in Surat brought the missing elements to link the data extracted from the historical documents.
Historienne et archéologue du bâti formée en France et en Allemagne, les recherches de Sara Keller portent sur les monuments et les structures urbaines historiques comme source d’information pour l’étude de contextes socioculturels pluriels. Spécialiste de l’architecture médiévale et moderne de l’Inde du Nord, elle travaille notamment sur les villes portuaires du Gujarat et les transferts culturels et technologiques entre l’Orient et l’Occident, dont ces cités sont le théâtre depuis plusieurs millénaires. Elle a récemment publié Port Towns of Gujarat, avec Michael N. Pearson (eds.), Primus Books, Delhi.