Like other European companies, France too entered India to explore trade opportunities and set up its first factory at Surat in 1668. Let’s take a look at the French colonies, officials and their failure against the British.

French in India

Fast Facts

French India Reign: 1668 – 1954

The French East India Company: 1664 – 1794

Capital: Pondicherry

Political structure: Colony

First Commissioner in India: François Caron

First Governor in India: François Martin

Six decades after the establishment of foreign trading companies like the ‘British East India’ and the ‘Dutch East India,’ France too entered India with a business proposal and later founded the ‘French East India Company’ in 1664. According to some sources, the first French expedition to India might have taken place during the reign of King Francis I in the mid-16th century. In 1667, an expedition was sent under the command of Commissioner François Caron, which upon reaching Surat came up with the first French factory unit in India in 1668. In 1669, a Persian named Marcara, who was part of the expedition in 1667, established another factory at Machilipatnam, which later came to be known as ‘Masulipatam.’ The French acquired Pondicherry in 1673 from the Sultan of Bijapur. However, by 1720 the British company had acquired Surat, Bantam, and Masulipatam from the French, which was the beginning of the end for the ‘French East India Company.’ Over the next many years, the French possessions in India were taken over by the British with the exception of a few territories like Pondicherry.

History of the French in India

According to historical sources, two ships were believed to have been sent out by French merchants of Rouen, who were seeking ways to trade in the eastern seas. However, the merchants, who had set sail from Le Havre, were never seen again. The incident, which is said to have taken place in the mid-16th century during the reign of King Francis I, is believed to be the first French expedition to India.
Like the British and many other foreign companies, the French arrived in India to carry out trade. In 1604, King Henry IV granted letters patent to a company, which couldn’t establish itself in India. In the year 1615, another set of letters patent were issued, sending two ships to India. However, only one ship returned to France. About 27 years later, the formation of ‘French East India Company’ took place under the auspices of Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis. In 1664, French politician Jean-Baptiste Colbert reconstructed the company and sent an expedition to Madagascar. Three years later, another expedition was sent to Surat under the command of François Caron, which came up with the first French factory unit in India in 1668. In 1669, a Persian named Marcara, who was part of the expedition led by François Caron, established another factory at Machilipatnam, which later came to be known as ‘Masulipatam.’

In 1673, the foundation of Pondicherry was laid by the French when they took over the area of Pondicherry, which was under the Sultan of Bijapur until then. A French officer named Bellanger de l’Espinay took up residence in Pondicherry, which, in turn, allowed him to commence the French administration in Pondicherry. François Martin, the first Governor General of Pondicherry, came up with a number of ambitious projects in 1674, which aimed at transforming Pondicherry from a small village to a flourishing port-town.
However, the French were in constant conflict with the English and the Dutch as all the three European maritime powers knew the potential of a place like Pondicherry. The Dutch managed to capture Pondicherry in 1693 and expanded its fortifications. However, in 1697, a series of agreements called ‘Treaty of Ryswick’ were signed between the French and the Dutch, which made sure the French regained Pondicherry in 1699.

Since the ‘British East India Company’ had already begun to expand its dominance in India, it decided to take over the French factories built at Surat, Bantam, and Masulipatam. Hence, by 1720, the French had lost most of their factories to the British, which weakened their trade in India. Despite tough fight from the British, the ‘French East India Company’ did manage to acquire places like Yanam, Mahe, and Karaikal from 1723 to 1739.

Despite having a treaty with the British, the French continued to seek ways to expand their presence in India. Hence, they increased their business activities in Bengal, which allowed them to get closer to the Nawab of Bengal. Since the French were not confident of defeating the British by themselves, they encouraged the then Nawab of Bengal Siraj ud-Daulah to fight the British in order to capture ‘Fort William’ in Calcutta. This instigation by the French led to the famous ‘Battle of Plassey’ in the year 1757. Unfortunately, Siraj ud-Daulah and his French allies were defeated comprehensively by the British, which marked the end of Nawab’s rule in Bengal and the advent of British’s rule in the region. France reacted by sending a general named Lally-Tollendal to drive the British out of India and to regain their lost possessions. After his arrival in 1758, Lally achieved success almost immediately as he managed to destroy ‘Fort St. David’ in Cuddalore district, which was under the British control. However, Lally’s strategic mistakes cost the French dearly as they lost their hold over South India as well. The British sieged Pondicherry in 1760, which led to the arrest and the subsequent execution of Lally. But Pondicherry was returned to the French as per a peace treaty, which was signed in the year 1763.

In 1769, the ‘French East India Company’ was abolished by the French government, citing financial reasons. Over the next five decades, Pondicherry was ruled by France and Britain, depending on the outcome of wars and treaties. After the end of the ‘Napoleonic Wars,’ Kozhikode, Machilipatnam, Chandernagore, Surat, and Pondicherry were returned to the French.

When India gained independence from the British in 1947, France’s Indian possessions were reunited with former British India. In 1948, France and India agreed to conduct an election in order to decide the political future of the places that were still under France’s control. While Chandernagore was returned to India on May 2, 1950, Pondicherry was transferred to the Indian Union on November 1, 1954. The remaining territories of French India were returned to India in 1962, when the French Parliament signed a treaty with India.

French Establishments/Colonies in India

The establishments of the French in India can be divided into five basic categories depending upon the regions. In Surat, the French had established a factory, which served as the starting point of the French establishments in India.

On the Coromandel Coast, Pondicherry, Karaikal, and the surrounding districts were part of French establishments in India.

On Odisha Coast, Yanaon and the Masulipatam lodge were part of the French establishments.

On the long and narrow Malabar Coast, Calicut lodge and Mahe, along with its territory, belonged to the French.

In Bengal, the five lodges of Jugdia, Cossimbazar, Balasore, Dacca, and Patna were part of French establishments. Chandernagore and its territories, which were part of Bengal, belonged to the French.

French Officers in India

François Martin – François Martin served as the first Governor General of Pondicherry. He succeeded in forming small military units at Masulipatam and at Surat. He also served as the ‘Commissaire’ (Commissioner) at Surat from 1668 to 1672.

Pierre Dulivier – He served as the Governor General of Pondicherry on two occasions. He was succeeded by Guillaume André d’Hébert, who too, served as the Governor General for two periods.

Pierre Christoph Le Noir – Pierre Christoph too served as the Governor General of Pondicherry on two occasions. During his administration, Yanaon was included to the list of French Establishments of India in 1727.

Pierre Benoît Dumas – In 1730, Pierre Benoît Dumas established the City of Réunion. He also served as the French Governor General from 1734 to 1741. In today’s Pondicherry, Pierre Benoît Dumas has a street named after him.

Joseph François Dupleix – Joseph Dupleix arrived in India in 1741 with an aim of establishing French territorial empire in the Indian subcontinent. Dupleix’s army succeeded in controlling a huge area between Hyderabad and Kanyakumari. However, the arrival of British Major-General Robert Clive brought an end to Dupleix’s dream. He is often considered as one of Clive’s greatest rivals.
Jean Law de Lauriston – He served as the Governor General of Pondicherry on two occasions. In 1765, when Pondicherry was returned to France by the British as a result of a peace treaty, the entire town was rebuilt under Jean Law de Lauriston, who got around 2000 houses built for the Tamil populace.

Louis François Binot – He was the Governor General of Pondicherry in 1802. Louis Binot also served as the French Brigade General and was awarded the order of ‘Legion of Honour’ in 1805.

Louis Alexis Étienne Bonvin – Bonvin served as the Governor General of French India from 1938 to 1946. He was also a diplomat, who became the colonial official in the ‘French Third Republic.’

Charles François Marie Baron – After serving as the Governor of French India from March 20, 1946 to August 20, 1947, Charles François Marie Baron also served as Commissioner from August 20, 1947 to May 1949.

Causes of the French Failure in India

The main reason for France’s failure in India was due to various inextricably intertwined factors. Some of the major factors that resulted in the demise of the French rule in India are mentioned below:

  • Despotism & Personal Incompetence – During 17th and 18th centuries, the government of France was majorly influenced by the personal preferences of the monarch. King Louis XV is said to have been influenced by his mistresses and incompetent ministers, and could hardly take right decisions, which is one of the reasons why France lost its territories in India and other countries. Also, since France was involved in the ‘Continental War,’ the government could not send adequate help and supplies to the French colonies abroad.
  • Another reason for the failure of the French in India is said to be the personal incompetence of several French leaders. It was once said that the history of India might’ve been different had Governor-general Joseph Francois Dupleix been allowed to work with the kind of military that British Major-General Robert Clive had at his disposal.
  • British Dominance – By the time the French started taking over territories in India, the British had already made their presence felt in the Indian subcontinent. In comparison to British’s three established seats of power (Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta), the French only had one seat of power (Pondicherry).
  • The French harbor at Mauritius was ill-equipped, while the British had an excellent harbor and dockyard in their possession.
  • Furthermore, British’s dominance in various wars, including ‘The Battle of Plassey’ and ‘Carnatic Wars’ did not allow France to expand its territory in India. The British also had a superior navy, which played a crucial role in stopping the French from dominating the seas.
  • Lack of Financial Support – Even when Joseph Francois Dupleix succeeded in acquiring Indian territories, the French Government was in no position to back its Governor-general by providing him with the necessary financial support. It is said that Joseph Francois Dupleix had to spend his own money towards administration.