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L’Inde des Lumières

Marie Fourcade
Ines G. Županov

Colonialisme et Lumières // Colonialism and Enlightenment

Diplomacy and its Forms of Knowledge: Anquetil-Duperron, the Balance of Power, and India in the French Global Imaginary, 1778-1803

La diplomatie et ses formes de savoir : Anquetil-Duperron, l’équilibre des puissances, et l’Inde dans l’imaginaire français, 1778-1803

Blake Smith


Cet article examine deux conceptions de la diplomatie indienne élaborées par des officiels et des intellectuels français à la fin du dix-huitième siècle. Le gouvernement français, cherchant des alliés indiens contre la puissance anglaise, devait choisir entre deux visions de l’Inde et de la nature humaine radicalement opposées. Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, orientaliste distingué, arguait dans des mémoires et dans son livre L’Inde en rapport avec l’Europe que la France était dans l’obligation de sauver les hindous de l’Inde des mains de leurs oppresseurs aussi bien musulmans que britanniques. Il considérait les hindous comme une race distincte, dotée d’une politique propre à leur culture. Au contraire, la plupart des agents français préféraient insister sur la ressemblance de l’Inde avec l’Europe, et des hindous avec les musulmans. Ils soutenaient qu’un « équilibre des pouvoirs » fondé sur les efforts des États à poursuivre leurs propres intérêts prévalait partout dans le monde. La pratique diplomatique des États indiens, hindous et musulmans, était essentiellement analogue à celle des États européens, la culture n’y exerçant pas d’influence. Cette équivalence de l’Inde et de l’Europe a brisé le stéréotype de l’irrationalité indienne développé par Montesquieu, et représente un tournant inattendu dans l’histoire de l’universalisme français.

Texte intégral

1Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron (1731-1805) was one of the French Enlightenment’s most eminent Orientalists and vehement critics of British imperialism. Neither Anquetil-Duperron’s scholarship nor his polemics earned him the approbation of the French public; he died without seeing his schemes for the destruction of the East India Company receive serious consideration. Anquetil-Duperron was himself forgotten until his rediscovery by Raymond Schwab in the 1930s (Schwab 1934). Schwab presented Anquetil as an wide-eyed mystic obsessed with discovering the roots of Christianity in Indian philology. For many years, historians perpetuated the hagiographic tradition established by Schwab, obscuring Anquetil-Duperron’s political ambitions. Now, thanks to the work of Jean-Luc Kieffer and Lucette Valensi, Anquetil-Duperron can be appreciated as a man determined to mobilize his knowledge of India’s past against British rule in the Subcontinent (Kieffer 1983; Valensi 1995).

2Despotism had long been associated by eighteenth-century French luminaries such as Montesquieu with Asian states, including the Mughal Empire, and Anquetil-Duperron could not oppose British despotism in India without challenging the notion that Indian states were themselves despotic. His first critique of Montesquieu’s thesis, Législation orientale (1778) has been analyzed by scholars seeking to explain how this work, thick with citations of Mughal law, failed to bury Montesquian notions of ‘Oriental despotism.’ But this was not Anquetil-Duperron’s final word on the subject.

3Beginning in 1782, first in a series of memoranda to the French government and finally in the book L’Inde en rapport avec l’Europe (1798), Anquetil-Duperron abandoned the defense of the Mughal Empire. He called instead for the Mughals, and all other Muslim rulers, to be driven north of the Ganges in order to clear the way for the restoration of Vijayanagara France, he argued, ought to ally with the only Indian polity that could lay claim to this empire’s legacy, destroying both British and Muslim despotism in India in the process. This shift in Anquetil-Duperron’s thought has gone unobserved by scholars, but it was a significant moment in the transformation of French understandings of “despotism” as a force for evil at home and abroad.

4Historians of the period have argued that by the mid-eighteenth century, the fear of a ruler unbound by institutions, constitutional restraint, or respect for custom fell on every shade of French political opinion (Echevarria 1985; Carcassonne 1970 [1927]). Shared anxieties about the possible emergence of a despotic government in France allowed rival political factions to articulate opposing positions in a mutually comprehensible register. But although opposition to despotism equipped French agents with a means of talking to (or past) one another about domestic politics, it did not yet serve this role for France’s foreign affairs.

5French agents fretted about the rise of a despot at home, but when they considered the nature of despotism, they talked about states beyond France’s borders. Montesquieu, most famously, identified Asian states with despotism in his 1748 L’Esprit des lois, describing their political systems as the inversion of legitimate monarchy. Until the late 1770s, however, associations of India with despotism in French domestic politics were of little importance for officials concerned with France’s diplomatic and military policy in South Asia. The most ambitious of these, Joseph François Dupleix, presented the Mughal Empire as a legitimate monarchy bound by law in his letters to the directors of the French East India Company. Dupleix did not articulate this vision of Mughal legitimacy in the French public sphere, where Montesquieu’s notion of Oriental despotism remained dominant. Nor did he need to. As Kate Marsh argues, until France’s entry in the American Revolutionary War (1778-1783), French policy in South Asia was not understood by French officials or the French public in relation to ideological commitments against the emergence of despotism within France (Marsh 2009: 136-140).

6The American Revolutionary War book-ended Anquetil’s conversion from a champion of Mughal legitimacy to a spokesman for Hindu revanchism. The war saw profound changes in France’s relations with a number of Indian states, as well as in the role played by the concept of “despotism” in French politics. By the war’s end, French officials in India no longer referred to the Mughal Empire as a monarchy to be protected from British incursions. They sought out new allies in southern India unconnected to Mughal authority. Their efforts were subject as never before to the concerns animating French domestic politics; French agents in India could no longer ignore the tropes of Oriental despotism by which their metropolitan counterparts imagined the Subcontinent.

7The American Revolutionary War was understood in France as part of a world-wide struggle against British despotism (Acomb 1950). As French agents applied the concept of despotism not only to critique developments within France but also to justify far-flung military campaigns, France’s internal and external affairs became fused in what Christina Klein has called a “global imaginary” (Klein 2003: 22). As Klein defines it, a global imaginary is “an imaginative, discursive construct” that allows members of a political culture to conceive of events at home and abroad as taking place in a shared “‘world’… a coherent, comprehensible whole” (ibid.: 23).

8India was a theater of the American Revolutionary War, and a part of the imagined world to be defended from British despotism. As India was integrated into France’s anti-despotic, Anglophobic global imaginary, however, anxieties about Oriental despotism could no longer be kept at arms’ length from French policy decisions concerning India. How could France develop a foreign policy for India that was consistent with the principles for which its war against Britain was being waged? Anquetil-Duperron responded to this question, as well as to France’s need for a new ally in India, by promoting a kind of “Hindu nationalism”.

9French officials ignored Anquetil-Duperron’s response, developing an alternative set of answers to the problem of how to align their work in India with opposition to despotism. These answers were founded on a re-articulation of basic concepts of European diplomacy. They claimed (in challenge to Montesquieu) that Indian states could be both despotic and rational. This conception minimized the differences between India and Europe, and proved far more politically actionable than did Anquetil-Duperron’s vision, in which history and race marked out Hindu India as fundamentally different from European and Islamic civilization.

10At the end of the eighteenth century, French agents re-imagined inter-state politics in India in starkly opposed ways: as an analogue of Europe, and as an alien realm governed by ancient law. This paper will examine the conditions for the emergence of these two visions of India, the causes for the success of one over the other, and the consequences of that success for French intellectual history. By showing how France’s imperial encounter in India shaped concepts essential to European diplomacy, this paper aims to encourage new critical perspectives on the ways imperial powers have imagined the world as a whole in order to rule it as one.

Visions of India before the American Revolutionary War: Anquetil-Duperron and Dupleix

11Anquetil-Duperron’s celebrity was founded on his 1771 translation of Zoroastrian scriptures, the Zend-Avesta. Although the fidelity of his work was questioned by the British Orientalist William Jones, other leading Enlightenment intellectuals such as Herder rushed to his defense (Valensi 2008). Throughout the 1770s the controversy played out in learned French, English, and German journals, making Anquetil-Duperron a well-known figure. In 1778 Anquetil-Duperron published Législation orientale, a work that, in virtue of its inflammatory content, ought to have called down even more thunderous polemic against it than did his Zend-Avesta.

12Scholars typically describe Anquetil-Duperron’s Législation as a book ahead of its time. With some plausibility, as the first European book to critique Montesquieu’s account of the nature of Asian governments on empirical grounds, Législation could be understood as a precursor of modern comparative legal studies. The book overflows with reproductions of contracts and statutes from Ottoman, Persian, and Mughal law. These buttressed Anquetil-Duperron’s efforts to prove, contra Montesquieu, that there were in fact property rights and constitutional limits on monarchical authority in the Islamic world. As Frederick G. Whelan and Lucette Valensi have observed, its examples were not always well chosen and its arguments were often inelegant (Whelan 2001; Valensi 1995). But as a factual account of Mughal government, it was indisputably a “step beyond Montesquieu” (Whelan 2001: 622).

13In Montesquieu’s thought, as in the French political culture it shaped and reflected, the unlimited sovereignty of a single person was understood to produce a host of negative effects. Above all, the absence of secure tenure of office and property caused members of a despotic polity to act irrationally. In the despot’s case, because there was no constitution in a despotic state, there could be no fixed procedure for governing the succession from one despot to another. Whelan has observed that despots were imagined to be in a “paradoxical situation”: enjoying absolute power in their lifetimes, but unable to dispose of that power as they wished (ibid.: 640). The moment the despot died, a swarm of contenders would rush to seize the throne, initiating a bloodbath. Because he could never be certain that his chosen heir would take control of the state, the despot had no reason to concern himself with its condition after his demise. With no stake in their future well-being, he extracted as much wealth from his subjects as he could, while he could. The despot’s subjects themselves faced a similar problem. Because there were no laws ensuring their right to property, they lived in constant fear that their goods might be expropriated. With no incentive to hard work and sobriety, they passed their lives in idleness.

14Anquetil-Duperron marshaled formidable evidence against this vision of the absence of law in Asian societies. Législation contained the facsimile of a deed for a house written in Surat, a list of all the judicial offices in the Mughal administration, an explanation of the different sorts of land-tenancy arrangements prevalent in the Subcontinent, and observations on customary Hindu law. Despite the weight of its evidence, however, Législation fell on deaf ears, failing even to stir a critical response. Historians have seen Anquetil-Duperron as an “innovator” whose understanding of Indian politics was ignored because of the Eurocentric prejudices of his audience or the weaknesses of his writing (Stuurman 2007: 278). In fact, Anquetil-Duperron’s arguments were not innovative. For decades, agents of the Compagnie had understood the Mughal Empire as a legal and symbolic order whose norms deserved respect. The novelty of Législation lay in its bringing this understanding of Indian politics to a French reading public. But, at the very moment it did so, French officers were abandoning the idea of Mughal legitimacy. Anquetil-Duperron was not a misunderstood fore-runner of modern social science, but a thinker outpaced by events.

15A generation before Législation’s publication, French officers in the Compagnie were already making many of Anquetil’s points about the non-despotic nature of Mughal state in their correspondence to each other and in their reports to the company’s board of directors in Paris. Dupleix and his protégé Charles-Joseph Patissier, Marquis de Bussy-Castelnau, structured their political careers in India during the early 1750s around a concept of Mughal legitimacy. France’s commercial and military presence in India, they argued to their superiors, could only be justified to the extent that it supported the Mughal Empire against its Indian and European enemies.

16Dupleix had sweeping ambitions for France in India, and limited resources to pursue them. Until 1769, when the royal government began to administer France’s Indian colonies, the French presence in the Subcontinent was managed by a joint-stock company far more concerned with maintaining profitability than with obtaining martial glory. Virginia Thompson (1933) has argued that in order to assuage the concerns that his bellicose policies aroused in the Compagnie’s directors, Dupleix articulated a vision of the Mughal Empire as a constitutional monarchy much like that of Louis XV’s France.

17During Dupleix’s tenure, India was divided among a number of polities, of which the Mughal Empire was by no means necessarily the most powerful. France’s most important colony, Pondicherry, was located on the southeastern coast of the Subcontinent, far from the Mughal Empire’s center of power in north India. Dupleix’s strategy focused on maintaining close relations not with the Mughals, but with their viceroys in Hyderabad. These viceroys, or subahdars, were essentially independent of the Mughal emperor, and passed on their office to heirs of their own choosing. Nevertheless, it appeared useful to Dupleix to present Mughal authority in the most respectable light possible in his letters to the directors of the Compagnie. Dupleix assumed he could demand of the Compagnie “the troops that were essential for the execution of his ideas” by presenting his “war policy” as a defense of the Hyderabad viceroys and so of Mughal government more generally (ibid.: 519). He imagined that, aside from the moral obligation the directors might feel to protect a legitimate government, they would recognize France’s interest in preserving the authority on whose power the legal basis of France’s claims to Pondicherry and other territories rested. France could not maintain a lasting presence in the region, Dupleix insisted, without making itself at home in the Mughal order.

18Although Dupleix and other agents of the Compagnie described the Mughal Empire as a legitimate government in their letters to each other and to the employers, they did not articulate this vision of Indian politics in the French public sphere. Not that they were afraid of the limelight. As literary scholar Indra Mukhopadhyay (2008) has shown, Dupleix courted public attention during a series of legal battles concerning debts he had acquired during his governorship. One of Dupleix’s successors, Thomas Arthur, comte de Lally was forced to defend his record as governor-general in a highly publicized trial that led to his execution for treason in 1766. Marsh, seconding Mukhopadhyay, argued that this trial made France’s weak position in India a subject of public scrutiny (Marsh 2009: 140). But in neither Dupleix nor Lally’s trials did agents of the Compagnie attempt to articulate the conceptual basis of their diplomatic policy in India to the French public.

19In the mid-eighteenth century, the French public sphere was a site in which judicial proceedings could be politicized (or in which the political qualities of legal cases could be made manifest) by referring them to the judgment of “the public” (Maza 1993). It was becoming a site in which the failures of French foreign policy in distant lands could be criticized. Mukhopadhyay observes that mémoires judicaires produced in the context of Dupleix and Lally’s legal battles “led the public sphere to speculate on France’s colonial encounter in India” (Mukhopadhyay 2008: 79). Although such documents implicitly appealed to the judgment of the public sphere, they did not yet explicitly recognize its authority on such issues. Lally, Mukhopadhyay (ibid.: 66) insists rhetorically “stood against the Public” in the texts he publicly disseminated. There was no sense among French officials concerned with India that they were obligated to justify their policy decisions in terms of the values associated with the French public or the domestic politics in which visions of the public were increasingly salient.

20Ironically, just as Anquetil-Duperron’s Législation articulated ideas essentially identical to Dupleix’s in the public sphere, French officials in India and in the metropole abandoned the concept of Mughal legitimacy. Joined by civilian members of the French public who wrote letters to the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and the Navy, and published texts for general readers as well, they cleared a terrain in which new visions of Indian inter-state politics could be debated.

21The credibility of the Mughal Empire as a source of symbolic capital, and of the subahdar as a viable partner withered in the 1760s and 1770s. An anonymous writer submitted a mémoire to the Naval Ministry in 1783 neatly expressed the reigning sentiment: “the project of reestablishing the Mughal Emperor is a chimera” (AN, COL/C/2/165, 17-137 v: 73v). By 1778 the most powerful states in southern India, where most of France’s colonies were placed, were Mysore and the Maratha court at Pune, with the subahdar relegated to second-tier status. France itself no longer cut an impressive figure in the region. It had suffered a humiliating defeat in India during the Seven Year’s War (1756-1763), while British power expanded rapidly in both Bengal and southern India. In part as a response to this crisis, the French state took over the administration of the Indian colonies, making French diplomacy in India a public concern, rather than the affair of the Compagnie’s directors.

22When war between France and Britain broke out again in 1778, France’s colonies in India were overwhelmed by the armies of the East India Company. Over the next four years, the Naval Ministry prepared an expeditionary force to recover them. This force, commanded by Bussy, finally arrived in India March 16, 1783. The French government was well aware that Bussy’s army, composed of a few thousand troops, would be of little use without the support of Indian partners. Members of the public, including Anquetil-Duperron, were equally aware of this fact, and lobbied the government to form an alliance with one or another Indian state. In making the case for the selection of one state over another, they re-imagined the relationship between India and Europe, and between Indians and human nature. None did so more radically than Anquetil-Duperron, who broke with his claims in Législation, attacking the Mughal empire, and Muslim rule in India generally, as wholly illegitimate.

Past as Prologue: Anquetil-Duperron’s New Vision of Hindu Legitimacy

23In the fall of 1781, as Bussy’s expedition was still over a year away from landfall in India, Anquetil-Duperron wrote to Naval secretary Charles Eugène de Castries, warning that France would have to choose between an alliance with Mysore (ruled by a Muslim, Haidar Ali) or the (Hindu) Maratha court at Pune. These two powers controlled large stretches of India’s southwestern coast, the most convenient place for the French forces to make their landing. They were also perennial enemies, having gone to war several times in the 1760s and 1770s. Anquetil-Duperron argued that France must choose the Marathas, and repeated this advice in a 1783 report to minister for Foreign Affairs Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes (Kieffer 1983: 91). At the same time, he prepared a book to expose his justifications for a Franco-Maratha alliance to the French public. This work, L’Inde en rapport avec l’Europe, was not published until 1798, undergoing a series of revisions in the meantime (Anquetil-Duperron 1798). But the essence of Anquetil-Duperron’s argument remained the same: the Marathas, and only the Marathas, represented legitimate government in India. As they were the only non-despotic polity in the Subcontinent, they were the only choice available for a French campaign against British despotism.

24In order to make this case, Anquetil-Duperron discarded the account of Indian politics he had articulated in 1778. Where he had described the Mughal empire as a state bound by law, and therefore as legitimate as any in Europe, he argued now that Mughal rule could only “seem just, legitimate” within specific geographical bounds. At its height during the reign of Aurangzeb (1658-1707), Mughal authority extended far into central and southern India. For Anquetil-Duperron, however, this area was the home of Hindu peoples, and could not legitimately be ruled by a Muslim state. Anquetil-Duperron argued that the issue at play was not religious sectarianism, as “religion is weak in this country” as a political force. Rather, the issue was one of heredity, conceived in both dynastic and ethnic terms (ibid.: 106). France’s foremost Indologist made the surprising (and false) claim that the Maratha “people” were the “legitimate possessor of the throne of their fathers,” the south Indian Hindu empire of Vijayanagara, which had been destroyed in 1646 (ibid.: 93).

25Anquetil-Duperron further complicated his argument by asserting that he was not making a case for an alliance with the Marathas on moral grounds. Rather, he had “only considered the political good” that would come from such a partnership (ibid.: 126-7). The Marathas, whom the numerically superior Hindu population throughout the India supported, were bound to triumph over their enemies. Mysore, ruled by a sultan who was a Muslim in a part of the world that belonged to another race, would inevitably be destroyed. In contrast to Législation, Anquetil-Duperron here equated Muslim and British rule in southern India. If France co-operated with the Marathas quest to reconquer southern and central India for its true owners, they could see the British driven into the sea; if the French tried to resist the Marathas they would share Britain’s fate.

26Anquetil-Duperron was spared the indignity of having the contradictions between his new theory of Indian politics and his earlier defense of Mughal rule exposed in the republic of letters. L’Inde garnered little attention. The Ideologues’ journal La décade philosophique discussed one of its digressions on Egypt in connection with Napoleon’s expedition there, without commenting on the central themes of the book (Regent 1999: 85). The silence that greeted L’Inde has been a boon for Anquetil-Duperron’s historical reputation as a saintly figure above the fray of politics. Even now, L’Inde still has not been given its due as a political text and as a turning-point in Anquetil-Duperron’s views on India. Contemporary scholars such as Guido Abbattista note, for example, that L’Inde envisions Maratha armies sweeping the Subcontinent of British and Muslim despotism, but does not remark on the change that this represented from Anquetil’s earlier work defending Mughal legitimacy (Abbattista in Acomb 1993: xcix).

Indian Reason in the Balance of Power

27Until the 1780s, all strands of French opinion on India had converged on one point: Indian politics was to be understood in terms of its difference from that of Europe. Dupleix in 1753 and Anquetil-Duperron in 1783 alike imagined that inter-state relations in India were governed by a set of rules derived from historical realities particular to the Subcontinent and comprehensible only through a long apprenticeship in situ. Towards the end of the American Revolutionary War, however, French officials in India and Versailles began to claim that India’s inter-state affairs should be understood as commensurable with Europe’s, in spite of the differences between Indian and European climates, cultures and forms of government. This idea suggested that the Orientalist expertise of an Anquetil-Duperron would be of little value for French policy-makers, since Indian diplomacy could be made sense of through the same concepts that French agents applied to foreign affairs within Europe. Equations of South Asia and European inter-state politics soon became part of the intellectual framework through French policy in India was made. From 1783 to 1803, in countless letters and memoranda, French agents re-imagined India in terms of its identity with Europe.

28Eschewing difference became one of the most productive rhetorical strategies of French imperialism in South Asia. This was in large part because French officials after 1783 held that the most effective means of driving Britain out of India was to assemble an alliance of Hindu and Muslim Indian states, marshaling their combined strength under the French flag. They argued that Indian rulers, regardless of religious or ethnic differences, had a common interest in defeating the British and would not be slow in recognizing it. Such officials observed that their sketch of self-interested, rational actors working together to weaken a hegemonic state relied on concepts that were typically reserved for European diplomacy. The notion of a “balance of power” in which weak states banded together against common threats was part of the basic vocabulary of French policy in Europe, but had not been previously applied to South Asia, and with good reason.

29The traditional picture of Oriental despotism drawn by Montesquieu suggested that Indian agents, enervated by their oppressive regimes, lacked the capacity to rationally pursue their own interests. Those who claimed that Indian states could rally against Britain had to confront this prejudice by making a case for Indians’ ability to know what was good for them and act on that knowledge. Where Montesquieu had slighted Indians’ ability to reason, Dupleix and the Anquetil-Duperron of L’Inde had presented (each in their different ways) Indian inter-state politics as structured by norms which some states embodied and against which other states rebelled. France should ally with the former, and count the latter among its enemies no less than Britain. In such a schema, there could be no place for an alliance of the Mughals and the subahdar on the one hand, and states which seemed to reject Mughal authority, such as the Marathas and Mysore on the other.

30Calling for a grand confederation of Indian powers, then, meant rejecting central features of what had been the two most important French constructions of India until the early 1780s. In contrast to Montesquieu’s vision, French policy-makers asserted Indians’ capacity to act rationally, at least in the diplomatic arena. In contrast to the anti-Montesquieuian vision of Dupleix and Anquetil-Duperron, they conflated all inhabitants of the Subcontinent, writing as though all South Asians shared a nationalist interest. This visible departure from established ways of talking about India does not seem to have been the brainchild of anyone in particular. Rather, from the moment that discussions of an anti-British league of Indian states appear in the archive, they take the form of self conscious clichés. One of the earliest first such references occurred in the summer of 1782, as the chevalier de Montigny, a French agent to the Marathas at Pune, wrote to admiral Pierre André de Suffren de Saint Tropez that “the long-planned confederation” of Indian powers would be formed just as soon as the French expeditionary force arrived in India. “Long” in this context could not have been more than several months. Such a confederation seems to have become a general feature of French policy-makers’ plans for India no earlier than 1782, as a set of contingent circumstances provoked revaluations of Indian politics (AN, COL/F/3/46, 269-270v: 269v).

31France’s bases in India were seized by the British soon after France entered the American Revolutionary War in 1778, but a French expedition to reconquer the colonies did not arrive in India for another five years, at which point the war was nearly over. Naval minister Castries believed that India was one of the war’s most important theaters, and sought to divert forces from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean. Foreign Minister Vergennes, however, insisted that the Americas must receive top priority. The time between the French army’s expulsion from India in 1778 and its return in 1783 was not a political blank; Castries’ predecessor Antoine de Sartine (1774-1780) organized a series of diplomatic missions to ensure that when the French forces arrived, they would find a secure harbor in India and a ready ally (Tarrade 1972: 484-5). These efforts were directed principally at the Marathas.

32This was not because French policy-makers had any sense of the Marathas as upholders of a Hindu revanchist destiny. Rather, the Naval ministers, like Bussy, the expedition’s head, and most French officials concerned with India, saw the Marathas and the state of Mysore as constituting France’s only choices for potential partners in the region. The Marathas appeared the more powerful partner, and, being at war with Britain already, it was assumed that they would not be difficult to convince. Nor did they have the black reputation with which Mysore’s ruler seemed to be generally credited. The sultan of Mysore, Haidar Ali (1720-1782) had come to power in a coup d’état against the Hindu Wodeyar dynasty that had ruled Mysore for generations. Unlike Anquetil-Duperron, French agents in India and Versailles did not see the Subcontinent as riven by conflicts between Hindus and Muslims. They were nevertheless unwilling (at this point) to align their nation with a state that seemed ruled by what Bussy called “usurpers, brigands, and tyrants, hated by all the powers of India” (Sen 1958: 331).

33The prospect of an alliance with the Marathas foundered in 1782, however, and within a year, what would become the standard arguments to demonstrate the plausibility of such a league had become familiar to officials in the Naval Ministry. India inter-state politics formed a “system,” it was claimed, in which small powers would find it in their interests to ally against any potential hegemon (in this case, Britian). As a constellation of rational actors pursuing their interests in predictable ways, Indian diplomacy “resembled that of Europe” (AN, COL/C/2/165, 17-137 v: 79v). By 1789, such arguments had spread from French officialdom to the public sphere, as journalist and writer Antoine-Etienne-Nicolas des Odoards Fantin (1789: 411) published a popular account of recent French history, in which he called for a new military expedition to India, with the aim of uniting Mysore and the Marathas against Britain.

34It is striking that although French agents often described Indian inter-state politics as a system and equated it with the (presumably well-understood) system of politics at play in Europe, there was little agreement as how this system worked. In 1789, an army major stationed in Pondicherry insisted that a “triple alliance” of Indian powers could easily defeat the British (ANOM, 22Miom/33, Inde, Feuilles Volantes, Pondichery, 1142: f 97). The identities of the states likely to compose such an alliance appeared so obvious to him that they did not need to be named, although this was clearly not the case for all of his contemporaries.

  • 1 For further information on Bolts, see Kuiter 2002. I am grateful to Kapil Raj for this reference.

35A captain of the royal corps of engineers wrote to the Naval Ministry in 1781 dispensing his advice on “our establishments in India.” He found that only two Indian powers worth mentioning were independent of Britain, “the Marathas and Haidar Ali Khan [sultan of Mysore]” (AN, COL/C/2/245, f 89-98: f 89). A “Mémoire sur l’Inde” seemingly written in late 1783, listed the powers of India as the British East India Company, Mysore, the Maratha court at Pune, the subahdar, and the Mughal emperor (AN, COL/C/2/165, f 17-137: 43v). In the winter of 1784-1785 an anonymous synthesis of reports on France’s position in south Indian politics expressed the confidence that “a confederation among the Marathas, Tipu Sultan, and all of upper Bengal” soon be formed, ensuring the defeat of the British (AN, COL/F/3/46, 54-66: 55) William Bolts1, a a former official and merchant in the Indian Ocean trade, for a variety of masters (including the EIC and Imperial Company of Trieste), left Mysore and the subahdar out of India’s diplomatic system, cataloging central and northern Indian polities and peoples as potential members of an anti-British league in a 1797 mémoire (AN, AE/B/III/459: 8).

36French agents clearly did not agree on which Indian states were part of the Indian diplomatic system. Neither did they necessarily see this system as something inherent in Indian inter-state politics. Bussy imagined that India lacked a diplomatic system capable of countering Britain’s hegemonic status on its own. France, therefore, would have to create one. With well-made alliances, Bussy wrote in 1784, France might “give to [inter-state] politics in India the same rules, the same principles by which we understand each other, on which one founds politics in Europe” (AN, COL/C/2/165, f 138- 149v: 138). Here Indian diplomacy was not like Europe’s, but could become so through French intervention. The anonymous author of a number of “Observations sur l’Inde” likewise wrote in 1783 that a “political balance” of Indian powers against Britain would have to be established by France, “if it is possible to establish one” (AN COL/C/2/165, f. 153-158: 156v).

37Disagreements over the meaning of “balance” and “system” could be hidden under a cloud of rhetoric. The idea of an anti-British league of Indian powers was expansive (or vague) enough that French agents could see any number of different diplomatic arrangements as its logical consequence. It allowed them, moreover, to maintain their hopes for such a bloc even as Indian states repeatedly rejected French advances.

38French observers were not blind to the long-standing hostilities among the states they wished to make co-operate. Repeated French diplomatic efforts during the 1780s to pressure Mysore into improving relations with other Indian powers were spectacularly unsuccessful. In 1790 the Marathas and the subahdar allied with Britain in the Third Anglo-Mysore War (1789- 1792), which devastated Tipu’s realm (Hattalkar 1958: 51). French officials were aware of these realities, but they continued to hope that these states (or some similar grouping of major Indian powers) could be shepherded into a diplomatic bloc, if only their rulers could be made aware of their common interest in defeating Britain. The exact nature of this interest was rarely explicated, but in discussing it French agents referred to Indians’ rationality in such a manner as to not only challenge traditional views of India, but also to call in to question commonly held understandings of the sources of political agency.

39The phrase “balance of power” is such a commonplace in modern international relations that it is easy to overlook the intellectual work by which it was translated from its original context in the diplomatic intricacies of the Italian Renaissance to become applicable to European and eventually global politics. Sixteenth century writer and politician Francesco Guicciardini is credited with the development of the concept in its contemporary form. He argued that in a situation like that which he found in Italy, where multiple states with equivalent amounts of power found themselves in competition, it would be difficult for a hegemon to arise. As one state grew in strength, others would band together to oppose it. Little change could be expected from within this “system of forces which had been brought to a certain equilibrium” (Sheehan 1996: 31). The concept “balance of power,” then, depends on a vision of states as rational actors within a system which generates rules constraining actors’ behavior in predictable ways.

40Over the next two centuries diplomats and writers extended this vision of inter-state politics as a system to a European scale. During the reign of Louis XIV (1661-1715) France, perceived as a would-be hegemon by its neighbors, was often at war with a “Grand Alliance” of weaker states, just as Guicciardini would have predicted. Between Louis XIV’s death in 1715 and the French Revolution, the “balance of power” took on more pacific connotations. Contemporaries imagined that, as policy-makers were aware that the balance of power would work against any ambitious state, rulers would temper their aspirations for territorial expansion. But for France, becoming a satisfied power did not mean giving up belligerency.

41Throughout his reign, Louis XVI, under the influence of Vergennes, disclaimed any further territorial expansion for his country. But the French monarchy went to war in 1778 to ensure that Britain lost territory in North America. This appeared to many Frenchmen as a move to readjust the equilibrium among European states, which had been thrown out of alignment by Britain’s gains in the Seven Years’ War (Murphy 1982: 215). The concept of a balance of power likewise justified French operations in South Asia Kate Marsh has observed that the comte de Modave, a former French military officer in India, wrote in 1776 that France must strive to maintain a colonial presence in the region as strong as that of Britain, echoing his 1768 warning that the “balance of power [équilibre de puissance]” be kept up between France and Britain in South Asia (Marsh 2009: 16, 125).

42By the 1780s, as we have seen, French agents wrote not only the balance of European powers in India, but the balance of Indian powers as well. For some French officers, Indian states exhibited the same patterns of rational, self-interested action as European ones, fighting amongst themselves in order to prevent any one state from becoming too strong. The chevalier de Fresne, governor-general of French India, wrote to naval minister César Henri, comte de la Luzerne in 1790 that he expected the Marathas to support whichever party seemed weaker in the war between Mysore and Britain. The Marathas would have no interest in seeing the stronger party win, as that might lead to the emergence of a hegemon which would overturn the “balance that exists in the political system of this country” (AN, COL/2/240, f 19). The political behavior of Indians, like Europeans, was rational and thus predictable.

43De Fresne’s prediction, however, was wrong; the Marathas aligned themselves with Britain against the weaker Mysore. Indeed, French policymaking for India was ridden with such bad predictions, and none were more regularly falsified than claims that Indian powers were bound to realize their common interest in stopping the advance of British hegemony. French hopes of creating a pan-Indian diplomatic bloc between 1783 and 1803 were continually stymied. Once war broke out between France and Britain in 1792, France was not even able to protect its own Indian colonies (seized in 1793) or its ally Mysore (crushed in 1799) from British armies. During the lull provided by the Peace of Amiens (1802-1803), however, several hundred troops were sent to re-occupy Pondicherry, which the terms of the peace obligated Britain to return to France. General Charles Mathieu Decaen was dispatched to put the colony in order and to revive France’s standing in India. The British garrison in Pondicherry refused to allow him to disembark, but Decaen was able to dispatch a number of diplomatic agents to various India courts, with the aim, he wrote in 1804, of organizing “a general uprising against English despotism” (Prentout 1901: 376-377). When hostilities between France and Britain resumed, Decaen was forced to abandon India without having restored French rule to Pondicherry or forged any alliances with Indian powers.

44On the voyage out he composed a letter to the “all the princes of Hindustan,” which he seems to have had translated into Persian. Decaen lashed out at them for failing to form the anti-British league French agents desired. He contrasted the weakness and division of India with the unity France had attained since Napoleon came to power: “Know that when the French nation was agitated by internal quarrels which the English organized… as they did in Hindustan… we put aside our animosities, we unified ourselves.” Henceforth, Decaen warned, France would no longer be in a position to lend aid to Indian states. It could only give inspiration to the peoples of India, who would have to overcome their differences and win their freedom on their own (BNF, NAF, 9374: f 216-216v). With French schemes for engineering a Grand Alliance in India definitively shelved, he concluded, a nationalist rising was India’s only hope.

The Balance of Power as Imperial Knowledge

45Comparisons between the Indian and European diplomatic “system” were thus relatively short-lived, serving as the conceptual basis of French policy in India for only two decades. Perhaps this is why they have been ignored by scholars. However, in adopting notions of a “balance of power” to a South Asian context, French agents performed intellectual work fraught with consequence. The leading alternative to such notions, provided by Anquetil-Duperron, described India as a geographically delimited space with culturally specific norms of political life, explicable through the study of centuries-old empires. A vision much like this one allowed British imperialists in India to make sense of Indian statecraft and justify Britain’s hegemonic status during this period. This vision awarded an important role to Orientalists who could claim to speak for the authentic traditions of India, perverted by a long era of Mughal despotism (Travers 2007). In the longer run, it prefigured the claims of anti-British Hindu nationalism.

46But the reification of cultural difference is not the only principle on which an empire can be run. French officials’ discussions of South Asian inter-state politics stressed the identity of Europe and India. They assumed that Indians were rational agents to the same degree and in the same way that Europeans were, in spite of the radically different social and cultural institutions prevalent in the Subcontinent. Such officials doubtlessly did not intend to deny Western logos its privileges. Yet they argued that inter-state politics all over the world was bound by the same systemic constraints, whose universal extension European thought could reveal but could not alter. French imperialism in India at the end of the eighteenth century was founded on a discourse in which concepts of diplomatic policy derived from European history were applied to India in such a way as to reject both blatant Euro-centrism of Montesquieu and the more subtle form Eurocentrism of academic Orientalism. Historians accustomed to making generalizations about a radical, anti-colonial Enlightenment, or the pervasive association of Orientalism and empire should take heed of this example.

47That it has not been noticed in the historiography and theory of international relations may be a sign that Euro-centrism is still alive and well in those fields. Michael Sheehan, surveying decades of historiography on the “balance of power” in Europe, claims that this concept “was not applied beyond the boundaries of the European continent” during the eighteenth century. This claim is unsubstantiated by the archive of France’s presence in India. It would be presumptuous to claim that French officials’ willingness to consider the Subcontinent as a diplomatic “system” structured by an equilibrium of states roughly equivalent in their capacities represented the first application of the concept of a balance of power to a non-European context. Such references have not yet come to researchers’ attention, but there is no reason to assume they did not take place.

48What is certain is that European agents’ mobilization of the “balance of power” outside Europe has been neglected by historians and theorists of international relations, who have ignored the role that imperial encounters played in the development of the foundational ideas of modern diplomacy. The extension of France’s late-eighteenth century global imaginary to India did not sever long-standing associations of South Asia with despotism in French political culture. It did, however, prompt a reassessment of the kinds of knowledge through which France’s imperial commitments could be managed. This knowledge was not to be found in hermeneutic sciences such as philology, history, or anthropology, which explained human action in terms of its culture- and context-bound meanings. Rather, it was to be found in fields of inquiry that assumed action was a response to the constraints of (political, economic, biological, etc.) systems independent of culture. As such, what subjects might do could be predicted, plotted, and controlled. By relying on the sort of knowledge embedded in the “balance of power,” rather than Anquetil-Duperron’s Orientalist expertise, the officials who made France’s late eighteenth-century India policy helped create a new kind of universalism founded not on the rights of man, but on the dismissal of cultural difference.



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1 For further information on Bolts, see Kuiter 2002. I am grateful to Kapil Raj for this reference.


He is a Ph.D. student in History at Northwestern University, specializing in Early Modern French Orientalism and imperialism in India. He is currently working on a dissertation examining French, Dutch, Danish, and Portuguese understandings of Indians as economic actors in the late eighteenth century.

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