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The legacy of French rule in India (1674-1954)

Animesh Rai


The Comptoirs (trading posts) of India

Edouard Glissant

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1This rather uncommon term is used to designate those territories occupied by France within the immensity of India whilst it was still a British colony. These exiguous territories, distant from one another, were always grouped together as Pondichéry, Chandernagor, Yanaon, Karikal and Mahé, giving the impression of a single body of land or, rather, of a fairly integrated archipelago. Comptoirs also implied that French occupation was specific and comparable to the establishments sown around the Mediterranean by the Carthaginians, or to the forts raised by the Portuguese along the coasts of Africa, all of which were initially dedicated to trade. These trading posts usually overlooked the sea and centred around a great deal of, mostly maritime, activity. French interests in India did not at first appear to be either territorial or cultural. For a long time, one of the functions of the comptoirs was to compete with Britain (out of Calcutta) for Indian trade in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, in conditions similar to those of the traditional slave trade. The descendants of those transported people today travel almost every year from Trinidad, Guadeloupe and Martinique (as well, most probably, as from the countries in the Indian Ocean) to their land and their families of origin in South India, where they renew their links with their customs, languages and religion which they have not, in fact, ever completely abandoned.

2We find here a remarkable instance of creolization: these pilgrims are Indian and Trinidadian, or Indian and Guedaloupean, and none the worse off for it. As well, there was instituted in the islands of the Caribbean a theory or a poetics of “Koulitude”, based on Aimé Césaire’s “Negritude”; the word “kouli” (derived from “coolie”, a rather pejorative term boldly claimed in this case), in this part of the Caribbean, designates those coming from India. Once, on a visit to the north of Martinique, I was present on the occasion of a ritual celebration which the Martinicans call a mangé kouli, a kouli feast (because baby goats are sacrificed and then cooked), with the family whose head officiated at the ceremony and he showed me, in a secret drawer, the family chronicle, a thick bound notebook which had been preserved through the vicissitudes of the journey, in which all births and deaths were recorded in the original language.

3It seems that, little by little, and long before the comptoirs were handed over to the Indian nation, commercial interest, already very much weakened, gave way to something resembling a particular kind of life style: a provincialism, distinguished but not narrow, consisting of a mixture of moralities and all the more fragile for being contained within the limits of tiny enclaves. As a result there was leeway for a fundamental inclination for mixtures of another sort, especially cultural (and perhaps administrative). It was an original process of creolization.

4It would appear too that this state of affairs continued after the territories had been returned to the Indian nation and that French influence decreased progressively without any loss in the general character and atmosphere of creolization. What I call creolization is a phenomenon of cultural mixing at a given time and place without the elements brought into contact being dissolved in the mixture: creolization is not dilution.

5Animesh Rai is to be credited with having approached the question of the comptoirs with all the comprehension that can be brought to bear on a complex situation in which justifiable feelings of Indian national pride are tied to a concern with preventing an historic past from being lost, even when it is in the form of an occupation. Dr. Rai’s work reveals infinities of nuance in the nature and reality of these five towns, territories or comptoirs and an infinite richness of types of inhabitant, as well as a variety of specific situations which lead us to consider these places as treasures of diversity and originality. Dr. Rai’s book is an essential contribution to the non-sectarian plurality of the world.


Distinguished Professor of French at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2008

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