The French attempted to establish a trade link with India as early as 1527. Taking a cue from the Portuguese and the Dutch, the French commenced their commercial operations through the French East India Company, established in 1664. Unlike other European powers which appeared in India through the private trading companies, the French commercial enterprise was a project of King Louis XIV. His minister of finance, Colbert, was instrumental in establishing the French East India Company.
As the French effort was a government initiative, it did not attract the general public of France who viewed it as yet another way to tax people.
The French traders arrived in Madagascar (in Africa) in 1602. Though the French colonized Madagascar, they had to abandon it in 1674, excepting a small coastal trading post. Berber, a French agent in India obtained a firman [a royal command or authorization] on September 4, 1666 from Aurangzeb and the first French factory was established at Surat in December 1668, much against the opposition of the Dutch. Within a year the French established another factory at Masulipatnam.
Factory in the then context referred to a warehouse or a place where factors, or commercial agents, resided to transact business for their employers abroad.
Realizing the need for a stronger foothold in India, Colbert sent a fleet to India, led by Haye (Jacob Blanquet de la Haye). The French were able to remove the Dutch from San Thome in Mylapore in 1672. The French sought the support of Sher Khan Lodi, the local Governor, who represented the Sultan of Bijapur, against the Dutch. The Dutch befriended the King of Golkonda who was a traditional foe of Bijapur. It was Sher Khan Lodi who offered Pondicherry (Puducherry) as a suitable site for their settlement.
Pondicherry in 1673 was a small fishing village. Francis Martin who became the Governor of Pondicherry later had spent four years in Madagascar before arriving Surat. He made Pondicherry the strategic centre of French settlements in India.
“The countryside through which we passed (outskirts of Pondichérry) was well-cultivated and very beautiful. Rice was to be found in abundance... where there was water while cotton was grown....” Francis Martin about the landscape of Pondicherry in his diary.
French attempts to capture Pondicherry were not easy. They had to deal with their main rivals, the Dutch. From 1672 France and Holland were continuously at war. In India the French lacked men, money and arms, as they had diverted them to Chandranagore, another French settlement in Bengal. Therefore the Dutch could capture Pondicherry easily in 1693. It remained with the Dutch for six years. In 1697, according to the treaty of Ryswick, Pondicherry was once again restored to the French. However, it was handed over to the French only in 1699. Francis Martin remained as its governor till his death in 1706.
The French secured Mahe in 1725 and Karaikal in 1739. The French were also successful in establishing and extending their settlements in Qasim Bazaar, Chandranagore and Balasore in the Bengal region. Pierre Benoit Dumas (1668–1745) was another able French governor in Pondicherry. However, the French had to face the threat of the English who proved too strong for them. Eventually they lost out on their hard earned fortunes to the English.
The influence of the French can still be seen in present day Pondicherry, Mahe, Karaikkal, and Chandranagore.
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