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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 May 2013

University of Warwick
Department of History, University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4


With the recent rise in global history as a discipline, early modern Europe's Asian trade has become a new focus of interest. In French historiography, however, this still remains marginalized. Some studies of the French East India Companies and the French presence in Asia exist, but the impact of this on metropolitan France remains woefully underexplored. This article outlines the history and historiography of the French East India Companies and their wider role and importance, outlining pathways of both existing, current, and possible future research.

Historiographical Reviews
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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This article was written as part of the University of Warwick's ‘Europe's Asian Centuries: Trading Eurasia 1600–1830’ project funded by the European Research Council. The author would like to thank Maxine Berg, Giorgio Riello, and the two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments.


1 Schaub, Jean-Frédéric, ‘La catégorie “études coloniales” est-elle indispensable?’, Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 63 (2008), pp. 625–46Google Scholar.

2 Wellington, Donald C., French East India Companies: a historical account and record of trade (Lanham, MD, 2006)Google Scholar.

3 The revised second edition makes the work much more accessible: Haudrère, Philippe, La Compagnie française des Indes au XVIIIe siècle (2 vols., Paris, 2005)Google Scholar. A shorter and comparative study that places the French company in the context of the other East India Companies is an easy-to-read, reasonably priced alternative for students: Haudrère, Philippe, Les Compagnies des Indes orientales: trois siècles de rencontre entre Orientaux et Occcidentaux (1600–1858) (Paris, 2006)Google Scholar. Haudrère also co-authored a beautifully illustrated book together with Gérard Le Bouëdec of the University of South Brittany and Louis Mézin, former director of the East India Company Museum in Lorient: Haudrère, Philippe, Le Bouëdec, Gérard, and Mézin, Louis, Les Compagnies des Indes (Rennes, 2010)Google Scholar.

4 The most stimulating and useful of such essays are Boulle, Pierre H., ‘French mercantilism, commercial companies and colonial profitability’, in Bluss, Leonardé and Gaastra, Femme, eds., Companies and trade: essays on overseas trading companies during the ancien regime (Leiden, 1981), pp. 97117CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Haudrère, Philip, ‘The French India Company and its trade in the eighteenth century’, in Chaudhury, Sushil and Morineau, Michel, eds., Merchants, companies and trade: Europe and Asia in the early modern era (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 202–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Paul Butel, ‘French traders and India at the end of the eighteenth century’, in ibid., pp. 287–99. On the French presence in India see below.

5 For obvious reasons, neither Haudrère nor Wellington dwell much on private trade. For relevant studies of French private shipping, see Pfister-Langanay, Christian, Ports, navires et négociants à Dunkerque (1662–1792) (Dunkirk, 1985)Google Scholar, and for Saint-Malo the work of André Lespagnol, especially the recently republished 1991 work Messieurs de Saint-Malo – une élite négociante au temps de Louis XIV (Rennes, 2011).

6 Boulle's ‘French mercantilism, commercial companies and colonial profitability’ is an excellent introduction to the issue of state control. For a more extensive treatment see Ames, Glenn Joseph, Colbert, mercantilism, and the French quest for Asian trade (DeKalb, IL, 1996)Google Scholar.

7 For a good overview of the Danish case, see Glamann, Kristof, ‘The Danish Asiatic Company, 1732–1772’, Scandinavian Economic History Review, 8 (1960), pp. 109–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a more recent analysis see Feldbæk, Ole, ‘The Danish Asia trade, 1620–1807: value and volume’, Scandinavian Economic History Review, 39 (1991), pp. 327CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 In La Compagnie française des Indes, Haudrère dwells on all of these aspects at lengths. On the headquarters in Paris, see vol. i, pp. 153–62, on the construction of, and life in, Lorient see vol. i, pp. 162–92, and on the company's shipbuilding see vol. i, pp. 338–72. Specifically on Lorient, see Bouedec, Gérard Le, Le port et l'arsenal de Lorient (Paris, 1994)Google Scholar, and Lepotier, Adolphe, Lorient: porte des Indes (Paris, 1970)Google Scholar.

9 On calicoes in France, see below. For a comparative overview of European calico legislation in the period, see Thomson, J. K. J., ‘State intervention in the Catalan calico-printing industry in the eighteenth century’, in Berg, Maxine, ed., Markets and manufacture in early industrial Europe (London, 1991)Google Scholar.

The ‘Scandal of Empire’ to use Dirks's phrase and the discourse of corruption through company influence and imported luxuries is less well explored in the French case. For the EIC, this is particularly well summarized in the introduction to Bowen's, HuwThe business of empire: the EIC and imperial Britain, 1756–1833 (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 128Google Scholar.

10 Holden Furber in his classic account is aware of both the similarities and the rivalry between the English, French, and Dutch companies. This comparative approach seems sadly to have been lost in more recent scholarship. Furber, Holden, John Company at work: a study of European expansion in India in the late eighteenth century (Cambridge, MA, 1948)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 The best study on the China trade remains Louis Dermigny's magisterial La Chine et l'Occident: le commerce à Canton au XVIIIe siècle, 1719–1833 (Paris, 1964), recently supplemented, for the French case, by a beautiful catalogue for a recent exhibition in Nantes: Guillet, Bertrand, ed., La soie et le canon: France – Chine 1700–1860 (Paris and Nantes, 2010)Google Scholar.

12 For a useful, albeit now slightly outdated, bibliography, see Scholberg, Henry and Divien, Emmanuel, Bibliographie des Français dans l'Inde/Bibliography of the French in India, Historical Society of Pondicherry (Pondicherry, 1973)Google Scholar. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the restitution of the French establishment to India, the French National Library has also published a bibliography: L'Inde des Français (Paris, 1994). Liverpool University offers a very useful overview of French works published on India: Liverpool University, French books on India: from Dupleix to decolonization (Version 3: 24 May 2011): (last consulted 18 Jan. 2013).

13 Ray, Indrani, The French East India Company and the trade of the Indian Ocean, ed. Subramanian, Lakshmi (New Delhi, 1999)Google Scholar; Manning, Catherine, Fortunes à faire: the French in the Asian trade, 1719–1748 (Aldershot, 1996)Google Scholar.

14 Vincent, Rose, ed., The French in India: from diamond traders to Sanskrit scholars, trans. Padgaonkar, Latika (London, 1990)Google Scholar; Ames, Glenn J. and Love, Ronald S., eds., Distant lands and diverse cultures: the French experience in Asia, 1600–1700 (Westport, CT, 2003)Google Scholar.

15 Deloche, Jean, Pondicherry past and present/Pondichéry hier et aujourd'hui (Pondicherry and Paris, 2007)Google Scholar; Deloche, Jean, Four forts of the Deccan (Pondicherry and Paris, 2009)Google Scholar; Deloche, Jean, Origins of the urban development of Pondicherry according to seventeenth-century Dutch plan (Pondicherry, 2004)Google Scholar; Florence d'Souza, Quand la France découvrit l'Inde (Paris, 1995)Google Scholar; Deleury, Guy, Les Indes florissantes: anthologie des voyageurs français, 1750–1820 (Paris, 1991)Google Scholar, republished as Le voyage en Inde: anthologie des voyageurs français (Paris, 2003); Weber, Jacques, Pondichéry et les comptoirs de l'Inde après Dupleix (Paris, 1996)Google Scholar, as well as Jacques Weber, ed., Compagnies et comptoirs: l 'Inde des français, XVIIe–XXe siècle, numéro spécial de la Revue française d'Histoire d'Outre-Mer, 290 (1991), and Weber, Jacques, ed., Les relations entre la France et l'Inde de 1673 à nos jours (Paris, 2002)Google Scholar.

16 The literature on these colonies is extensive enough to warrant its own bibliography, though it does not always focus on the role of the company. For an exception, see Haudrère's biography of La Bourdonnais, governor of the islands: La Bourdonnais: marin et aventurier (Paris, 1992). For a general overview, see Toussaint, Auguste, Histoire des îles Mascareignes (Paris, 1972)Google Scholar.

17 Tarrade, Jean, Le commerce colonial de la France à la fin de l'ancien régime: l’évolution du régime de ‘l'Exclusif’ de 1763 à 1789 (2 vols., Paris, 1972)Google Scholar.

18 Pomeranz, Kenneth, The great divergence: China, Europe, and the making of the modern world economy (Princeton, NJ, 2000)Google Scholar. For a much more conservative account, perhaps the instigator of the debate in the first place, see Landes, David, The wealth and poverty of nations: why some are so rich and some so poor (New York, NY, 1998)Google Scholar.

19 See, for instance, Berg, Maxine, ‘In pursuit of luxury: global origins of British consumer goods in the eighteenth century’, Past and Present, 182 (2004), pp. 85142CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Berg, Maxine, ‘From imitation to invention: creating commodities in eighteenth-century Britain’, Economic History Review, 45 (2002), pp. 130CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bowen, The business of empire; Lemire, Beverly, Fashion's favourite: the cotton trade and the consumer in Britain, 1660–1800 (Oxford, 1991)Google Scholar; Lemire, Beverly, ‘Fashioning global trade: Indian textiles, gender meanings and European consumers, 1500–1800’, in Riello, Giorgio and Roy, Tirthankar, eds., How India clothed the world: the world of South Asian textiles, 1500–1850 (Leiden, 2009), pp. 365–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lemire, Beverley, ‘Revising the historical narrative: India, Europe, and the cotton trade, c. 1300–1800’, in Riello, Giorgio and Parthasarathi, Prasannan, eds., The spinning world: a global history of cotton textiles, 1200–1850 (Oxford, 2009), pp. 205–26Google Scholar; O'Brien, Patrick, ‘Inseparable connections: trade economy, fiscal state and the expansion of empire, 1688–1815’, in Marshall, P. J., ed., The Oxford history of the British empire, ii: The eighteenth century (Oxford, 1998)Google Scholar; O'Brien, Patrick, ‘The reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconfiguration of the British industrial revolution as a conjuncture in global history’, Itinerario, 24 (2000), pp. 117–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar; O'Brien, Patrick, ‘Imperialism and the rise and decline of the British economy, 1688–1989’, New Left Review, 238 (1999), pp. 4889Google Scholar; Styles, John, ‘Indian cottons and European fashion, 1400–1800’, in Adamson, Glenn, Riello, Giorgio, and Teasley, Sarah, eds., Global design history (London, 2011), pp. 3746Google Scholar; Styles, John, ‘What were cottons for in the early industrial revolution?’, in Riello and Parthasarathi, eds., The spinning world, pp. 307–26Google Scholar.

20 Daudin, G., Commerce et prospérité: la France au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 2005)Google Scholar; Drayton, Richard, ‘The globalisation of France: provincial cities and French expansion, c. 1500–1800’, History of European Ideas, 34 (2008), pp. 424–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Potofsky, Allan, ‘Paris-on-the-Atlantic from the Old Regime to the revolution’, French History, 25 (2011), pp. 89107CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see also Trevor Burnard and Allan Potofsky, ‘The political economy of the French Atlantic world and the Caribbean before 1800’, ibid., pp. 1–8.

21 The most beautiful introduction to the topic remains Jaffer, Amin and Jackson, Anna, eds., Encounters: the meeting of Asia and Europe, 1500–1800 (London, 2004)Google Scholar. On cotton textiles, see below; for silk, the work especially of Carlo Poni remains relevant: see for instance ‘Mode et innovation: les stratégies des marchands en soie de Lyon au XVIIIe siècle’, Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine, 45 (1998), pp. 589–625. On lacquer works, see Wolvesperges, Thibaut, Le meuble français en laque au XVIIIe siècle (Paris and Brussels, 2000)Google Scholar. Ina Baghandiantz McCabe devotes an entertaining section to the fan and other imitative productions in France in Orientalism in early modern France: Eurasian trade, exoticism and the ancien régime (Oxford and New York, NY, 2008), pp. 203–30. Specifically on folding fans at Louis XIV's court, see Cowen, Pamela, A fanfare for the Sun King: unfolding fans for Louis XIV (London, 2003)Google Scholar. There is a huge amount of scholarship on porcelain production in France. The works specifically treating company porcelain are a little dated by now. See, for instance, the comte de Lafon's La Compagnie des Indes et la porcelaine de la Compagnie des Indes (Dijon, 1933). Michel Beurdeley's Porcelaine de la Compagnie des Indes (Fribourg, 1962) devotes a substantive section to France. More recent is the companion volume to the exhibition at the Company Museum in Lorient in 2002 by its former chief curator: Mézin, Louis, Cargoes from China: porcelain from the Compagnies des Indes in the Musée de Lorient (Lorient, 2002)Google Scholar.

22 Depître, Edgard, La toile peinte en France au XVIIe et au XVIIIe siècles: industrie, commerce, prohibitions (Paris, 1912)Google Scholar. For an individual case-study, see, for instance, Dardel, Pierre, Les manufactures de toiles peintes et de serges imprimées à Rouen et à Bolbec aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (Rouen, 1940)Google Scholar.

23 Raveux, Olivier, ‘The birth of a new European industry: l'indiennage in seventeenth-century Marseilles’, in Riello and Parthasarathi, eds., The spinning world, pp. 291306Google Scholar; Raveux, Olivier, ‘Innovation et transferts de technologie dans l'industrie textile européenne du XVIIe siècle: l'exemple de l'indiennage à Marseille’, in Bouneau, Christophe and Lung, Yannick, eds., Les dynamiques des systèmes d'innovation: logiques sectorielles et espaces de l'innovation (Bordeaux, 2009), pp. 103–16Google Scholar; Raveux, Olivier, ‘Du commerce à la production: l'indiennage européen et l'acquisition des techniques asiatiques au XVIIe siècle’, in Jacqué, Jacqueline and Nicolas, Brigitte, eds., Féérie indienne: les toiles peintes des rivages de l'Inde au royaume de France (Paris, 2008), pp. 22–5Google Scholar; Raveux, Olivier, ‘Les Arméniens et la Méditerranée, médiateurs techniques entre Orient et Occident dans l'indiennage au XVIIe siècle’, in Le Bouëdec, Gérard and Nicolas, Brigitte, eds., Le goût de L'Inde (Lorient and Rennes, 2008), pp. 4451Google Scholar; Fukasawa, Katsumi, Toilerie et commerce du Levant, d'Alep à Marseille (Paris, 1987)Google Scholar; Fukasawa, Katsumi, ‘De L'Inde au Levant: routes du commerce, routes des indiennes’, in Bouëdec, and Nicolas, , eds., Le goût de L'Inde, pp. 3443Google Scholar. Also on the topic of technology acquisition, see Souza, George Bryan, ‘The French connection: Indian cottons and their early modern technology’, in Riello, and Roy, , eds., How India clothed the world, pp. 347–64Google Scholar.

24 Riello and Parthasarathi, eds., The spinning world; Riello and Roy, eds., How India clothed the world; Jacqué and Nicolas, eds., Féérie indienne; and Bouëdec and Nicolas, eds., Le goût de L'Inde.

25 Chassagne, Serge, ‘La création de manufactures d'indiennes en France dans la seconde moitié du XVIIIe siècle’, in Bouëdec, and Nicolas, , eds., Le goût de L'Inde, pp. 5261Google Scholar. See, for instance, Oberkampf, un entrepreneur capitaliste au siècle des lumières (Paris, 1980). For a comparative dimension see Chassagne, Serge and Chapman, Stanley, European textile printers in the eighteenth century: a study of Peel and Oberkampf (London, 1981)Google Scholar.

26 Melon's role in the developing discipline of political economy is often overlooked by scholars in favour of his more famous friends and admirers, Voltaire and Montesquieu. His contribution was nevertheless of real importance. See in particular Hont, Istvan, ‘The early Enlightenment debate on commerce and luxury’, in Goldie, Mark and Wokler, Robert, eds., The Cambridge history of eighteenth-century political thought (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 379418Google Scholar.

27 On Dutot, see especially Murphy, Antoin, ‘The enigmatic Monsieur du Tot’, in Faccarello, Gilbert, ed., Studies in the history of French political economy (London and New York, NY, 1998) pp. 5777Google Scholar; and Murphy, Antoin, ‘Nicolas Du Tot and John Law’, in Stathakis, Yiorgos and Vaggi, Gianni, eds., Economic development and social change: historical roots and modern perspectives (London and New York, NY, 2006), pp. 171–89Google Scholar.

28 The classic account of the physiocratic movement is by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese: The origins of physiocracy: economic revolution and social order in eighteenth-century France (Ithaca, NY, and London, 1976). The work most influential in re-establishing the role of Gournay in the development of French economic liberalism is Meyssonnier, Simone, La balance et l'horloge: la Genèse de la pensée libérale en France au XVIIIe siècle (Montreuil, 1989).Google Scholar For a concise overview of the historiographical development, see Shovlin, John, The political economy of virtue: luxury, patriotism, and the origins of the French Revolution (Ithaca, NY, 2006), pp. 34Google Scholar.

29 Not much recent work has been done on Necker's involvement with the company. The best work on this remains Herbert Lüthy's. Particularly relevant is his ‘Necker et la Compagnie des Indes’, Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 15 (1960), pp. 852–81. For a more general study, see La banque protestante en France, de la révocation de l'Édit de Nantes à la Révolution (originally published in 1959–61, it is available as a 3-volume reprint from the Editions de l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales).

30 Morellet began the debate with his Mémoire sur la situation actuelle de la Compagnie des Indes … , whose first edition, undated and without place of publication, appeared in 1769. One of the numerous responses to the tract was by Jacques Necker: Réponse au mémoire de M. L'abbé Morellet sur la Compagnie des Indes: imprime en exécution de la délibération de Mrs les actionnaires pris dans l'assemblée générale du 8 août 1769 (Paris, 1769). Morellet replied directly to this: Examen de la réponse de M. N*** au memoire de M. l'Abbé Morellet sur la Compagnie des Indes, par l'auteur du memoire (Paris, 1769). Dupont de Nemour's support came in the same year: de Nemours, Pierre Samuel Dupont, Du commerce et de la Compagnie des Indes … (Paris and Amsterdam, 1769)Google Scholar.

31 Ames, Colbert.

32 Shovlin, The political economy of virtue.

33 Clark, Henry C., Compass of society: commerce and absolutism in Old Regime France (Lanham, MD, 2007)Google Scholar.

34 Sonenscher, Michael, Before the deluge: public debt, inequality, and the intellectual origins of the French Revolution (Princeton, NJ, 2007)Google Scholar; Cheney, Paul, Revolutionary commerce: globalization and the French monarchy (Cambridge, MA, 2010)Google Scholar.

35 Margerison, Kenneth, ‘The shareholders revolt at the Compagnie des Indes: commerce and political culture in Old Regime France’, French History, 20 (2006), pp. 2551CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes, ed. Anthony Strugnell (Ferney-Voltaire: Centre International d’Étude du XVIIIe Siècle, 2010–). On another important aspect of the company's role in shaping French politics, see Ruggiu, François-Joseph, ‘India and the reshaping of the French colonial policy (1759–1789)’, Itinerario, 35 (2011), pp. 2543CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 Marsh, Kate, India in the French imagination: peripheral voices, 1754–1815 (London, 2009)Google Scholar.

38 See, for instance, Pagden, Anthony, Lords of all the world: ideologies of empire in Spain, Britain and France, 1500–1800 (New Haven, CT, 1995)Google Scholar, or Madeleine Dobie's more recent Trading places: colonization and slavery in eighteenth-century French culture (Ithaca, NY, 2010).

39 McCabe, Orientalism in early modern france. Cf. n. 21.

40 Dew, Nicholas, Orientalism in Louis XIV's France (Oxford, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Etiemble, L'Europe chinoise (2 vols., Paris, 1988–9). See also Etiemble, L'orient philosophique au XVIIIe siècle : cours professé à la Faculté des Lettres de Paris (3 vols., Paris, 1959–61).

41 Sargentson, Carolyn, Merchants and luxury markets: the marchands merciers of eighteenth-century Paris (London, 1996)Google Scholar; cf. Sargentson, Carolyn, ‘The manufacture and marketing of luxury goods: the marchands merciers of late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Paris’, in Fox, Robert and Turner, Anthony, eds., Luxury trade and consumerism in ancien régime Paris: studies in the history of the skilled workforce (Aldershot, 1998), pp. 99137Google Scholar.

42 Coquery, Natacha, Tenir boutique à Paris au XVIIIe siècle: luxe et demi-luxe (Paris, 2011)Google Scholar; Coquery, Natacha, ‘Les boutiquiers parisiens et la diffusion des indienneries au XVIIIe siècle’, in Bouëdec, and Nicolas, , eds., Le goût de L'Inde, pp. 7481Google Scholar; Coquery, Natacha, ‘The semi-luxury market, shopkeepers and social diffusion: marketing chinoiseries in eighteenth-century Paris’, in Blondé, Bruno, Coquery, Natacha, Stobart, Jon, and Van Damme, Ilja, eds., Fashioning old and new: changing consumer patterns in Western Europe (1650–1900) (Turnhout, 2009), pp. 121–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 Fontaine, Laurence, Histoire du colportage en Europe (XVe–XIXe siècle) (Paris, 1993)Google Scholar.

44 Probably the best work on the beginnings of a consumer society in Europe remains Brewer, John and Porter, Roy, eds., Consumption and the world of goods (London, 1997)Google Scholar. On the French case in particular, see Daniel Roche, A history of everyday things: the birth of consumption in France, 1600–1800, trans. Brian Pearce (Cambridge, 2000); and Kwass, Michael, ‘Ordering the world of goods: consumer revolution and the classification of objects in eighteenth-century France’, Representations, 82 (2003), pp. 87116CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 On the category of colonial studies in France, see Schaub's, ‘La catégorie “études coloniales”’. On France and Atlantic history, see the special edition of French History edited by Trevor Burnard and Allan Potofsky entitled The French Atlantic and the Caribbean (1600–1800): French History, 25 (2011).