This article examines the global history of the Age of Revolution through the lens of the Nouvelle Compagnie des Indes (1785–94). Established in the aftermath of the American Revolution, the company was not only a commercial entity but also an integral part of a diplomatic strategy for reestablishing the postwar Franco-British relationship. The geopolitical context of the Indian Ocean world forced French political and commercial actors to imagine forms of imperial and commercial power that frequently placed French interests under British protection, often in ways that provoked significant opposition in the metropole. Amid ideologies of competition, Anglophobia, and militarism, the case of the Nouvelle Compagnie des Indes reveals how both state and private actors struggled to promote wide-ranging commercial collaboration between France and Britain in the 1780s and 1790s in ways that often anticipated later partnerships between the two empires.
Cet article examine l'histoire globale de l’ère de la Révolution française à travers le prisme de la Nouvelle Compagnie des Indes (1785–94). Etablie après la guerre d'indépendance américaine, la compagnie n’était pas seulement une entité commerciale, mais une partie intégrante d'une stratégie diplomatique pour rétablir les relations franco-britanniques. Le contexte géopolitique de l'océan Indien exigeait que les acteurs politiques et commerciaux français imaginent de nouvelles formes de pouvoir impérial et commercial. Celles-ci plaçaient fréquemment les intérêts français sous la protection britannique, souvent d'une manière qui provoquait de fortes résistances dans la métropole. Dans un contexte idéologique de compétition, d'anglophobie et de militarisme, le cas de la Nouvelle Compagnie des Indes révèle que des acteurs aussi bien étatiques que privés essayaient de promouvoir une vaste collaboration commerciale entre la France et la Grande-Bretagne dans les années 1780 et 1790, en anticipant souvent les partenariats ultérieurs entre les deux empires.
The relationship between France and Britain in the late eighteenth century has long been understood as one defined by revolutionary nationalism in Europe and aggressive imperial competition for colonies and resources in the Atlantic world.1 This competition appears differently, however, when one examines the late eighteenth-century French Empire from the viewpoint of India, where France's geopolitical and commercial ambitions had become decidedly subordinate to (and dependent on) those of Britain. A century of French efforts to establish trading posts (comptoirs) on the Indian subcontinent reached its apogee under the governorship of Joseph-François Dupleix (1741–54), whose strategic accommodation and co-option of Indian allies made France the military terror of other Europeans in the region, especially the British.2 Yet the imperial calamity of the ensuing Seven Years' War (1756–63) resulted in the near total collapse of France's Indian empire and, soon thereafter, the bankruptcy and suspension of the monopoly of the Compagnie des Indes, or French East India Company, originally founded by Jean-Baptiste Colbert in 1664.3 The five comptoirs of French India that remained after 1763—Pondicherry, Chandernagor, Mahé, Yanaon, and Karikal (now Puducherry, Chandannagar, Mahé, Yanam, and Karaikal)—were a small corner of the empire indeed, a recognition that has long wrongly prompted many scholars, in Danna Agmon's account, to dismiss the comptoirs as “failures and thus insignificant” to the broader arc of French imperial history.4
For this reason French India—and the commercial institutions that shaped it—stands apart from traditional understandings of the meaning of empire itself. Territorial visions of dominance and exploitation in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, or in the nineteenth-century imperial projects that followed, do not map cleanly onto a colonial space where France's political and imperial horizons were tightly circumscribed by both British ambitions and Indian states defending themselves against European incursion. To understand the dynamics of the French Empire in India in the late eighteenth century, we must focus instead on commerce and its institutions.5 Long after such bodies had ceased to rule over France's North American or Caribbean empires, chartered trading companies—those most peculiar of early modern, transnational actors—continued to govern and trade in the French Indian Ocean. Recent generations of scholars of the British and Dutch East India companies have argued that these companies were not merely economic actors but sites of political conflict and intellectual ferment, as ministers, shareholders, and jurists fought over their geopolitical aims, their sovereign prerogatives, and their financial bottom lines. Often operating as sovereign states in their own right abroad, trading companies had relationships with their home states in the metropole that were often fraught with political contestation—these were, after all, institutions composed of private commercial and financial actors whose interests often conflicted with the stated political aims of their corporation's charter.6 In different contexts, trading companies functioned as both state and nonstate actors, both public and private, both political and financial. As transnational actors, they similarly transcend any attempt at classification into metropole/colony, national/global binaries. The commercial, cultural, and even religious politics of the trading company played out in many geographic venues, including imperial rivalries and ruthless conquests abroad, contestations with private merchant elites in port cities, and political strife within central ministries and legislatures.7
The so-called Nouvelle Compagnie des Indes, established in 1785 and subsequently dissolved in 1793, offers us the perspective of one such “company-state” in the midst of the Age of Revolution. In 1787 the comte de Mirabeau decried the reappearance of a monopoly institution for Indian Ocean trade—long after the Seven Years' War and decades of purportedly laissez-faire attacks against the privileged institutions of the Old Regime—as frankly “inconceivable,” and many scholars have subsequently agreed with him.8 The previous company's monopoly had been suspended in 1769, and as it had long been known as a center of venal “court capitalism,” opponents of the new company in 1785 frequently (and not incorrectly) identified the granting of its monopoly as owing partly to a corrupt bargain between the controller-general, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, and state creditors whose loans the monarchy relied on.9 From these financially dubious origins, the Nouvelle Compagnie dissolved in a 1793 revolutionary scandal that, in embroiling the Dantonistes—one of the principal revolutionary factions—in a financial fraud, has long been seen as a pivotal episode of the Terror.10
This article takes a different approach in presenting the Nouvelle Compagnie des Indes as a lens for examining evolving views of the Franco-British relationship in the Age of Revolution. I outline the company's geopolitical origins and explore the evolution of its relationship with its British rival. Transnational institutions like the Nouvelle Compagnie integrated domestic institutional considerations of privilege and reform into larger geopolitical, imperial, and commercial contexts. Accordingly, the company reveals how the unraveling and dismantling of the Old Regime at home and abroad were concurrent processes, driven in this case by the extreme challenge of managing France's relationship to Britain in Europe and overseas. Amid ideologies of competition, Anglophobia, and militarism, the case of the Nouvelle Compagnie des Indes also shows that both state and private actors struggled to promote wide-ranging commercial collaboration between France and Britain in the 1780s and even during the 1790s, demonstrating the novel ways that financial actors viewed the French Revolution as a moment of economic optimism and experimentation. Although these experiments collapsed amid the turmoil of the Revolution, they were harbingers of later partnerships between these imperial and commercial competitors.
France, India, and Britain in the 1780s
France's defeat in the Seven Years' War did little to restrain bellicose visions of French power in the Indian Ocean world. As Kate Marsh has observed, the idea of “French India” became in part an imaginary site onto which French political thinkers continually projected fantasies of restored empire.11 In one of his many contributions to the eighteenth-century best seller Histoire des deux Indes (nominally authored by the abbé Raynal), the philosophe Denis Diderot imagined a resurgent France using its imperial power in defense of Indian colonial subjects, oppressed by the barbarity of British rule: “The French, seen as the liberators of Hindustan, will emerge from [their present] state of humiliation . . . [and] become the idol of the princes & peoples of Asia, if the revolution they will have brought becomes for [the French] a lesson in moderation. Their commerce will be extended & flourishing, as long as they know to be just.”12 Some scholars see in this redemptive language of imperial rebirth and liberation the roots of the later, republican mission civilisatrice.13 At the time, these grandiose visions were more commonly expressed on a practical level in the form of a ministerial repertoire of diplomatic and imperial strategies aimed at shoring up French influence in the Indian Ocean. Many of these emerged during the tenure of Louis XV's principal minister, Etienne-François, duc de Choiseul, who sought to reestablish French power after the humiliation of the Seven Years' War. The best-studied of these schemes were plans for the economic revitalization of the Mascarene Islands of Ile-de-France and Ile Bourbon: known at the time as the “key to the Indies,” the two islands were regarded as an essential naval base for future invasions of Asia.14 On the Indian subcontinent itself, colonial officials navigated tentative alliances with Indian states, principally the Maratha Confederacy and the sultanate of Mysore, recognizing these two states as strong sources of resistance to British rule and thereby essential allies of French geopolitical ambition.15 As evident in the contribution by Pernille Røge to this forum, local dynamics and the motivations of non-European rulers often had significant impacts on the shaping of metropolitan ideas, strategies, and policies.
France's engagement in the American Revolution between 1777 and 1783 offered a concrete opportunity to imagine both the implementation of these strategies and the possibility of reestablishing French power in India. The French minister of the navy during the latter stages of the war, Charles-Eugène-Gabriel de La Croix, marquis de Castries (1780–87), not only was a Choiseul protégé but also had served as a syndic in the Compagnie des Indes in the 1760s. Convinced of the geostrategic importance of the Indian Ocean for France, Castries aggressively pushed for the expansion of French military engagement against the British in India throughout the American war effort.16 He personally supervised the 1781 launch of the Indian Ocean fleet, placed under the command of Pierre-André de Suffren, later known as the Bailli de Suffren. The fleet won several critical engagements with the British navy in the Indian Ocean and landed in India in June 1783, joining ground forces marshaled by the formidable Hyder Ali of Mysore (and subsequently his son and heir, Tipu Sultan). Yet hopes of extending France's decisive Atlantic victories to the Indian Ocean arena were abruptly dashed with the arrival of news of peace in Europe. The American Revolution ended before the combined forces of Mysore and France could win a significant land victory against the British East India Company's troops.17
After the war's conclusion, this sense of an incomplete victory was compounded, in the eyes of many French officials and observers, by the apparent political and military weaknesses of their British rival. The American Revolution had destabilized the British ruling class at home, revealed systemic resistance to British rule in both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds, and left Britain saddled with an immense national debt. French observers like the comte d'Adhémar, the ambassador to Britain, viewed the parliamentary contestations that unfolded around these issues as signs of the increasing precariousness of British imperial power.18 Adhémar was especially fascinated by the ongoing political turmoil engulfing the British East India Company. The company's massive, private war debts furnished its Whig political opponents, such as Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke, with ample opportunities to attack its endemic corruption and argue for financial and political reform, raising constitutional questions about its legal, sovereign status within the British Empire. In denouncing renegade company officials like the former governor-general of Bengal, Warren Hastings, critics like Burke argued that it was morally, politically, and financially misguided to invest a mere “merchant” with the prerogatives that were properly a state's. Accordingly, opposing reform bills proposed by Fox (1783) and later William Pitt the Younger (1784) advocated for tighter government surveillance over the company's patronage networks and capital, earning the enduring ire of its directors, shareholders, and their parliamentary supporters.19 For Adhémar, this disunity among British political and financial elites about the status of their colonial project in India afforded critical opportunities for France to strike. These sentiments were echoed in the popular press by writers like Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville, whose 1784 Tableau de la situation actuelle des anglois dans les Indes orientales evoked a comparison between France's assistance of the American colonists and their Indian counterparts, who still awaited liberation from British tyranny. Similar to the dynamic observed in Mathieu Ferradou's contribution to this forum, French imperial visions were frequently forged in opposition to understandings of British imperial realities.
To achieve these geopolitical goals in the long run, French policy makers turned toward commercial institutions in the short run, advocating for the establishment of a “new” Compagnie des Indes to replace the one that had collapsed in the aftermath of the Seven Years' War. Despite the advent of laissez-faire thought that challenged practices of privilege and monopoly, a Compagnie des Indes continued to be understood as an “integral part of French grandeur and power.”20 It could also function as a potential tool of rearmament for the state and the navy as they “quietly prepar[ed]” for the next war.21 Not only could the company shuttle munitions eastward in its ships, but expanded trade with India could finance future military expenditures. Since 1769 all taxes levied on the Indies trade had been designated entirely to the profit of the navy, meaning that an expansion of trade between France and the Indian subcontinent would directly support the financial burdens of remilitarization.22 As one naval official noted, under such a public-private arrangement, commerce would serve as a useful “mask” for underlying military objectives.23
Other French officials presented potent alternatives to this bellicose vision of France's role in India—and of the Compagnie des Indes itself. The most significant of them was Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, Louis XVI's foreign minister between 1774 and 1787. Having played a key role in organizing the American revolutionary war effort, he sought to take advantage of the new peace to transform the Franco-British geopolitical world order. He wished to dismantle the “old prejudice[s]” that trapped the French and the British in a relentless cycle of war and debt—one whose dimensions for France were becoming increasingly apparent after the war.24 In the early 1780s Vergennes took an active hand in financial and commercial politics, in part due to influence of one of his key advisers, the physiocrat Pierre-Samuel Dupont de Nemours, who promoted an ostensible geopolitics of doux commerce within the French ministry. With Dupont's aid, Vergennes developed commercial policies that saw commerce not as a tool of war but as a diplomatic strategy for fostering better relations between France and rival European powers.25 When the ministry drew up a list of administrative goals for renegotiating the Franco-British relationship after the American Revolution, the two most important ones were the drafting of a new, far-reaching commercial treaty with Britain and the formation of a Compagnie des Indes.26 According to the Peace of Paris in 1783, this new bilateral commercial treaty—which would eventually be called the “Eden Treaty”—would reestablish Franco-British commercial relations “on the Basis of Reciprocity and mutual Convenience.”27
To further secure this tentative peace, Vergennes sought to foreclose potential avenues of conflict throughout the world, such as in India. Ensuring peaceful relations with Britain would forestall the need for the enormous costs of refortifying and defending France's Indian comptoirs and shoring up relations with putative Indian allies. Several years later, in response to the fiscal pressures of 1787–88, this mentality would ultimately lead to the so-called military evacuation of India, or the relocation of all French military garrisons from the comptoirs to the Mascarene Islands.28 If French trade could be protected through alternate means, such as through commercial agreements with the British and Indian sovereigns, there was no need to further support the intensive costs of transporting and provisioning French troops on the other side of the world. In the 1783 peace treaty, the British granted French merchants “a safe, free and independent Trade . . . whether they exercise it individually, or united in a Company” in all parts of India, including British-controlled Bengal—a guarantee of commercial freedom and protection from interference, from which, unlike other European competitors in India (such as the Dutch or the Danish), French merchants alone could peacefully profit.29
Accordingly, Vergennes (and Calonne, as his ally in the Finance Ministry) claimed the project of creating a Nouvelle Compagnie des Indes to shape it toward these pacific views—something that the private financial actors behind the new company also sought for their own commercial purposes. The French and British companies had a long tradition of attempted collaborations and détentes—often pursued in direct opposition to state aims—such as their abortive nonaggression pact of 1754, which aimed at putting an end to the costly Carnatic Wars.30 Building on these early visions of Franco-British collaboration, a Huguenot expatriate banker in London, James Bourdieu, developed a scheme in the 1770s to establish what has been described as a putative “international cartel.”31 The plan stipulated that the French monarchy establish a new Compagnie des Indes that would contractually purchase significant portions of its cargoes directly from the British East India Company. A onetime collaborator of the former director-general of finance, Jacques Necker, Bourdieu relentlessly cultivated financial and ministerial allies to this project—including Castries, who saw it as a potential engine of tax revenues for the navy. With the establishment of the Nouvelle Compagnie des Indes in April 1785, Vergennes and Calonne saw the project instead as a means of cultivating Franco-British commercial relations, in addition to shoring up the Nouvelle Compagnie's own bottom line. Accordingly, they authorized Bourdieu and one of the company's directors, Augustin Périer, to negotiate such an arrangement in London with the British Court of Directors.32
The initial proposals for this agreement on the French side envisioned an expansive partnership between the two companies. To meet French demand for Indian cottons, Périer stipulated that the French would purchase a minimum of three shipments of textile cargoes directly from the British company. In exchange, the French would gain the right to sell an equivalent amount of tea from China directly to Britain.33 French merchants had long taken advantage of Britain's high taxes on tea to sell large quantities of contraband to Britain and its colonists, and after American independence, French officials hoped to legalize these lucrative trade routes.34 Establishing a strong export trade with the new United States was one of the ways France could now “consolidate and expand” commerce with Asia.35 However, political and financial pressures on the British side forced a narrowing of the ambitions of the arrangement, such that the final contract was restricted to the purchase of Indian textiles in Bengal: as the “bridgehead” of British power, Bengal was a notoriously perilous market for other European traders.36 The final agreement committed the French to purchasing forty lakhs of rupees (or 4 million rupees; 1 lakh = 100,000 rupees) per year in goods from the British company in Calcutta.37 The British further demanded inclusion of a noncompetition clause by which the French company would renounce all operations in Bengal for the duration of the agreement.38
The British East India Company recognized that this arrangement served its basic financial interests, but some of its directors and shareholders felt that it uncomfortably refracted their own internal political struggles. The members of the British Court of Directors who supported the treaty with the French company saw it as a way of earning needed revenues on their own side, to pay down the debts incurred by a state of near-constant war in India. It also represented a potential boon for the ongoing reform of the East India Company. In 1784 William Pitt the Younger's ministry enacted an India Act, restructuring the British company and placing it under the supervision of a ministerial Board of Control that had the power to influence the company's governance and patronage. The act aimed in no small part at curbing illicit practices by rogue company agents, such as their use of French financial channels to “remit” illicit profits from India to Europe.39 As the planned agreement with the Compagnie des Indes would effectively legalize and formalize trade between agents of the two companies, it stood to cut off the source of these funds.40 For this reason, Pitt adamantly supported strengthening commercial bonds between the two companies.41 This firm ministerial endorsement led the British company's own recalcitrant directors and officers—including Warren Hastings—to see the treaty as a further attempt by the cabinet to intervene in company business.42 Yet, rail as they might against this “humiliation” at the hands of the French, the British company could hardly afford to pass up such a lucrative contract. The Court of Directors approved the agreement with the Nouvelle Compagnie in late November 1785.43
When the French negotiators returned to Versailles with the treaty, it met with criticisms that often recalled those used by Hastings and his allies. Although they had once advocated for it, the French ministers now saw the treaty as an attempt by the British to reduce the French company to a docile customer. As Dupont de Nemours observed, the costs and risks associated with such a long-distance trade with unreliable partners would ensure that losses would be passed on to French consumers, compounding the negative economic effects of the company's monopoly.44 Moreover, the proposed noncompetition clause for Bengal contravened the commercial rights the British had guaranteed to France in the 1783 peace treaty, thereby debasing the “glorious peace” that France had won.45 If their principal aim was to reestablish the Franco-British relationship on equitable terms, any agreement that retroactively renegotiated the peace in the name of short-term financial gain was “not only useless, but embarrassing.”46 Despite the best efforts of James Bourdieu and the directors of the Nouvelle Compagnie des Indes, they were ordered by Louis XVI's ministers to refuse the British company's terms.47
The collapse of this agreement reveals the mismatched expectations of state and private actors as to the dimensions of the Franco-British relationship and the purpose of the French company itself. From the state perspective, Vergennes rejected the agreement not due to any underlying hostility to the British East India Company but because the agreement treated the two corporate entities inequitably, with the interests of the French placed secondary to those of the British. On the French side, both commercial and state actors demanded far more expansive visions of commercial partnership than the British would accept. This discrepancy reflected the realities of British power in the Indian Ocean: the French needed equal commercial partnership, but the British East India Company sought a client. As for the Nouvelle Compagnie itself, the king's ministers saw it as a political tool in the service of their own militaristic or diplomatic aims regarding Britain. Private financial actors, by contrast, saw the French company as a profit-driven trading enterprise—one with the right to navigate its own commercial relationships with foreign entities without the direct approval of the French state. From the payment of military expenses in Pondicherry to battles over the distribution of dividends to Parisian shareholders, this pattern of political meddling in what the company's directors and employees regarded as private financial matters created a lasting sense of animosity between company and crown.48
The Compagnie des Indes and the French Revolution
This sense of their own private interests led the directors and shareholders of the Compagnie des Indes, like many other corporatist Old Regime institutions, to initially welcome 1789 as a moment in which they could reassert their own rights and prerogatives at the expense of the central state.49 The company's directors solicited comments from their own agents and employees to prepare a cahier de doléances of their own, although the cahier was ultimately never drafted.50 But the nascent National Assembly set its sights on the company's monopoly in early 1790, as longtime merchant resentment against its privileges boiled over. For merchant deputies in the National Assembly, such as those of Bordeaux and Nantes, the monopoly of the Compagnie des Indes was exemplary of the “illegitimate” privileges being dismantled by the assembly: a privilege destructive of “the natural right of commerce” that could be revoked without indemnity.51 Yet, as Rebecca L. Spang has argued, “the Old Regime did not literally crumble. Instead, it had to be taken apart and unpicked stitch by stitch.”52 Like financial and commercial privileges at home that presented discrete challenges of social order, the dismantling of institutions like the Compagnie des Indes entailed grappling with not only questions of economic utility but also geopolitical questions of diplomacy and empire.
As it had been in the 1780s, the question of the company's fate was entangled with political anxieties about the balance of power, potential for future military operations, and perceptions of national decline. In arguing over the validity of the company's monopoly, deputies frequently made claims not unlike those of Louis Monneron, the National Assembly's deputy for the East Indies, who believed the assembly had the duty to fully reestablish the military garrisons of Pondicherry, shamefully “evacuated” by the monarchy for cost reasons. For Monneron and his interlocutors, France had a special destiny to “play a large role” on the subcontinent, a role that could “carry the glory of the National Assembly to the far reaches of Asia.”53 Revolutionaries understood that their actions would recast French influence throughout the world. In the Indian Ocean arena, even if their aims were financially unfeasible, deputies insisted on the transnational dimension of their duty to undo the acknowledged damage and humiliations of the Old Regime.
In the National Assembly's April 1790 debate on the company's monopoly, deputies both for and against its abolition saw the question as centered around the company's role in checking British power in India. On the right, defenders of the company's privilege, like Jean-Barthélemy Le Couteulx de Canteleu and Jean-Jacques Duval d'Eprémesnil, reminded the assembly that the British East India Company—and the great counterrevolutionary bogeyman himself, Pitt—could only profit from the legal destruction of their French rival.54 Pierre-Victor Malouet and the abbé Bérardier accordingly insisted that the company served an essential diplomatic role in maintaining relations between France and essential Indian allies against the British, like Tipu Sultan of Mysore.55 On the other side, deputies opposed to the company's monopoly denounced its inefficacy in checking British power in Asia. It had failed to use its commercial largesse to adequately assist the state with supporting the costs of military garrisons, and as François-Pascal Delattre of Abbeville argued, its attempts to build a cartel with the British East India Company showed that it had “dishonored the flag . . . [and] prostituted itself to the English.”56 Some of the strongest antiprivilege voices in the assembly made use of these nationalistic arguments. During the debate an altercation between the pro-company, archconservative abbé Maury and Dupont de Nemours, ended with the latter proudly announcing that his own preferred policy for the Indies trade would have brought a large number of French warships to the Indian Ocean, something that could have “put Bengal under French domination.”57 In projecting revolutionary nationalism outward into colonial and non-European spaces, the assembly's debates demonstrate how imperial commitments and ideologies converged across revolutionary political binaries of Left and Right, often giving prominent voice to an unexpected cast of deputies and officials (as Manuel Covo's contribution to this forum also shows).
Yet the National Assembly's abolition of the company's monopoly in spring 1790 paradoxically also enabled its corporators to establish their own vision of the Franco-British relationship in the revolutionary era.58 The loss of the monopoly transformed the Compagnie des Indes as an institution, as shareholders, bankers, and merchants began to ask whether that institution—whose underlying assets were left intact by the assembly—was capable of adapting to the new, revolutionary climate. Although protected and legitimized by the Old Regime, the company's relationship with the monarchy had at times, in the view of these financial actors, been far from ideal, as ministers meddled in matters of internal company governance and forced seemingly inequitable financial arrangements on them. Accordingly, certain shareholders and directors recognized the potential to use the sweeping transformations of the Revolution to recast the company as a totally private institution, governed by its proprietors.
The Revolution offered financial actors the ability to reject the company's former status as hybrid, public-private partnership in favor of a vision of the company as a fully private financial actor, independent of political and diplomatic mandates. Their ideas leaned on a firm belief in what Kenneth Margerison has termed “shareholder-citizenship,” which came to have strong ideological resonance in the revolutionary climate.59 The directors and shareholders who supported the continuation of the company's trade drew explicitly on the revolutionary idea that, just as sovereignty resided in the nation, sovereignty over the company and its assets resided in the shareholders: their charter and monopoly, granted by the king, only ever functioned as a stand-in for their own executive authority.60 As one shareholder, Barthélemy Huber, privately explained, the company had long endured a “despotic system” of ministerial governance, but a reformed version of the institution could “sever the root of these evils.”61 The Revolution gave the company, as it gave the nation, the chance to regenerate itself. Addressing the shareholder assembly, one of the directors, Abel-François Caroillon de Vandeul, said that “it was only after the new order of things which reestablished every citizen in his natural and political rights, that you were offered to [reclaim] your own.”62 Revolutionary rhetoric proved a potent “cognitive model” for developing claims of shareholder governance—to say nothing of an opportunistic device for demanding the settling of a host of petty financial grievances the shareholders had borne against the absolute state.63
Chief among these proposed reforms was the revisiting of the company's abortive treaty with its British counterpart. Now that the French government itself seemed unable to stop them for reasons of state, the directors openly renewed their overtures to the British Court of Directors through their erstwhile partner, James Bourdieu.64 Bourdieu and his collaborators within the Compagnie des Indes saw the revolutionary moment as one of undeniable commercial opportunity in India. Writing to Huber, Bourdieu stated that “there was never a time so propitious to a French Company to trade to India, as the present.”65 The British East India Company now faced a geopolitical situation that seemingly rendered it amenable to a partnership with the French that might furnish needed sources of revenue at home: the first years of the Revolution also marked the beginning of the Third Anglo-Mysore war between the British company and Tipu Sultan. As a result, the early 1790s were a moment when the British were particularly in need of the funds that a French contract might supply and, moreover, particularly ill conditioned to resist French inroads into their trade on the subcontinent. As Bourdieu told Huber, “Paris is the place to make money, & England is the country to enjoy it.”66 From a strictly financial perspective in 1790, a Compagnie des Indes free of government oversight and exempt from sovereign expenses in India must have seemed a lucrative investment in contrast with its British counterpart, now tightly regulated by Pitt's India Act and, far worse for its investors, its bottom line drained by costly wars.67 From the perspective of these private financial actors, the French Revolution not only fostered financial optimism but also created new opportunities for cross-Channel commercial collaborations.
These high-minded aspirations to transnational commercial partnership ultimately did not come to fruition. Despite these insistent French overtures, the British Court of Directors was hesitant to agree to such an arrangement, unsure as they were of the legal status of this Compagnie des Indes that claimed to be “independent of government.”68 This misunderstanding on the British side is a further testament to the uniqueness of the French Revolution as a moment of commercial and institutional experimentation: private, “unincorporated companies” of this nature were rare and of dubious legality in eighteenth-century Britain.69 Yet the company's ongoing connections to Britain helped embroil it in revolutionary turmoil and scandal. One of the principal architects of this abortive Franco-British rapprochement, Barthélemy Huber, took advantage of one of his many trips to London to negotiate with the British Court of Directors to emigrate permanently in late 1792.70 Many foreign investors numbered among the company's “shareholder-citizens,” including the notorious Walter Boyd and Jean-Baptiste Vandenyver, whose own mysterious financial dealings prompted repeated inquiries by the revolutionary government.71
The company's revolutionary path came to a spectacular end with the so-called affaire de la Compagnie des Indes in 1793. In July a small cabal of Jacobin deputies in the National Convention, led by Joseph Delaunay d'Angers, denounced the Compagnie des Indes for its involvement in a tax evasion scheme since late 1792. The deputies responsible for securing the restitution of these funds instead accepted bribes from the company's directors to illicitly edit their decree in the shareholders' favor. The incident was, in many respects, routine influence trafficking of a kind that had long been formally institutionalized under the Old Regime and that, in the parliamentary politics of early modern Britain, was certainly the modus operandi of the British East India Company.72 This very point was not lost on those who subsequently prosecuted the recipients of these bribes. At their trial, the accusateur public, Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, pointed out that some of the accused had never understood why French legislators should “refuse to make a fortune . . . in producing a good decree; in England they boast about it in open Parliament,” and he suggested that the Compagnie des Indes had even gone so far as to pay its corrupt agents in pounds sterling rather than in assignats.73 Such an institution and its financial minions were, in the final revolutionary analysis, more British than French.
As a result of the tax evasion scandal and the affaire, the National Convention ordered the shuttering of the Nouvelle Compagnie des Indes. The liquidation of its business, however, was an arduous financial ordeal that could not be resolved with any purportedly definitive decree by the Convention.74 The ensuing decades of naval war with Britain made it impossible for the company to collect on outstanding insurance policies underwritten in London, or for its foreign shareholders, like Walter Boyd, to claim assets that had been sequestered by the revolutionary government. Some of these claims were settled in the aftermath of the Congress of Vienna, but others remained unresolved at the time of the company's ultimate disbandment in 1875.75 The company's liquidation-without-end encouraged relentless claims making on the state by former shareholders, directors, and their descendants: for financial and imperial actors, the experience of the French Revolution frequently only ingrained an Old Regime rentier mentality.76 The Revolution dismantled the corporate financial institutions of the Old Regime, but practices, attitudes, and even key actors often stayed the same.
From an imperial perspective, the Nouvelle Compagnie des Indes emerged from competing visions of French power and left them in its wake. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the myth of “lost India” both helped shape competitive ideologies of imperial resurgence and became a site of memorialization for a bygone colonial era.77 Yet amid these competitive dynamics of empire—and in spite of the decades of war that followed its collapse—the efforts toward Franco-British rapprochement that had long characterized company policy turned out to portend later developments. With the abolition of the British East India Company's monopoly in 1813, Britain opened India's trade to all other European nations, abandoning the long-held “principles of colonial exclusion” that helped sink the abortive company treaty in 1785–86.78 Accordingly, in 1824 the liberal economist Jean-Baptiste Say penned an extraordinary essay calling for the rejection of lingering French colonial ambitions in India, where “[Great Britain] has become the protector of property . . . justice is equitably rendered . . . the most perfect religious tolerance exists in British India . . . [where] peace reigns.”79 This passage is remarkable not for its delusional view of the social and cultural beneficence of British rule in India but for its implication for French colonial policy: its advocacy of an acceptance of British rule on the subcontinent, in exchange for the protection of French trade. His writings echoed precisely the vision of partnership entertained by both state and private, commercial actors in establishing the Nouvelle Compagnie des Indes and in plotting its unsuccessful consortium with its British counterpart. That same vision reappeared forcefully later in the nineteenth century, as a kind of Franco-British “condominium” emerged, coalescing around shared commercial projects of empire rather than only schemes of military conquest and settler colonialism.80 The nineteenth-century age of empire was not only a story of competitive European nationalisms but also one of transnational collaboration in the perpetuation of imperial rule. Finding the antecedents of such a system in the age of the French Revolution shows that there is still much to reveal about that period's role in the creation of modern world orders.
The author thanks the editors and the anonymous reviewers for French Historical Studies for their constructive feedback on the various drafts of this article. Special thanks go to Manuel Covo and Megan Maruschke, the organizers of this forum, for their generous invitation to participate and for their thorough and immensely helpful guidance and feedback at every stage of the process. The research for the larger project underlying this article was generously supported by Mellon fellowships from the Social Science Research Council and the Council on Library and Information Resources, as well as funding from Georgetown University, Harvard University, the Newberry Library, the Hagley Museum and Library, and the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.
Meyer and Bromley, “La seconde guerre de Cent Ans”; Black, Natural and Necessary Enemies; Crouzet, La guerre économique franco-anglaise. For Anglophobia in eighteenth-century French nationalism, see Bell, Cult of the Nation. For recent challenges to these approaches, see Morieux, Une mer pour deux royaumes; Reinert, Translating Empire, 137; Shovlin, “War and Peace”; and Todd, Free Trade and Its Enemies, 14, 17.
For Dupleix, see Jouveau-Dubreuil, Dupleix; and Mole, “L’économie politique de Joseph Dupleix.” Voltaire himself quipped that all of the British general (and later first governor of Bengal) Robert Clive's victories—and Britain's later supremacy in India—owed to his pilfering of Dupleix's strategies and practices (Précis du siècle de Louis XV, 2:141). This claim parallels Voltaire's arguments elsewhere about the development of English political thought; see Edelstein and Kassabova, “How England Fell off the Map,” 51.
The Compagnie des Indes existed in three, largely discrete incarnations: the Colbert Company (1664–1719), the Law Company (1719–69), and the Calonne Company, or Nouvelle Compagnie des Indes (1785–93). For accounts of the establishment and collapse of the Colbert and Law companies, see Dessert and Journet, “Le Lobby Colbert”; Ames, Colbert; Ménard-Jacob, La première Compagnie des Indes; Haudrère, La Compagnie française des Indes; and Manning, Fortunes à Faire.
Agmon, Colonial Affair, 5.
For recent examinations of India's place in the making of French economic thought, see Gottmann, Global Trade; and Smith, “Myths of South Asian Stasis.”
For Anglo-Dutch perspectives, see Stern, Company-State; Pettigrew, Freedom's Debt; Weststeijn, “VOC as Company-State”; Mishra, Business of State; and the essays on “corporate constitutionalism” in Pettigrew et al., “Dossier.”
For the study of transnational actors in general and the Compagnie des Indes specifically, see Dietze and Naumann, “Revisiting Transnational Actors,” 419–21; and Agmon, Colonial Affair, respectively. For other new scholarship examining French trading companies from these political and cultural dimensions, see Dewar, “‘Y Establir Nostre Auctorité’”; Gottmann, “French-Asian Connections”; Ghachem, “‘No Body to Be Kicked?”; and Roulet, La Compagnie des îles de l'Amérique.
Mirabeau, Dénonciation de l'agiotage, 43: “son inconceivable rétablissement.” This phrasing is echoed in Marion, Histoire financière, 1:385. More recent and nuanced formulations of this argument appear in Horn, Economic Development in Early Modern France, 126; and Terjanian, Commerce and Its Discontents, 152.
For a genealogy of the idea of “court capitalism,” see Kwass, “Capitalism,” 627–28. For the lack of private merchant investment in the early compagnies des Indes, see Dermigny, “East India Company et Compagnie des Indes,” 459; and Dessert, Argent, pouvoir et société, 389–90, 399–400. For the idea of the Nouvelle Compagnie des Indes as a quid pro quo, see Horn, Economic Development in Early Modern France, 127.
The most significant of these studies is Mathiez, Un procès de corruption, written in response to Aulard, Les comptes de Danton. See also Houben, Finance et politique; Lestapis, La “Conspiration de Batz”; and Eude, “Une interprétation ‘non-mathiézienne.’”
Marsh, Fictions of 1947, 20, 61, 66, 215.
Raynal et al., Histoire philosophique, vol. 1, bk. 4, chap. 33, 544. All translations are mine unless otherwise noted.
Strugnell, “View from Afar,” 22.
Archives Nationales d'Outre Mer (henceforth ANOM), C2 110, “Mémoire sur le Commerce de la France en Asie,” ca. 1783 (fol. 204). For ecological and agricultural projects in the Mascarenes during this period, see Grove, Green Imperialism, chap. 5; and Vaughan, Creating the Creole Island, 65–75.
The politics of French alliance making in India in this period have been examined in Margerison, “French Visions of Empire”; and Margerison, “Rogue Diplomacy.”
Tarrade, “Le Maréchal de Castries.”
For Suffren's expedition and Castries's involvement, see Haudrère, “La Révolution de l'Inde,” 159–68. For the expedition's untimely end, see Tarrade, Le commerce colonial, 2:495–96.
See Archives des Affaires Etrangères (henceforth AAE), Correspondance politique Angleterre, 548–49, 552, 556.
For the Fox/Pitt India Bill debates and the trial of Hastings, see the varying accounts in Sutherland, East India Company, chap. 13; Marshall, Making and Unmaking of Empires, 207–28, 366–70; Dirks, Scandal of Empire; and Travers, Ideology and Empire, 210–23.
Margerison, “Shareholders' Revolt,” 50. For contemporary examples of this language, see ANOM, C2 110, untitled mémoire by D'Esmondant, July 17, 1781 (fol. 182); ANOM, F2C 12, “Mémoire sur le Commerce des Indes,” anon., 1784 copy; ANOM, C2 108, “Memoire sur le Commerce de l'Inde,” anon., Nov. 1772 (fol. 195); New York Public Library (KVR 5065), Lettre d'un Indien à un auteur partisan du commerce de l'Inde, par l'entremise d'une compagnie exclusive (n.d.).
ANOM, C2 164, “Projet de lettre pour M. le Mis de Bussi,” Oct. 25, 1783.
ANOM, C2 110, “Précis sur l’état actuel des établissemens de la France aux Grandes Indes . . . ” (fol. 162v); C2 109, untitled (fol. 177v).
ANOM, C2 113, “Mémoire sur l'Inde,” by Conway, Feb. 1784 (fol. 17v).
AAE, Correspondance politique Angleterre, 540, Vergennes to Rayneval, Feb. 1, 1783 (fol. 319v).
Price, Preserving the Monarchy, chap. 3. For Dupont's influence on Vergennes and the politics of doux commerce, see Murphy, Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, 403, 437; Cheney, “False Dawn,” 472; and Vardi, Physiocrats, 189–90.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Joly de Fleury 1442, untitled (fol. 18); “Objets importants . . . ” (fol. 35v). Joly de Fleury consulted with Isaac Panchaud, banker and former shareholder of the Law Company; see AAE, Mémoires et documents Asie, 7, “Réfléxions générales sur les possessions et le commerce . . . ,” by Panchaud, Feb. 8, 1783 (fol. 417); Joly de Fleury to Vergennes, Feb. 12, 1783 (fols. 424–28).
The stipulation was contained in Article 18 of Definitive Treaty of Peace and Friendship, 15. See Tarrade, Le commerce colonial, 2:695; Whatmore, Against War and Empire, 186–89, 200–204; and Walton, “Fall from Eden,” 45–46.
For restraining naval expenditure, including in India, see Hardman, Louis XVI, 129. For the evacuation of Pondicherry, see Rapport, “‘Complaints Lost in the Wind.’”
Definitive Treaty of Peace and Friendship, 13.
As argued in Shovlin, “Securing Asian Trade”; and Shovlin, “Commerce, Not Conquest.”
Nussbaum, “Formation of the New East India Company,” 490.
Cleveland Public Library, East India Company Manuscript Collection (091.92 Ea77p85), Bourdieu Chollet to Court of Directors, Aug. 13, 1784; “Extract of a Memorial presented to M. de Calonne, the Controller General of France . . . ”; Calonne to Bourdieu Chollet, Apr. 26, 1784. Vergennes's awareness of the negotiations between Calonne and Bourdieu is discussed in Archives Nationales (henceforth AN), T 38 (Papiers Huber) 1–2, “Exposé des services . . . ” (pc 548).
The National Archives at Kew (henceforth TNA), PRO 30/8/360, “Observations sur les conditions proposes . . . ” (fol. 161), “Bases des arrangements de commerce . . . ” (fols. 163v, 165).
Eacott, Selling Empire, 227–28.
ANOM, C2 110, “Précis sur l’état actuel des établissemens de la France aux grandes Indes . . . ,” Georges Gougenot, 1780 (fol. 135).
Marshall, Bengal. The persistence of British attacks on French, Dutch, and Danish trade in Bengal was often cited as a principal cause of the 1760s bankruptcy of the old Compagnie des Indes, as is argued in ANOM, C2 108, Bruny to Boynes, Dec. 11, 1771 (fol. 32v); and “Reponse à une memoire sur l'Inde faite à Fontainebleau,” Oct. 30, 1772 (fol. 154). The provisions on the tea trade were scrapped due to Pitt's 1784 Commutation Act, described in Crouzet, La guerre économique franco-anglaise, 60–64.
Equal to 9,600,000 livres tournois or £400,000, as per the conversions in Furber, John Company at Work, 349.
English and French copies of the final treaty are in AAE, Mémoires et documents Asie, 5, “Heads of Articles as the basis of a treaty and agreement between the English and French East India Companys [sic]” (fols. 190–201v); “Projet d'articles qui peuvent servir de baze au Traité et Convention à faire entre les Compies anglaise et française des Indes-Orientales . . . ” (fols. 202–15).
Sutherland, East India Company, 409; Philips, East India Company, 34; Bowen, Business of Empire, 75–76. For “remittance,” see Furber, John Company at Work, 30. TNA, FO 27/17, Carmarthen to Hailes, Aug. 5, 1785 (fols. 116–116v), Hailes to Carmarthen, Aug. 18, 1785 (fols. 132–33v), indicate an awareness that Bourdieu's firm was still largely in charge of this shadow network, as shown in Bourdieu's negotiations throughout 1784: Cleveland Public Library, East India Company Manuscript Collection (091.92 Ea77p85), Bourdieu Chollet to Devaynes, June 4, 1784; minutes of Secret Court of Directors, Aug. 18, 1784.
TNA, PRO 30/8/361, “Mr. Baring's Thoughts on the French Proposal,” undated (fols. 38–40v).
British Library (hereafter BL), India Office Records (hereafter IOR) I/1/17, “To the Court of Directors . . . ,” Nov. 4, 1785 (fol. 84); “At a Secret Court of Directors the 15th August 1785/the 17th August 1785.”
Sutherland, East India Company, chap. 13; Furber, “East India Directors in 1784,” 480; BL, IOR I/1/17, “Extract of a Letter from Warren Hastings Esq. to Laurence Sulivan Esq. . . . ” (fols. 130–37).
BL, IOR I/1/17, “No. 96: At a Secret Court of Directors held on Wednesday the 30th November 1785” (fols. 102–3).
AAE, Mémoires et documents Asie, 5, Dupont to Vergennes, Dec. 29, 1784 (fol. 121).
AAE, Mémoires et documents Asie, 5, “Observations des administrateurs [et] remarques [de M. de Rayneval],” 1785 (fol. 152); “Mémoire” by Rayneval, Jan. 1786 (fol. 173); AAE, Correspondance politique Angleterre, 552, Adhémar to Vergennes, Feb. 26, 1785 (fols. 260v, 256–256v), Mar. 22, 1785 (fol. 383v).
AAE, Mémoires et documents Asie, 5, “Observations des administrateurs [et] remarques [de M. de Rayneval],” 1785 (fols. 152–69v).
ANOM, 8AQ 328, Calonne to Paris administration, Mar. 18, 1786. See also TNA, PRO PC/1/123, dossier 82, “Rapport fait au Conseil d’état par M. de Calonne, le 21 septembre 1786.”
Examples of such discontent with official interference appear in ANOM, 8AQ 15, Paris administration to Moracin, Oct. 31, 1787; 8AQ 328, Lambert to Paris administration, Mar. 25, 1788; C2 114, Paris administration to Lambert, Mar. 26, 1788 (fols. 166–167v).
Kaplan, La fin des corporations, xv, 363, 387, 415.
For their planned list of grievances, see ANOM, 8AQ 228, Paris administration to Boyer and Moracin, July 11, 1789.
For the idea of “illegitimate” privilege, see Spang, Stuff and Money, 84. For merchant-led attacks on the company's privilege, see Archives parlementaires, 12:529 (Guinebaud de Saint-Mesme, Nantes), also 519 (Nairac, Bordeaux), 524 (Bégouen, Caux).
Spang, Stuff and Money, 17.
Monneron, Mémoire lu à l'Assemblée Nationale, 5; Archives Départementales de la Gironde, C 4366, A nosseigneurs de l'Assemblée Nationale (pc 83); Archives Départementales de Loire-Atlantique, C 608, Chambre de Commerce de Nantes to Mosneron/Beylié, Nov. 13, 1790 (fol. 176v).
Archives parlementaires, 12:526–27 (Duval d'Eprémesnil), 530 (Le Couteulx de Canteleu).
Archives parlementaires, 12:519 (Bérardier), 529 (Malouet).
Archives parlementaires, 12:534–35 (Delattre).
Archives parlementaires, 12:516.
For the abolition of the monopoly, see Archives parlementaires, 12:535.
This practice began in the 1760s, amid the financial chaos unleashed in the “second” Compagnie des Indes by the Seven Years' War, see Margerison, “Shareholders' Revolt,” 26.
The influence of revolutionary understandings of sovereignty is made explicit in ANOM, 8AQ 11, deliberations of Apr. 12, Aug. 27, and Oct. 25, 1790.
AN, T 38 (1–2), “Idées sur la re-composition de la Cie. des Indes.”
ANOM, 8AQ 11, deliberations of Apr. 12, 1790, fol. 23.
Freeman, Pearson, and Taylor, Shareholder Democracies, 102.
AN, T 38 (1–2), undated letter [summer 1790] from Bourdieu to Huber.
AN, T 38 (1–2), undated letter from Bourdieu to Huber (pcs. 432–33).
AN, T 38, letter from James Bourdieu to Huber, Dec. 31, 1790 (pcs 30–32).
Philips, East India Company, 3, 34.
Eden, Journal and Correspondence, 2:451.
Freeman, Pearson, and Taylor, Shareholder Democracies, chap. 3.
For his emigration, see Huber's dossier in AN, F7 5636.
For Boyd and his enduring role in xenophobic revolutionary discourse, see Mathiez, “Le banquier Boyd et ses amis.” Jean-Paul Marat and the agent of the Comité de Sûreté Générale, François Héron, targeted Vandenyver in Complot d'une Banqueroute générale de la France as part of a broad effort by foreign financiers to manipulate currency in France during the Old Regime. This denunciation—as well as Vandenyver's role as financial agent for Madame du Barry—led to his arrest and execution. See his police file in AN, F7 477539; and Rapport, Nationality and Citizenship, 184–85, 247.
Cross, “L'anatomie d'un scandale.” For the British East India Company and the many attempts to reform its parliamentary influence, see Travers, Ideology and Empire, chap. 6; Marshall, Making and Unmaking of Empires, chap. 7; and, more controversially, Dirks, Scandal of Empire.
AN, W 342 (3), “Acte d'accusation” (dossier 61). The purported payment in British pounds is described in AN, W 173, “Delaunay d'Angers” and “Notes tirées du rapport d'Amar.”
The company's liquidation was the subject of two decrees by the Convention: the first, fraudulently amended, Collection générale des décrets rendus, 42:154–55 (17 vendémiaire an II), and the second, 53:125–27 (17 fructidor an II).
Conan, La dernière Compagnie française, 143–85. For the British claims adjudicated after the Congress of Vienna, see AAE, Mémoires et documents Angleterre, 147, Dossier “Compagnie des Indes” (fols. 103–70), Dossier “Compagnie des Indes: Actionnaires” (fols. 171–93v); Mémoires et documents Asie 5 (fols. 351–92).
Examples of these claims are found in ANOM, 8AQ 375, “Une classe de citoyens victims malheureuses . . . ”; 8AQ 376, “Reclamation de sept ou huit cent familles.” This echoes arguments about postrevolutionary financial behavior in Lewis, “Legacies of French Slave-Ownership”; and Cheney, Cul de Sac, 215.
Agmon, “Failure on Display,” 882; Marsh, Fictions of 1947; Marsh and Frith, France's Lost Empires.
Eacott, Selling Empire, 348; Webster, Twilight of the East India Company.
Say, Essai historique, 2, 16.
Todd, “French Imperial Meridian,” 161–63, 173.