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India in the French Imagination Review


India in the 18th century was a site of colonial rivalries between France and Britain, a battle which the British ultimately won and capitalized on to conquer all of India. But although the British overcame the French, India continued to have a resonance in French colonial ideology and ideas which continued on despite the end of much of French influence. Kate Marsh's India in the French Imagination: Peripheral Voices, 1754-1815 examines these aspects and the relationship between the ideas that emerged in the 18th century and later French ideas of India as well as the colonial mission in general.

French themes on India had a many elements. One of the most intriguing ones is the debate over India's religion, which was overwhelmingly associated with Hinduism. This is not as obvious as it might seem at first, since many of India's rulers were Muslim, most particularly Hyder Ali and the Tipu Sultan, leaders of Mysore, France's most important allied state in the sub-continent. But French writings focused on the morals and customs of the Hindu majority of India, with a great interest in India's sexuality and what the French viewed as odd customs. The Bayadères, or temple dancers/courtesans, were one of the most fascinating topics for the French (unsurprisingly finding their sexual availability and alure alluring), as was on a more negative note the custom of sati or widow burning, which largely although not universally received condemnation from the French and which inspired a variety of novels and fantasies about liberating Indian women from the odious custom and self-congratulatory expectations of how generous and benevolent the French would be in doing this.

Social elements were married to this, with some of the most intriguing pieces being Madame de Benouville's Les Pensées errantes, which argued against the idea of morals being dictated by climate and argued for universalist ethics. Indian women were sometimes praised as being far better paragons of virtue than their French counterparts, which links also to the relationship between the British and French - being used as a way to explain that English women were kept in better control. At times this is showed through its discussion of the Mysorean Embassy to Paris in 1788, in of itself a very interesting site for the French to observe Mysorean customs, and little talked about elsewhere.

Of course, throughout this the relationship to Britain was pivotal. One of the key themes that the book deals with is how the French constructed a belief of India being "lost," (despite the relatively unstable and incomplete French influence), and a spiritual recompense of showing that Britain's methods of conquest were based on the French models of Dupleix. But there was also the focus on English greed and brutality in India and a conviction that the French would have been better colonizers.

There are some elements which could have received additional material, such as the beginning of scientific exploration of Indian culture, which is covered in other works such as Claiming India: French Scholars and the Preoccupation with India during the Nineteenth Century by Jyoti Mohan which covers some of the beginning of French scholars and their focus on Indian languages. This admittedly came at the end of the period, but India in the French Imagination privileges the subjects of contemporary Indian culture during the period such as sati, or widow burning, political rivalries with the English, and the beginning of French liberal (mission civilisatrice) colonial ideology, and history, but mostly neglects the scholarly pursuits. This could have been interesting to expand connections to later French thought on India which emphasized French scholarly examination of India. Furthermore, photos could have helped to illustrate it, such as later stamps which displayed some of the French ideas of India.


Thanks to its huge amount of sources and its wide ranging subjects, India in the French Imagination succeeds in providing a great look at the evolving nature of French colonial ideas and particularly the links to later periods. The idea of uplifting and "civilizing" foreign peoples, the ideology of the French Second Colonial Empire, is shown to have come of age in India, with the focus on French morality compared to British rapacity and greed, and the constant French belief that they were beloved compared to other European powers, and that to have the Indians rise up and join them against the British, all it would take would be a powerful French army and fleet in the region. It gives a great quantity of primary sources of French writers and thinkers on India, and cunningly links them to historical and political trends at the time. A great historical book that helps to examine missing gaps in French colonial ideological history.

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