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The French East India Company and the Trade of the Indian Ocean Review


Books that are collections of essays are terribly difficult to judge, since they inherently vary dramatically in quality and interest from article to article. Thus it is with The French East India Company and the Trade of the Indian Ocean, which has subjects varying from Indian merchants and their relation to the French East India Company, to French traveler accounts in India, to translations of reports of French merchants about Indian traders and the textiles market. Although these were edited and compiled by Lakshimi Subramanian, they were actually written by Indrani Ray, who died before finishing the book.

There are some interesting pieces in the work, but some simply are best off being skipped, such as the translation of George Rocques' report, a long and rambling account of India which can be boiled down to "Indian traders were perceived as untrustworthy." It is very scattered and lacking in cohesion, with the only uniting theme being a general focus on trade. It's a shame that Indrani Ray didn't live to compile these essays herself and to make them into a more united book.

This being said, while unfortunately this makes it more a collection of interesting tidbits about Indian trade and commerce rather than a united and coherent piece, it does show well that Indian merchants and trade continued to be important and in many respects flourishing throughout the 18th century. The best part of the book in this regard comes at the end, which focuses on Indian merchants and their trade in the Western Indian Ocean, particularly at Surat and Basra. It analyzes the nature of trade from Surat, to which directions (be it to the Western Indian Ocean, its mainstay, or with Bengal, or Eastern Asia), as well as to a lesser extent Bengal and Coromandel, providing a useful general look at the structure and nature of the commerce. It also helps to discuss just how independent Indian traders were and their relationship to other groups in Indian society were, such as with Indian weavers, to provide a structural understanding of the Indian political-economic structures.

It also often returns to Dupleix, discussing his relation with merchants, and particularly helping to shed light on his personality and his focuses - such as his interest in, like many others, getting rich through private trade. His role in Bengal is placed into context, such as the state of French establishments there before his meteoric rise, and through him one gets a sense of the priorities of the French leadership merchant community.

Nevertheless it's a shame that due to the way that the book is structured and the lack of an ability to neatly weave the articles together, it seems scattered, often unfocused, and lacking in cohesion. It's a decent book to read to add on to an already present knowledge of the region, but feels like random jabs in the darkness, lacking the structure to make a good general history or the precision to carefully deal with a single subject.

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