Pondicherry under the French, Illuminating the Urban Landscape, 1674-1793

Rachna Mehra

The transition from a feudal to a capitalist mode of production coincided with the rise of maritime trade and overland commerce leading to urbanization of many small towns and growth of enterprising cities. This book gives an encyclopaedic account of Puthucherry (now known as Puducherry) encompassing a vast span of more than a century with a wide array of themes woven together in 28 chapters. This compendium is reminiscent of the genre produced under Annales School of historiography as it collates enormous data giving insight into the urban development of the specified region. The myriad issues hence unearthed range from circulation of goods to textile trade, export of slaves, import of consumables, flow of precious metals, rise of money market and formation of joint stock companies. It also maps trading networks, explains revenue administration, looks at city planning, development in art and architecture, circulation of knowledge through science and technology, peruses the study of space and earth sciences, brings out the development in health, hygiene and medicine, outlines social and cultural life, examines crime and punishment, specifies contribution of missionaries, untangles conversion and religious customs, recounts migration, working class practices and interactions between European and regional communities.

The Ancient Settlement

The origins of the town can be traced back to Arikamedu (literally eroding mound), an ancient port city excavated two miles to the south of Pondicherry. The scholars identify Arikamedu with the Poduca of Periplus of the 1st century CE and later a place known as Veda Puri (City of Vedic Culture) is recognized as Puthucherry (new settlement). However, if one tries to locate the etymology or the allusion made to the town in sources, they don’t seem self explanatory. The only consensus among the scholars is that the name Pondicherry used in French East India Company records was derived from the word Puthucheri. In the ancient period, there is scant evidence of human occupation in and around this region. It gains prominence in 16th century as the coastal site of Puducira (Puthucherry) mentioned in a sailing manual used by the Portuguese who took voyages from Nagapattinam to Chittagong. The Dutch started trading in this region in 1616 and were followed by the Danes nine years later. Though the French sailors also arrived at the same time, yet they received the opportunity to trade in Pondicherry after fulfilling the necessary obligations.

The influence of the French, Dutch and British in the region

After the French consolidated their presence, they focused on developing Pondicherry as a textile production centre. By 1674, there were around 40 houses of weavers in the region who produced cloth supplies for export. It evidently attracted the community of dyers, bleachers, painters, washer men and artisans from nearby places resulting in its urban growth as a manufacturing cum trading centre by 1688. They then built a warehouse to store commodities and fortified the place to protect it from the European rivals and the local rulers. The native population moved on the edges of the French Settlement. To the south of the Fort were the houses of the trading castes such as rice sellers and the Komuti merchants who sold spices. To the north lived the carpenters, stone masons, silversmiths, ironsmiths commonly known as Kammalars (artisans of five castes). The pariahs lived on the extremities of the settlement. There were newer occupational groups like Sowcars (money lenders), Sarrafs (bankers) and Kavarai Chettis (traders of precious metals and stones) who settled here as well. The native financiers were crucial in helping organize capital and finance for the growth of the company. Thus Pondicherry under the aegis of the French company created the urban form of Kottai (fort) and Pettai (market).

This phase of development was a short-lived one as it did not survive the onslaught of Dutch in 1693. The city was razed to the ground and a new plan with a grid pattern was laid out with radial roads spreading to the the surrounding villages. The suburbanization of the city was stalled by the reversal of the fortunes of Dutch in five years and the French returned to reclaim their turf in 1700. The market centres became the nodal point of intervention where producers, traders, consumers and artisans interacted with each other and the bazaar economy of the town superseded the subsistence economy of the village (hinterland) of Pondicherry. There were two ‘Nagarams’ (markets or mercantile settlement) in the region. The luxury items imported from France like spectacles, glassware and clocks were sold along with local wares in the two bazaars called Periya Kadai in Tamil (Grand Bazaar in French) and Chinna Kadai (Petite Bazaar).

In less than a century, the port town grew from a busy fishermen settlement into a bustling urban centre owing to the efforts of the European traders. Initially the Dutch (1674–94) and later the French (1700 onwards) were instrumental in shaping the town. In 1705, a cartographer by the name of Nicolas de Fer prepared the town plan of Pondicherry. Later, three more plans and several maps were produced to develop the town. The typology of black and white town was prevalent and finds mention in the correspondence of French Governor Beauvillier indicating that the practise of racial segregation was followed by all trading companies irrespective of their European origin. But the implementation was not easy and though the French desired a Ville Blanche (White Town) for themselves by destroying the native houses near the fort area, they could not eliminate them completely.

The political vicissitudes forms an essential backdrop to understand the urban growth, development and demolition of the city in this time period. The three Carnatic Wars proved to be a huge setback as the English military records mention that it took three months to destroy all the buildings of the French Company. Many weavers fled from the region ultimately sealing the fate of the booming textile trade. After the English seizure of Pondicherry on 16 January 1760, the French turned their attention to slave trade. The city lay in ruins before it was handed back to French in 1765, which they lost again and it was restored the second time in 1783 but the recurrent assault could not help recover its earlier grandeur.

Notwithstanding the oscillation of different power regimes, the cultural efflorescence witnessed in Pondicherry is encapsulated in the chapters describing the development in Art and Architecture. The natives often adopted the features of western architecture while building their houses. The arrival of the missionaries led to the introduction of the ecclesiastical architecture consisting of four variant styles such as Rococo, Baroque, Renaissance and Mannerist which augmented the appearance of the built structure. The missionaries apart from propagating their faith introduced Christian festivals, feasts, Church Calendar and the cult of saints.

This monograph on Pondicherry is enriched with tables, maps and illustrations which are a helpful appendage to the chapters. It is a commendable effort of putting together a wide range of primary sources drawn from travelogues, epigraphs and archives from within India and abroad (Denmark, France, Italy, Mauritius, Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands, The United Kingdom, The United States). While it gives a bird’s eye view of the region, many chapters induce a curiosity which leaves one asking for more. Every chapter focuses on a different yet significant theme but some are innocent of analytical depth. Nevertheless it is a lucidly written book with sundry data produced from official records which will be helpful for students, researchers, urban scholars and any amateur who is interested in knowing the socio-economic and cultural development of the region under the Europeans.