Subramaniam on Agmon, 'A Colonial Affair: Commerce, Conversion, and Scandal in French India'

Danna Agmon
Lakshmi Subramaniam

Danna Agmon. A Colonial Affair: Commerce, Conversion, and Scandal in French India. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018. 236 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-0993-7.

Reviewed by Lakshmi Subramaniam (Institute of Advanced Studies, Nantes) Published on H-Asia (June, 2018) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

Printable Version:

French Pondichery

This is a detailed exposition of a scandal, the Nayiniyappa affair, that took place in Pondichery. The episode is used to explore the complex fault lines of European colonial empires in the eighteenth century (in this case the French enterprise) and to introduce more frontally the role of religion and missionary enterprise in the configuration of political projects. The book’s central proposition is that commerce and conversion in French India were both symbiotic and simultaneously conflicted, and that authority was distributed across a variety of agents, Indian and French, secular and religious. If traders wished to work with the status quo with minor modifications that helped their cause, missionaries were equally anxious to fundamentally transform the social scenario while retaining their material interests. Local intermediaries meanwhile showed a nimbleness in deploying their access to family, kinship networks, and linguistic expertise for advantage. The two sides—local and European—were locked in a complex dynamic and worked out a range of strategies that the author calls “distributed sovereignty” that resembled neither collaboration with nor resistance to colonial rule. Just how original this is as a formulation and how the idea of distributed sovereignty helps us understand the experience of colonial encounters better is not fully fleshed out, and we will come back to this later.

At the heart of the book is the scandal, which in its essentials was quite simple but one that carried all the elements of a tragedy that ended up with farcical elements. Nayiniyappa came to Pondichery as a young aspirant and became by his astute dealings and networks the chief broker to the French Company and rose to become an important and affluent personage in the French colony, capable of mustering local commercial contacts to drive the trade of the French Company and its servants. His ally initially was Guillaume Hebert, governor of Pondichery (1708-13), who resisted the demands of the Jesuits to press charges against the broker on grounds of sedition and treachery and of instigating weavers and traders to cease work. For the Jesuits, the broker’s reluctance, indeed resistance, to embrace the true faith was anathema, and they insisted that he had been instrumental in humiliating poorer Christians of the town. In 1716, with Hebert’s help, the Jesuits were able to arrest Nayiniyappa. This was not the end of the sordid episode as the arrest and public shaming of Nayiniyappa was followed by the efforts of other missionaries, rivals of the Jesuits and traders based in St. Malo, to fight for the ex-broker’s rehabilitation. Nayiniyappa did not benefit from this support as he died in prison. His son was able to reap the benefits as he returned as an ennobled and loyal Christian, after being baptized in the royal chapel in France.

Even in these bare details, the affair hints at several larger themes relating to faction fights in the French colony, the portability of French law and its access among more privileged subjects, and the nature of early French colonial rule in South India. The author does justice to the reading of the affair and its chaotic archiving, and helps tease out the complex layers of colonial rule: the tensions between the metropole and its colonial outpost, the tensions among multiple agents involved in empire making, and the active role played by local commercial society in safeguarding their interests in relation to the early articulations of French sovereignty. While these questions may not be particularly original and in fact have been asked by scholars working on the British Empire in Asia, the method followed by the book is striking as it peels layer by layer the confused archive of events and episodes. It is therefore an excellent instantiation of micro-history as a method; it uses an event and its excavation to address issues of kinship, language practice, and judicial protocols resorted to by local Indian intermediaries and Europeans and their implications for the expression of sovereignty and its limits. The emphasis on language practice as a manifestation of changing asymmetries of power is especially important.

The site of the scandal was Pondichery town, which under the French Company was projected as a safe enclave for commerce and religious tolerance. The self-representation was often belied by actual practice and in this respect, the French settlement was no different from English colonial centers. However, what seemed perceptibly different about the French urban experience was the relative authority and influence that religious groups assumed and the way in which this split the nature of French Empire in India. A not so close parallel may be found in the competing claims and roles of agency houses, free traders, and missionaries during the renewal of the company’s charter in India, but these do not seem to have had the same salience. In any case, the author argues that the scandal was a local affair, typical to the French colony and whose ramifications revealed the agency of indigenous actors, especially intermediaries. Here again there is a strong resemblance to developments in India during the eighteenth-century transition; both Kumkum Chatterjee for eastern India (Patna) and I for western India (Surat) have made a strong case for local mediation that inflected imperial enterprise. It is curious that neither work finds mention in this book. In fact, the author seems to endorse an earlier position that referred to the subordination of mercantile men by the English East India Company in Surat without engaging with the evidence of a robust Anglo-Bania order wherein Bania capital sponsored imperial expansion. Banias, as indeed other religious groups like Parsis and Konkani Muslims, were encouraged to settle down and were given explicit assurance of religious protection.

What made the Pondichery case especially singular, however, was the interplay of religion and politics and the leverage religious groups were able to exercise in the course of their dealings with the administration and the local populace. Was this exceptional to French India and if so why? The opening chapter tracks the politics and dealings of the Jesuits in the town of Pondichery—of the demands they made for restricted use of Hindu temples and for facilitating greater conversions. In such a milieu, Nayiniyappa who resisted conversion evidently stood out as a sore thumb. His protestations that he had done nothing to demean the Catholic religion and that his gift of rosaries to poor Christians was entirely innocent and not intended to slight them or indeed to flaunt his own resistance to embracing the true faith were disregarded. For the Jesuits however, these were lame excuses; furthermore, the very act of gift giving to indigent people (like stray dogs) was a mockery of Christian charity. The broker’s ex-patron Hebert turned his back and in fact used the opportunity to side with the Jesuits and denounce Nayiniyappa’s actions by construing them as inimical to the larger project of conversion and commerce. Such a volte-face points to the immense power that Jesuits seem to have enjoyed in the town. The broker’s arrest had unexpected consequences as a warring religious faction along with the St. Malo traders intervened to reinstate the broker. As things transpired, the broker died, but his son, who took the case to Europe, returned to Pondichery, better armed with a new religion and a new title. He rehabilitated his late father’s reputation. Clearly French religious groups were extensively involved in the town’s public life; this was not a town that was simply split between white and black, but one in which competing religious and commercial interests produced major crevices in the imperial enterprise that would have subsequent consequences for the Indian population. Thus ironically, even before the doctrine of laicite and the demand for complete religious renunciation in the late nineteenth century as a precondition to French citizenship, the colonial project of the French Company subsumed religious affiliations and groups whose interests and influence could not be entirely bypassed.

The explorations of the back story of the affair gives the reader a taste of the social world of an eighteenth-century French Indian colony where the family and extended familial networks functioned as the principal medium of political articulation. Kinship was a condition of political negotiation and survival. It is the author’s contention that family more than caste played a keen role in cross-cultural encounters; familial networks were extensively deployed to consolidate business interests and explore new opportunities. What is particularly important about the analysis is the way the author demonstrates the intersection between notions of Indian kinship and those entertained by the French via the stories of father and son in relation to Hebert the governor, at one time patron of Nayiniyappa, to Nayiniyappa himself and subsequently to Moutiyappa, the Jesuit head native catechist. In all three cases, the strength of affective relations expressed in familial terms was evident and in full display as each tried to bolster and salvage their reputation and ventures. It may be worthwhile to note that in the case of British India, anthropological studies like those of Mattison Mines, have identified the language of friendship and not of kinship as the preferred idiom of self-representation.

Probably the most striking aspect of Pondichery’s commercial and social world was its linguistic landscape. The proceedings of Nayiniyappa’s affair after he was jailed vividly brought out the power of language; who used what language and how translations were to be affected and accessed became crucial determinants. For a considerable period, well into the eighteenth century, Portuguese had operated as the lingua franca; merchants and rulers alike used it for political and commercial communication. Religious men on the other hand invested in the learning of Tamil. It was thus a matter of some consternation when the denial of Portuguese as a language for communication during the interrogations and the insistence on French and on Tamil (understood by a few in the room and left to the translation devices of one) became devices to be pitted against the broker. The way translations were made to work in the case of Nayiniyappa make for fascinating reading as all sorts of translations and undercover operations were relied on to stack evidence against him. But the story did not end here. His son not only was able to reclaim his reputation, and assume for a while the post of chief broker, but also was able to retain his old ancestral habits even after embracing the Christian faith. It is this quality of negotiation, of social hybridity, that makes the Indo-European entanglement so hard to study. What are we to make of such a case, of a person who could draw on extensive support from friends and family, from Europeans and locals, who could negotiate two faith practices simultaneously? Does it speak of a brief moment that was typical of transition politics or was it specific to the Pondichery experience?

Agmon recounts the quirky tale of the broker, his fall and rehabilitation, with admirable finesse. What stands out is the way she disaggregates the archive and assumes the lens of administrator, missionary, and native intermediary at the same time to reflect on an episode of French India that presents a complex story of self-interest, human experience, and political contingency, elements that were by no means exceptional to the French settlement.

Citation: Lakshmi Subramaniam. Review of Agmon, Danna, A Colonial Affair: Commerce, Conversion, and Scandal in French India. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. June, 2018. URL:

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