On New Year’s Day, 1722, French philosopher Voltaire’s father, François Arouet, died. Although his testament equally divided his possessions between his three children, François was particularly mindful with regard to his 28-year old boy – François-Marie Arouet. His son was to be allowed access to the primary capital of the inheritance only when he turns 35, and on the condition of clear evidence of “regular conduct”. In other words, the young poet had to grow more “mature” if he wished to inherit.

However, by the time he was 35, François-Marie Arouet, now famously Voltaire, (1694-1778) not only made a small fortune for himself with a series of careful investments but was also frequenting the intellectual high societies of Paris and London. With the added inheritance from his father, the philosophe was now undoubtedly rich.

Global celebrity

The most populous country in Western Europe, 18th-century France was marked by profound and fundamental breaks from the past at the economic, political and intellectual levels, heralded by the French Enlightenment. It later went on to intellectually nourish the political revolutions in North America and France, and was equally instrumental in influencing contemporaneous notions of economy and commerce – something that was increasingly being discussed, thanks to the “revolution” of industry in France and ever-evolving structures of manufacture and consumption patterns.

Voltaire soon found himself to be one of the cynosures of this “Age of Revolutions” to the extent that Nicolas de Condorcet (1743-1794) started his Life of Voltaire categorically declaring, “La vie de Voltaire doit être l’histoire…du pouvoir qu’il a exercé sur les opinions de son siècle [Voltaire’s life must be the story…of the power he exercised over the opinions of his century…]”

The most visible contemporary scholar on Voltaire, Nicholas Cronk, president of the Voltaire foundation at the University of Oxford, suggests that although Voltaire was not the most radical of the Enlightenment thinkers, he was the first to actively engage himself in French public life. He was the first of what we know today as a “public intellectual” – the very symbol and a superstar of the European Enlightenment.

The dominant historiographical and literary scholarships around Voltaire, along with other contemporary thinkers of the Enlightenment have been such that they have largely been read at the abstract level of their philosophical and ideological preoccupations. It is only with very recent scholarship such as that of Nicolas Cronk, Florian Schui and Roger Pearson that an attempt is being made to render the Enlightenment thinkers their human aspects and the entrenchment of their human faculties in the socio-economic and political realities of their times. An inquiry into Voltaire’s mundane economic interest in India is a micro-history that are both fundamental derivatives and reinforcements of such critical contemporary scholarship.

A view of the French settlement of Chandernagore in Bengal.

The French East Indian Trade

It is in the philosophical and theological agendas of Voltaire’s historiographical exercises that we find his philosophical engagements with India. In a France where information about India was fragmentary, scattered and myth-ridden, and where the only epistemologies concerning India developed around the occasionally-published travelogues and memoirs, Montesquieu’s views on oriental despotism marked imaginaries around India in the pre-Voltairean French intellectual landscape.

Voltaire’s historiographical agenda, though, by all manners of speaking, was posed in absolute contrast to that of Montesquieu’s. Challenging the predominant Judaeo-Christian narrative of world history and desirous of finding an alternative, Voltaire directed his efforts in dwelling on the ancient glories of the Indians in a bid to delegitimise Europe’s claim of it being the peak of human civilisation.

“I am convinced that everything comes to us from the banks of the Ganges – astronomy, astrology, metempsychosis, etc,” he wrote. “The Greeks, in their mythology, were merely the disciples of India and Egypt…It is not up to us, who were but savage barbarians when these peoples were sophisticated and learned, to challenge them with their antiquity”.

Voltaire sought to do this in his elaborate works dedicated to India by rigorous analysis of contemporaneous and ancient translated texts, and sometimes, quite unknowingly, even forged ones. The most remarkable amongst them was the Ezourevedam, the misdeed of a group of French Jesuits who circulated it in France as a translation of an ancient Sanskrit text with the intention of ridiculing Hindu practices and rituals. Voltaire derived heavily from it, nonetheless to establish the superiority of the Indians – almost quite the form of irony Voltaire himself would use in his 1759 novella Candide.

Textile trade

However, India to 18th-century France was not merely a land of antiquities, oriental despotism and self-indulgent brahmins. It was also the land of substantial trade with potential monopolies in the domestic French market, if carried out prudently – monopolies in cardamom, cinnamon and ginger; and indigo, tea and saltpetre.

But most importantly, it was the land whence came the exotic and exorbitantly priced indiennes – cotton tissues coloured in bright reds, yellows and blues that would constitute the most prestigious bits of aristocratic dowries in contemporaneous French marriages or would be stitched up as curtains for the drawing rooms of the most influential royal mistresses. And so lucrative was the market for these indiennes that illegal, clandestine production houses dedicated to manufacturing the closest copies emerged all over France – from Nantes to Rouen and Marseille – throughout the mid-18th century.

Hence, in the early 1720s, French trade with India must have seemed an exceptionally profitable venture to invest in. An old, feeble company, the Compagnie des Indes Orientalesestablished by Jean-Baptiste Colbert and on the brink of bankruptcy – was merged with other trading companies to reconstruct the Compagnie Perpetuelle des Indes. Brand new stocks of East India trade were introduced and were being sold for enormous amounts of 550 livres each. A public building, the Bourse de Paris, was assigned to the newly-constituted company.

By the late 1720s, the company was a venture quite successful and thriving in its own right, holding out firmly against its Dutch and English rivals, and injecting enormous amounts of money in the French port cities of Nantes, Lorient and Marseille. By the late 1730s, Joseph François Dupleix’s aggressive expansionist policy ensured that the company had a strong political foothold in five establishments around the Indian subcontinent and factories in several other cities; trading in everything from Chinese porcelain, Bengali silk, cotton and saltpetre to South Indian pepper and coffee from Mocha.

The king himself now owned 20% of the company’s shares. Other shareholders of importance included members of French nobility, foreign bankers, and several resourceful individuals like Voltaire, who now sometimes earned up to 20,000 livres per annum.

Marquise de Pompadour (1721-1764), mistress and later close friend and advisor to Louis XV in an indienne robe. Credit: François Hubert Drouais/National Gallery London (Public Domain)

Right through from the mid-1740s to the mid-1750s, Voltaire seems to have nurtured a significant amount of interest in what he calls a “refined merchant industry”. His secretary, Sébastien Longchamp, provides for a detailed table of Voltaire’s revenues where his investments in French East Indian commerce is seen to be one of the most substantial ones, having yielded a total of 52,532 livres in the period between 1749 and 1754. The company was now a national phenomenon, and the wealthy philosophe was evidently interested in the mundane affairs of nourishing his purse.

India’s new despots

The political history of the 18th century remains remarkable for yet another reason – it saw the first global war, considering the extent of the geographical spaces involved, in the form of the Seven Year’s War, from 1756 to 1763. Reflecting later, in his Fragments Sur Quelques Révolutions dans l’Inde, Voltaire wrote, “Dès que la rupture entre la France et l’Angleterre éclata, il fallut se battre dans l’Amérique et l’Inde, selon l’usage [Whenever war broke out between France and England, it was necessary to fight it out in both America and India, as was the custom].”

When the war came to India, “as was the custom”, it did so the form of the Battle of Plassey in 1757, which rendered the English East India Company uncontested masters of Bengal. French commerce with the Indian subcontinent rapidly diminished, while the debts of the company mounted. Jean Baptiste Chevalier, Governor of the French establishment of Chandernagore in Bengal, painted the French predicament in vivid terms while writing a letter to the board of directors of the company in Paris, illustrating the English in India as “an enemy nation who no longer even permits us to breathe the air of the Ganges. By the difficulties with which she oppresses us, the annoyances, violence and vexations that she exercises, we feel it impossible to continue with the advantage”.

By February 1770, the company had incurred massive losses in territories and assets. With the stipulated period of its monopoly having ended, Louis XV passed an edict taking possession of the assets of the Compagnie Perpetuelle des Indes, valued at 30 million livres, and promised to pay off the company’s debt and annuity obligations.

To redeem their annual annuity payments, each of the 10,000 shareholders in the Company were required to pay 400 livres. With the exorbitantly luxurious marriage of Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette in 1770 consuming up a substantial part of this revenue, promised annuity dividends fell from an annual 150 livres to 20 livres.

Voltaire, possibly foreseeing the predicament, wrote in the Précis du Siècle de Louis XV, “The French, in this part of the world are left with nothing but the regret of having spent, for over 40 years, enormous sums in order maintain a Company which has never made the slightest profit, which never paid anything from the profits of its trade to its stakeholders and creditors…a memorable and probably useless example of the little intelligence that the French nation has had until now in the grand and ruinous trade with India”.

Illustration by an anonymous artist titled 'View of the warehouses of the (French) East India Company in Pontichery, the admiralty and the Governor's house'.

While the company was deemed worthless by Voltaire, trade with India was certainly not. The philosophe tried his chance one last time, investing a considerable 40,000 livres in the venture of a private merchant, the Bérard brothers, who sought to sail on the Hercules from Lorient to Bengal in trying to make its part in the fortune from trade with India, after the company’s monopoly was terminated. After few stints with meagre returns, the Hercules sank with a shipload of Bengali saltpetre somewhere around the Cape of Good Hope.

Ignorant of the ship’s fate, Voltaire eagerly wrote to Jean le Rond D’Alembert that he had been hoping that the Academie des Sciences would confer upon him a prize on the presentation of this saltpetre. While Voltaire painfully calculated a 90% loss in his latest investment, a contemporaneous observer would have hardly missed the chance to remark that if Voltaire’s stint with India started with a semi-Voltairean irony, it ended with a very definitive one.

Arghya Bose, Author and Doctoral Researcher, Centre d’Études de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.