French India - Expo Paris 1867

French India at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1867

It is only natural that an artist should make a drawing of pure fantasy when he is obliged to depict a rational being.

His imagination can then give itself free rein; it has the right to invent anything, and if it is happily inspired enough to create the plausible, in the absence of the true; if the object depicted does not clash with any of the ideas, is not at odds with traditions, and reflects to a certain extent the local physiognomy and colour, everyone applauds, and is happy to be able to reconstruct and revive, with the help of this ingenious fiction, the vanished reality.

This is what Mr. Lancelot has very ably done.

French India! What body and what figure could he give to this abstraction?

In the vast peninsula which stretches from Bombay to Calcutta and from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin, where can it be found and what place does it occupy today?

The conquests of Dupleix, his political creations, his commercial establishments, have not, alas, left the slightest trace; and on the day of his disgrace, French India collapsed as in a vast collapse.

It had taken this great man only ten years to establish French domination over more than a third of India and to occupy the whole of the south of this immense peninsula; a few more years and the rest would pass under our dependence. But England, forced to retreat daily before Dupleix, understood that, if she did not stop the hero in his march, her power was done and her expulsion was assured and very near. It was impossible to defeat him by arms; the surest and easiest way was to resort to intrigue and to attack him in Versailles, where Jeanne Poisson was enthroned, one of those women of whom History must speak only with a reddening of the forehead.

The English minister demanded from Louis XV the immediate recall of the Governor General of India; and Dupleix, suddenly arrested in the midst of his successes, and condemned without having been heard, was brutally dismissed.

The cowardly sacrifice of this great man and the shameful abandonment of the rich possessions with which his genius had endowed France will remain attached as an eternal blight to the memory of a king who seemed to have taken it upon himself to lower the national dignity to the point of saying the famous word: "Après moi, le déluge! "
Dupleix," says Campbell, "was far superior to our agents in political talent; had he found the same resources and support as they did in the mother country, it is more than probable that the empire of India would now belong to his countrymen. "

The Governor General of India has long been avenged; but when and by whom will the immense loss made by France be repaired?

We occupy today in India only very small fractions of territory separated from each other by vast provinces which depend on the English.

The least infinitesimal of our possessions in this immense land is Pondicherry, a city situated on the coast of Coromandel: it has a fairly good harbour, but it has no port. As a strategic point and commercial centre, it is a place that cannot be shaded by anyone. Then Chandernagor, on the Hagli, a pleasant river that no ship can sail up. This town was once defended by fortifications which the English have destroyed and which we have undertaken not to re-establish.

What prudence on one side, and what resignation on the other!

It is easy to understand why, from that moment onwards, France, deeply affected in its honour, held a grudge against royalty, and felt its old sympathies for the regime of good pleasure grow colder by the day.

We shall not continue the enumeration of our possessions.

The rest is not worth the honour of being named.

All maritime trade passed from then on into the hands of England. For all the articles of Indian industry, for all the products of the soil, we became her tributaries. We were forced to go and buy on the London market the cotton cloths of Madras, the silk fabrics of Bengal, the gold and silver embroidered silks of Surat, the shawls of Kachemir, the carpets of Patna, and moreover the spices, the indigo, the cochineal, the shellac, the opium, in short all the products indispensable to our luxury or our industry.

Napoleon resolved to free France from this humiliating tribute and closed her ports and markets to England; the products of India reached us only by smuggling; but the smuggled goods were far from meeting all our needs, and the national genius had to provide for them. Chemistry went to work, large factories were set up, Lyon produced marvels of imitation, and Paris believed that it had found better than the shawls of Kachemir in the beautiful fabrics of Ternaux.

The illusion on this point did not last long, and the shawls of India became the object of the most active smuggling.

The Empress Josephine, without respect for the decree of her august husband, wanted one to be procured for her at any price; one of the leading houses in Paris supplied it to her, and the Emperor, to whom she presented it as a Ternaux shawl, was amazed at the rapid progress of our industry, and applauded the step he had taken.

With the Restoration, England immediately invaded our markets and emptied all its shops to the great detriment of ours. Never has our industry had to go through a more terrible crisis. The few firms whose main trade consisted in the sale of Indian shawls and wools, and whose interests had suffered most as a result of the blockade, ran to London to obtain supplies, and soon there was hardly any question of Ternaux's imitations, which were the richest and most successful.

This was a real restoration for the Indian shawl. But its era of prosperity was not to begin until twenty years later.

A soldier of the Empire, an aide-de-camp to Marshal Brune, General Allard, having miraculously escaped the massacres of the Midi, took refuge in Egypt, from where he left almost immediately to go to Asia; the most brilliant fortune awaited him there. Charged by Runjet Sing, king of Lahore, with organising his troops, he founded a real army, of which he was made general-in-chief; his favour did not end there; he became an intimate adviser to Runjet Sing, whose daughter he soon married.

Perhaps then he raised to avenge Dupleix and to relieve France of its past humiliation.

It was worthy of a soldier of the Empire to attempt it.

In 1838, General Allard came to France, was admitted several times to the Tuileries, and had many conferences with the ministers. What was proposed, discussed and decided? Only M. Guizot and M. Thiers could tell us; but Louis-Philippe was very cautious, and he was not unaware that England had its eye on the traveller.

When he left Paris, the general took with him no instructions other than those he had been given by Gagelin on how to improve the manufacture of Indian shawls.

If his embassy had no political success, it was at least to the benefit of the industry of Lahore and of French trade in India.

Shortly before his death, which closely followed his return, the general sent to France eighty shawls, chosen from among the finest fabrics of Kachemir and Lahore.

The Gagelin house made a rich exhibition of them in its shops. It thus opened a channel of publicity in which all the important houses hastened to follow it.

This first shipment was soon followed by another much more considerable one.

General Ventura, successor to General Allard in the command of the army of Runjet Sing and in the shawl trade, brought to Paris about four hundred of them.

They were offered en bloc to the Gagelin house, which confined itself to making a choice, and, for the rest, sent the general to MM. Oulmann fils. As the deal did not go well for them, Messrs Cheuvreux-Aubertot hastened to conclude it.

Such an important purchase opened up a whole new avenue for this firm, which had long been one of the most renowned in Paris; it entered into it with great determination, and the trade in Indian shawls has since become one of the richest branches of its industry.

She made her own exhibition, and the Paris trade soon took away from her all the shawls which she did not think she should reserve for her rich clientele.

It was from this time onwards that all the novelty shops became more or less concerned with the sale of Indian shawls; and today there is not a third-rate shop that does not have a department devoted to them.

Only four houses compete in Paris for the sceptre of this industry; but it would be difficult to say to which one it should be awarded.

The Oulmann sons are the first, in order of dates; then come the Cheuvreux-Aubertot company, Messrs Frainais-Gramagnac, and finally the Compagnie des Indes.

The gold medal given to this company and the cross of the Legion of Honour awarded to M. Verdé-Delisle, one of its directors, prove that the rank assigned by us to the Compagnie des Indes has no other reason than chronological order.

Thanks to Generals Allard and Ventura, and also thanks to the five companies we have just named, France has, in this luxury trade, freed itself from foreigners and made itself the master of manufacturing, which is now directed or supervised in India by agents maintained at great expense in Luhore, Kachemir and Umretser by the most important establishments in Paris.

We are therefore no longer forced to go to London for supplies, and the English are instead obliged, when they want to obtain a choice cashmere, to come and buy it from us.

This is a first national revenge; let us hope that the freedom of trade, the activity and the genius of our great industrialists will make us obtain many others, and that our future prosperities will console us for our past losses and misfortunes.

Our industry has already begun to reconquer French India peacefully; let it complete its work, and it will have deserved the country well, for the conquests of peace are as glorious and more lasting than those of arms.

©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée