Lured by Spanish and Portuguese traders’ tales of lucrative spice exports from the Spice Islands (in present Indonesia) during the 16th century, Dutch, British, and French rulers commissioned voyages to Asia in search of economic, and subsequently, colonial opportunities. In India Europeans discovered a plethora of items for export, including cotton, silk, indigo, and later, opium, all of which generated great demand by both European and other Asian markets.
France entered the Asia trading arena significantly later than Great Britain, which founded the British East India Company in 1600, and the Netherlands, which founded the Dutch East India Company (Indonesia/ Batavia) in 1602. While France attempted to cultivate trade connections with Asia in the early 17th century as well, initial expeditions failed to secure any trading posts or settlements.
During the reign of King Louis XIV (1643–1715), however, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister of finance, reorganized earlier unsuccessful trade ventures into the French East India Company (Compagnie des Indes Orientales) in 1664.
Colbert sent an expedition that reached India in 1668 and built the first French factory (production center) in Surat on the western coast, and soon after another in Masulipatam on the eastern coast. In 1673, the company established its headquarters in Pondicherry, on the southeastern coast below Madras (now Chennai), and founded Chandannagar on the northeastern coast, north of Calcutta.
Madras and Calcutta, along with Bombay, were Britain’s major settlements. Pondicherry eventually became a thriving port town with a population of nearly 50,000, and Chandannagar became the most important European trade center in Bengal, its commercial success rivaling that of Calcutta.
While France never became the dominant European authority in the region, for more than 50 years the French East India Company made great efforts to capitalize upon the expanding demand for textiles, dyes, and other goods that could be supplied by Indian merchants.
French accounts of the activities in port towns such as Surat detail the intricate steps involved in creating the fabrics, known collectively as indiennes (Indians). Particularly on the southeastern coast, Indian weaving villages generated thousands of bolts of textiles for eager European companies.
Most in demand were guinee cloths (cotton longcloth, usually 35 to 50 m in length), salempores (staple cotton cloth), and morees (cotton cloth of superior quality). Also coveted were the stunning toiles peintes (painted cloths) and toiles imprimés (printed cloths), as well as the magnificent silks and dyes.
The textiles were adored not only in Europe, but also in other parts of Asia; indeed, India had engaged in Asian textile trading centuries before Europeans arrived. In the Indonesian archipelago, China, and Japan, Indian cotton was popular for its lightweight, yet sturdy qualities.
In due course, the French, British, and Dutch acquired materials from India not only for their home countries, but for transport to Malacca or Java, for example, where they were traded for spices—cloves, nutmeg, mace, sugar, and pepper—crucial in Britain and Europe to preserve meats during harsh winters.
By the 18th century, the French had secured agreements to provide woven products tailored to Asian buyers’ interests: they had colored, patterned handkerchiefs specially woven for particular island markets, for example, which proved a successful entrepreneurial venture. Moreover, cloths of different types played a symbolic role in rites of passage and were sought after for use in birth, marriage, and death ceremonies, and bolts of cloth were commonly given as offerings or gifts.
A salient corollary to the French East India Company’s textile exchange...