Commerce, Conversion, and Scandal in French India: A Colonial Affrair

Danna Agmon









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(Hardback | ISBN 9789386582270 | 238 pages | 2017)


On 6 June 1716, the Sovereign Council of Pondichéry, France’s colony on India’s southeast cost, convicted a Tamil man named Nayiniyappa of the crimes of tyranny and sedition. Nayiniyappa was a commercial broker for (and the highest-ranked Indian within) the Compagnie des Indes, and had been found guilty of abusing his power within the colony and of organizing a widespread protest against colonial and company policies the previous year. He was taken to the town’s main bazaar and given 50 lashes of the whip. The vast wealth he had accumulated over decades of doing business with the French—land, houses, jewels, elephants, cash, and goods—was stripped, and his three sons were banished from Pondichéry. Sentenced to serve three years in prison, Nayiniyappa died in his cell under somewhat mysterious circumstances a few months later.

Danna Agmon uses these events as a lens through which to examine the nature of imperial sovereignty in French colonial India and the extent to which French officials, merchants, and missionaries both depended on and resented local intermediaries to trade and govern. Through the prosecution of the case against Nayiniyappa, the appeals lodged by both the convicted man and his sons and daughter-in-law, and the eventual restoration of the family’s fortunes—in 1720, Nayiniyappa’s eldest son traveled to France, converted to Christianity (with Philip d’Orléans, the Regent of France, serving as his godfather), was made a chevalier, and returned to Pondichéry to assume his father’s position as chief commercial broker to the Compagnie des Indes—Agmon is able to shed new light on the dynamics of the social, economic, religious, and political interactions that defined the European colonial experience in India and elsewhere.

Part 1 examines the reliance on local intermediaries by both trader-administrators and missionaries in the newly established colony of Pondichéry.

Part 2 centers on the investigation, trial, Nayiniyappa’s appeals, and the re-investigation of the Affair.

Part 3 considers the repercussions of Nayiniyappa’s conviction, death, and posthumous rehabilitation.

Based on Tamil- and French-language sources, including the judicial and administrative records of the Compagnie des Indes; the archives of the Missions étrangères des Paris; the 12-volume Tamil-language diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai, Nayiniyappa’s own nephew; letters of Jesuit and other missionaries in India; and the French-language manuscript history by Tiruvangadan, Pillai’s nephew.


A Colonial Affair is a compelling illustration of the ways in which insights from other disciplines, in this case anthropology, can deepen our understanding of the nature and dynamics of the social, economic, political, and other interactions that were an integral component of the colonial experience in India and elsewhere.” —Richard B. Allen, author of European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 1500–1850′