A French Calicut?

Posted by Maddy Labels:

One of the little known and less written about stories of Calicut is set during the period just after the immolation of the Zamorin and the conclusion of the Zamorin era in 1766 during the onset of Hyder’s invasion of Malabar. I will be covering the Zamorin’s death and the story around it soon, but this one comes after the said event and snapped the last thread of hope the family of Zamorins had of holding on to their prestige & territories.

We talked in other articles about the Portuguese, the Dutch and at times the English. This one involves the French Infantry colonel and Governor of Mahe, later theologian Le Comte Du Prat and of the astounding situation where for the first time; a French flag was flown on the flag mast at the Zamorin’s palace in Calicut. Now imagine what would have happened if that situation had taken root, just imagine, we would be eating crepes and croissants, foie gras, duck confit and all that and talking French and I would not have had to trouble my friend Murali to try and get to the gist of what Duprat had to say in his own antiquated French words in his memoir. Just imagine, we would have been swimming in perfume and doffing our noses daintily at the English. But as you all know that did not happen.Let us now get serious and find out what happened.

French in Malabar
We now go to a period around 1774 to Mahe. Now historians would prefer to start with the 1642 when the French East India Company was formed, but actually the French got started around 1668 at Surat to set up a factory under the French flag. Then it was Madras. The French finally came to Malabar, some years after establishing themselves in Pondicherry, and founded a factory at Mahe in 1721, but settled down there by 1725.

Situation in Calicut
By 1764 the complacent Calicut was attacked by Hyder’s troops. Hyder had started out from Mysore via Palghat with his army demanding a tribute and restitution amounting to Rs 12 crores or something like that but the Zamorin had no money to pay that kind of retribution. He tried delay tactics, but when the armies were at his door and he was threatened with bodily injury and starvation tactics were hinted at, he had no option but to give up and committed suicide by immolation in his palace. The Zamorin’s families moved on to Tanur or Kottakkal and Hyder’s people ransacked Calicut with able support from the Moplah populace.

Finally in 1768, the new Zamorin returned to Calicut after agreeing to pay the required annual tribute to Hyder. Peace prevailed for 6 years between 1768 and 1774. The Zamorin in the meantime started the usual quarrels with the Cochin rajah on petty issues, this time over the appointment of a priest at the Trippayar temple. As Krishna Iyer succinctly puts it ‘as though his head and existence of his kingdom depended on it’. Hyder on the other hand was busy with his fights elsewhere, the Marathas and the English. Once that was all done and dusted, and he had come to agreements with the foes, he took notice of the transigence at Calicut and deputed his General Srinivasa Rao through Wynad with an army to occupy Calicut once again and quell any revolt.

Knowing that Hyder the Nawab of Mysore was pally pally with the French, the Zamorin approached the French for help, through the newly appointed Governor of nearby Mahe - Colonel Duprat.

Le Comte Pierre-Antoine Duprat
The French were smarting under the English takeover of Mahe in 1761 and it was in 1764 that they wrested it back. The English had pillaged and destroyed the settlement by then, working in league with the king of Kadathanad. Law de Lauriston the French commander at Pondicherry considered maintaining the small town of Mahe uneconomical, due to the heavy expenses in keeping a garrison and a constant vigil. The Zamorin no longer had absolute power over the region and there were skirmishes all the time, some directed against the garrison. Kottayam, Kurangod, Kolathunad, Chirakkal, Kadathanad and so on continued with their internal issues. Mahe was in their middle. The 3 or 4 forts that the French had, were destroyed by the British in 1761.The question in 1765 was whether to quit Mahe or not. The garrison contained 160 French and 150 sepoys or topasses, which according to Law was a greater ‘citizens to soldier ratio’ than even Pondicherry. But the feeling of trouble hung low like the monsoon clouds, ready to break at any moment. The French were also considering relocation to Colachel in Travancore, upon the Travancore Raja’s invitation. During this period the station head at Mahe was Picot De La Motte. He left briefly in 1773, on a leave of absence and his place was taken up by Duprat.

Duprat was a firm believer in French might and would fight hard to maintain its prestige. Historians say it was an unduly false notion, but as we all know plenty of people with such notions have been there in history and still remain in various countries in and out of power. Many a war as been fought by them due to these notions and visions, all through the the history of time.

Duprat decided to extend the French holdings and influence in Malabar, entirely on his own initiative, with all of his resources (310 soldiers as we saw previously). Very forthrightly he said in his memoirs ‘I have never looked at things except in a great way, I believe a man can do what man has done and many have done great things’. Interesting person, right? What he was to do would put the French directly against the might of the Mysore Sultans and earn their distrust for a very long time indeed. So let us see where Dupart led the French to.

As we saw before, Sreenivasa Rao was on his way to subdue Calicut once again, upon Hyder’s orders, and late in Dec 1773 the Zamorin had established contact with Duprat. The ambitious Duprat decided that this was an opportunity to make the once mighty Zamorin his vassal and annex his forces and influence. Duprat without waiting for formal clearance from Pondicherry agreed to provide military support to the Zamorin against the forces of Hyder bearing down on them through the Wyanad passes. Dupart sailed to Calicut with 100 or so soldiers and 3 cannons, in the frigate Belle Poule.

Duprat in his own words states that he left out for India in 1772 and after stays in the East coast and later Pondicherry, reached Mahe in Nov 1773. His first observation of the people of Malabar is interesting. “I studied it much the character of the Indian They are sweet & shy people easily deceived, though somewhat inconsistent, and are suspicious assets, very ignorant in the art of war”. Interesting fellow, I suppose.

In January 1774, the French flag was apparently hoisted on the Zamorin’s palace and the citadel (what and where was that?) and on the 12th a treaty was signed with the Zamorin where Calicut was placed under the protection of the French and in return the Zamorin granted the French a complete monopoly over trade and the right to build forts wherever they pleased. Well, that was interesting and is indeed a fact. Some day I will provide you the text of that treaty after some translation efforts.

In the meantime, Duprat sent off letters informing Hyder that Calicut was under the French flag and that it would be wise if he called back Rao and his forces. The tone was rude and arrogant. Again, in strident tones he added text to inform Hyder of the might of the French empire backing his actions (which of course was not the case). In fact Duprat’s letter even mentioned that he had come in a French battleship and was expecting two more ships and 4,000 men as reinforcement. He even offered a formal alliance to Hyder with the French nation in return. Hyder of course called the bluff.

Srinivasa Rao reached Calicut with his forces and found the French in control there. It appears that he was a very wise man and so paused for a while at the gates. The vast army of Hyder would have decimated the 100 (or 140) soldiers and 3 cannon of Duprat. Duprat finally encountered lady wisdom after seeing the forces. What happened was this, the Zamorin left Calicut in a hurry and Duprat slunk away to Mahe with his flag and soldiers.

The adventure was rash and the withdrawal was humiliating, and on top of that Hyder was enraged. But Duprat was Duprat. He wrote to Hyder from Mahe saying that he had not retreated in fear and haughtily claimed that it was due to his refined wisdom and that Hyder actually owed the French a lot for all the help they had obtained from the French. Hyder did not forget this for a long time and his distrust of the French was to become even more marked after this episode. It built up later into outright animosity. On one hand, Law was in regular touch with Hyder and on the other hand there was a lower level commander Duprat threatening him. For 5 years Hyder was to maintain a cold relation with Pondicherry due to this act.

Duprat was severely reprimanded in writing in Feb 1774 , but then he would not keep quiet. He was smarting from the ignominy and defeat at Calicut and decided now to flex his arms at the king of Kadathanad. He decided to enforce a monopoly on pepper and refused to allow them to sell it to the English as they had done for years. The revenue which was to be provided indirectly to Hyder was to be diverted to the French. Hyder protested but Duprat in reply instead threatened Srinivasa Rao in Calicut that the French forces would be directed against them with full might, soon. Law finally decided to put an end to this and recalled Duprat to Pondicherry and sent De Rependigny to take charge at Mahe.

Dupart indignantly resigned from the French forces and joined the army of the Nizam in Hyderabad. But fate is what it is, quite quirky as many have noted. Later, Duprat while working for the Nizam, trespassed Mysore territory and was arrested by Hyder’s men. It took much intervention from Law in Pondicherry to get Duprat released. Duprat also quickly completed a short memoir on the events at Mahe, explaining is stand.

Duprat finally returned to France after all his adventures and became a theologian in Paris around 1791 to retire amongst the saints and to writing stuff dealing with theology and the Lord. As for Mahe, Repentigny was also a problem and so Picot De La Motte returned to his old position around 1775 or 76 and kept the matters suitable low key, as they were once before, while Mahe returned to being a sleepy little town with a French twist.

Just imagine, if all had gone in the directions that Monsieur Duprat had wished, Calicut would have been a French Colony and instead of eating chicken biriyani at Sagar we would have been ordering Bouillabaisse or Coq au vin or some such strange stuff like frogs legs sautéed in wine in some French restaurant. Well, thankfully that did not happen, but chefs of French ancestry like Anthony Bourdain travel to Kerala these days, spend days on houseboats drinking Kallu and talk at length (and sometimes cuss in private) on TV about the exquisite cuisine of the Malayali, through their food channels.

The French in India – SP Sen
Zamorins of Calicut – KV Krishna iyer
Voyage Du Comte Duprat Dans L’inde - Duprat


  1. Badrinath Srinivasan

    Great blog....

    Waiting to see more of the South Indian history that we never get to read much often. From my childhood, I've been harbouring this feeling (one may call it prejudice) that South Indian history has never been documented as much as it ought to be. As a historian, what's your take on this?

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Badrinath..

    There are actually quite a few books and writers in Tamil and Malayalam,as related to History, though like you, I would have enjoyed reading contemporary historians, of which there are but a precious few with interest in South India. Nevertheless, writers from Bengal like DasGupta, writers like Sanjay Subramaniam and many more, and older books from Sastri provide a great perspective..

    Keep visiting & reading. Plenty here to read and plenty more to come..

  1. clash

    Maddy, this post was a treat!

    Interesting character this Duprat is!

  1. Rahul

    I have heard that French had a small holding in Calicut (seems like it is the place where French Hotel stands today). Ever heard of this claim and is it true?

  1. P.N. Subramanian

    For Calicut it was a fate accompli. I do not know much but it appears that the French were better because we could have enjoyed a better stuff at Calicut.

  1. ronnie1966

    Thank you for your valuable information. I was wondering if you do have details of the Mophla Rebellion in Malappuram, where Brritish soldiers were killed in 1921. I was recently in Kerala looking for graves of these soldiers on behalf of CWGC. Thanks, Ronnie Johnson

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Clash..

    Thanks Rahul..I had actually covered this in my Lear article posted in Maddys ramblings.
    if yous croll down and get to the Malabar club, you willf ind teh answer.

    The French have a loge in Calicut The loge consists of six acres on the sea-shore about half a mile north of the Calicut light-house, and adjoins the old district jail site. The exact facts connected with the foundation of the French factory are involved in doubt. Beyond the fact that the landed property and houses are untaxed, there is nothing to distinguish the loge from the rest of Calicut. “It is doubtful what rights the French Government has in it.” Logan on one occasion, said. The Malabar British Club, on the Beach Road, in Calicut, was established in 1864, and it comprised about 200 members, inclusive of married men whose wives are eligible for membership. Today it is the premises of the beach hotel. Beach-facing rooms had bathtubs and secluded verandas; all the rooms are tastefully furnished and had plenty of character.

    The Beach hotel area was one corner of this holding as you can imagine.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks PNS - Of that I am not sure, they have left little other than buildings and cuisine in places they occupied, hardly any administrative legacy!!

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Ronnie..
    There are plenty of books on that subject, so it depends on what you are looking for. As regards graves, have you had a look at these articles by CHF

    I have covered Conolly's involvement at the beginning, will get to 1921 one day.