By continuing your visit to this site, you accept the use of cookies. These ensure the smooth running of our services. Learn more.

The French-Indian mixed-race in history

india,french india,colonization,métis,créoles,franco-indian,mixed-race.pondichéry

I was pondering about the status of my little French-Indian boys when I started thinking that this mix must actually be nothing new, since the French were in India for some 200 years.

I have lived in India for 15 years and never looked into the nature of the French-Indian relationship. Despite hearing the Ambassador’s words of "friendship", time and again, which I never really understood. I am filling (part of) the gaps now. For this, I was largely inspired by the dissertation of Jessica Louise Namakkal, Transgressing the Boundaries of the Nation: Decolonization, Migration, and Identity in France/India, 1910-1972, 2013 (link) (all the text quoted below is from her).

The relationships between France and India are longstanding. And who says longstanding relationships, also says blood mixing, to some extent at least.

There was a territory called “French India”, which aggregated the 5 territories the French owned in India for almost 200 years (between 1668 and 1954): Pondichéry, Karikal and Yanaon, Mahé and Chandernagor.

india,french india,colonization,métis,créoles,franco-indian,mixed-race.pondichéry

Except for the French citizens, the people living in “French India” were called “French Indians” and were:

  • Métis (mixed race),
  • Tamils who had converted to Catholicism,
  • Low-caste Hindus who renounced their civil status and obtained French citizenship (an option available beginning in 1881),
  • Muslims who lived in French villages on one of the many French-British Indian borders.[1]

They were “Indians” by race and the “French” identity could be “acquired by factors of cultural, political, and social identity, which included language (ability to communicate in French), citizenship status, family history, religion, name, dress, and schooling.”

This is quite different from British India[2], where Anglo-Indians primarily described all British people who lived in India while people of mixed British and Indian descent were referred to as “Eurasians”, terminology that only recently changed to “Anglo-Indians”.


To put the question of métissage in French India in a nutshell, let us say that “interracial relationships were very much encouraged in French India, and were not challenged until the Empire was on the verge of collapse, after the departure of the British in 1947.” Let us see now more about this.

1. Colonization

Before the French’ arrival in South Asia, the Portuguese had started settling in the 16th-century. At that time, “the Catholic Church encouraged interracial unions as a way to convert non-Catholics and create a larger Catholic presence in the colonies.”[3]

This “meant that when French and British sailors and merchants began to arrive in the 18th-century, there was already a population of mixed-race men and women living throughout the Indian port cities.” It seems that these mixed-race women (called “topas”) were the preferred choice for the French newcomers looking to marry, as these ladies were already Catholics. (The British authorities preferred their colons to marry indigenous women rather than topas, since they saw the latter (Catholics) as a threat to Protestantism.)

(Dupleix himself, an important figure of the French presence in India, upon arriving in Pondicherry, married a créole woman, Jeanne Dupleix (née Albert) (1706-1756). She wasthe daughter of a Frenchman, Jacques-Theodor Albert and a créole mother, Rose de Castro, who was believed to be of Portuguese and Indian parentage.[4])

Thus, many mixed-race children were born, “who, during this time, were more likely to have a higher class standing than the indigenous populations, because of the one European parent and the likelihood they would own property or other capital.[5]

The mixed-race population in French India in the late 18th and 19th centuries, which self-identified as “créole,” became part of the white class, as they converted to Catholicism, adopted European clothes, and participated in the public life of the non-indigenous population.”

2. The colonial presence on the 18th and 19th centuries

 “The 18th-century was an important era of struggle between French and British

imperialism, not only in South Asia but in North America, as well[6]. For the next few decades, France and England continued to fight for control of territory in South Asia – at one point, during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), France lost all five territories to the British – they also lost most of their territories in Canada. The French-Indian colonies changed hands several more times, during the French Revolution, and in again when Napoleon decided to make advances towards India in 1802. Pondicherry was returned to France in 1815, under the Second Treaty of Paris, and the other four territories followed suit in 1816 (Chandernagore) and 1817 (Karikal, Mahé, Yanam.)[7]

After the French had lost the majority of India to the English in the 18th century, they were faced with the question of how to a establish a significant and important French space in South Asia without extensive military and economic conquest, which was forbidden by the Second Treaty of Paris. French officials never thought there would be a large French settler/European society in India, but it was still important to make Pondicherry as European as possible.” The only one way left to achieve this thus was to reproduce… “French India, especially Pondicherry, relied on the métis population to augment the small number of Europeans in the construction of a European space and social milieu.”

This was, by the way, quite a different situation from other areas of the French Empire, where, “as Ann Laura Stoler has argued, métissage was seen “as a threat to white prestige, an embodiment of European degeneration and decay.”[8]

By the late 19 th-century, this also set apart the French and the British in India: “as, argues Adrian Carton, “concepts of hybridity” and “race-mixing” were not seen as threatening in the French-Indian territories and were much more common, a practice that allowed for a new class in the colonial society: that of the créole or the métis.”[9] If the marriage of British citizens with local Indian women was first quite accepted, by 1830, there were social stigmas to these marriages, even if they continued to take place. And a couple of decades later, a lot of British women were shipped to India, thus offering better options to the soldiers and the officials. When Indians started rebelling (1857), laws were passed to avoid mixed marriages and they declined very fast.

But let’s get back to the French colonies. Doctor N. Huillet, a French physician who wrote a text in 1867 titled Hygiène des blancs, des mixtes et des indiens à Pondichéry commented on the great heterogeneity he found in Pondicherry’s 121,186 souls (âmes).[10] He observed four “distinct elements” within the population of Pondicherry:

  • Europeans,
  • the descendants of Europeans or créoles,
  • the “mixtes” or topas, and
  • the Hindus (and, he adds to this category, the Muslims who were “naturalisés après la conquête.”)

Huillet counted:

  • 954 people belonging to the “population blanche” (0.8%),
  • 1,239 in the “population mixte” (1%),
  • 118,993 in the “population Indienne” (98.2%).

3. Decolonization

En 1931, the total number of foreigners censused in India, only amounted to 168,134 (117,336 males and 50,798 females) or 0.05% of the total population. The European British subjects totaled 155,555. The figures show a further fall since 1921 and are in 1931 little more than 80% of those recorded in 1911, while males taken alone are fewer than in 1901. 

In 1936, according to Jacques Weber[11], the white population was much lower than these figures: it had 200 representatives in Pondicherry (70 permanent Frenchmen (administrators, traders, and religious) and a little less than 130 Westerners of European, American or Australian origin), out of 187,870 inhabitants – i.e. 63% of the 298,851 inhabitants of French India. The vast majority are made up of natives.

Ostorog, in a 1955 memo, estimated that of a population of 300,000 people, there were fewer than 25,000 people who could be distinguished from the “paysans Tamils.”[12] 

According to Jessica Louise Namakkal, “based on a discourse of “mutual respect” and “friendship” born out of what was portrayed as a positive colonial relationship, French and Indian leaders came to an agreement that would allow French India to remain French India, without the colonial authority of the French Empire. Unlike other colonial relationships, including between England and India and France and Algeria or Indochina, which fomented strong and vocal anti-colonial nationalist movements that ostensibly precluded the maintenance of the colonial order in the post-colonial nation, the decolonization of French India was to be, in the words of Maurice Schumann, at one time the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, an “intelligent decolonization.”

The specific language of decolonization in French India denied the violence of the colonial act, which, I will argue, encouraged the French-Indian diaspora to distance themselves from other colonial subjects of the French Empire. The often violent ruptures of decolonization that led to the loss of a French-Indian homeland and identity for tens of thousands of people were whitewashed by a strategic use of nostalgia that looked to an imagined and idealized past, based on the myth of a centuries long friendship between France and India, to erase the realities and the violence of the present.” 

In 1962, the people of French India were eventually given the choice between French and Indian citizenship, during a six-month period known as the period of option. Government officials predicted that most of métis would choose to be French and subsequently move to France, a situation they felt they would be able to deal with, as the majority of the métis understood the French language and culture.

The real problem for French authorities was the possibility of the migration of the non-métis French Indians, most of whom they believed would not be able to assimilate, and would thus become a burden on the French state and the French people. It was imperative to convince the people of French India that each person should chose to belong to their “true homeland.” While the French were willing, in this case, to adopt the métis who they admit may feel more comfortable in France than in independent India, French Indians who were not mixed-race belonged in India.” 

Among those who opted, there were descendants of Europeans, the local civil servants who knew about the possibility of integrating themselves in the metropolitan services which many of them had not even dreamed of, the families of French soldiers and metropolitan civil servants who were serving elsewhere and finally, the domestic servants of Europeans. By the final day of option, 4,944 adults had submitted their written declarations to the French Consulate in Pondicherry; including the children of parents who opted, 7,106 people declared their French citizenship during the six-month period, about 2% of the population. The remaining 368,000 residents of French India became Indian nationals, ending their relationship with the French state.[13]

4. Today

For Selon Jessica Louise Namakkal, “assimilation by france + pondicherrians = franco-pondi-cherrians. Their Indian origins combined with the French influence on them make them unique in that they are like the natives of other former French colonies with the sole difference that their “Frenchness” is permeated by their unique “Indianness.” However, in numerical terms, their presence dwindles to nothingness. There are currently approximately 8000 Indians of French nationality in the Union Territory of Pondicherry. They are also referred to as optants, after having opted to take up French nationality six months after the de jure transfer in 1962 of the territories of Pondicherry, Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam to India. Of these, only approximately 2000 are actually French speaking or have links with France through pensions, which they receive from the French government, or through family members living in metropolitan France. With over a million people in the entire Union Territory of Pondicherry and over a billion in all of India, they are indeed curious oddities.

Here are today’s “French-Indians”:

  • People of Indian origin who chose to retain French citizenship at the moment of transfer (1962),
  • People of mixed French and Indian heritage, almost all whom migrated to France at the moment of transfer (1962),
  • People of French origin who have migrated to former French India, since 1962 (although for the most part, these people have retained their French citizenship and since they have migrated to India to either join the Aurobindo Ashram or the quasi-utopian experimental community of Auroville, they are more likely to consider themselves “citizens of the world,” or, Aurovillians, than either French or Indian.)

“While the decolonization of French India pushed the métis and créole peoples to migrate to France, the same state powers legitimated and promoted the non-racial hybrid union of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother (Mirra Alfassa, née en 1878 à Paris dans une famille bourgeoise), realized in the construction of Auroville. Aurobindo and the Mother often portrayed their spiritual partnership as a bridge between east and west, as well as a transition from an old world to a new world, a non-linear evolution to a higher plane of consciousness. The links drawn between spirituality and science, between meditation and evolution, speak to their attempts not only to combine Western science with Eastern spirituality, but also to move beyond this hybrid spirituality.”

india,french india,colonization,métis,créoles,franco-indian,mixed-race.pondichéry,aurobindo,the mother,kalki koechlin

Kalki Koechlin, star of the Indian cinema, is perhaps the most famous French-indian person to date. She was born in the 1980s in the territory of Pondicherry to French parents who came to Sri Aurobindo in the early 1970s.

india,french india,colonization,métis,créoles,franco-indian,mixed-race.pondichéry,aurobindo,the mother,kalki koechlin

  • [1] For more, see Jacques Weber, Pondichéry et les Comptoirs de l'Inde après Dupleix: La démocratie au
  • pays des castes (Paris: Denoël, 1996).
  • [2] The first use of "Anglo-Indian" was to describe all British people who lived in India. People of mixed British and Indian descent were referred to as "Eurasians". Terminology has changed, and the latter group are now called "Anglo-Indians".
  • [3] Carton, Mixed Race and Modernity, 13.
  • [4] Isidore Guët, Origines de l’Inde française, Jân Begum (Mme. Dupleix, 1706-1756) (Paris: Baudoin,
  • 1892).
  • [5] Adrian Carton notes that in the 16th and 17th centuries in India, the phrase “les filles portugaises” could
  • refer to mixed-race women or Christian free women of color, depending on the source. Carton, Mixed Race
  • and Modernity, 19.
  • [6] On the relationship between France and England, see Robert and Isabelle Toombs, That Sweet Enemy:
  • The French and British from the Sun King to the Present (New York: Knopf, 2007).
  • [7] Miles, 5.
  • [8] Stoler, “Sexual Affronts and Racial Frontiers.”
  • [9] Carton, Mixed Race and Modernity, 62.
  • [10] N. Hulliet. Hygiène des blancs, des mixtes et des indiens à Pondichéry (Pondichéry: Imprimeur du Governement, 1867): 12, 16-17.
  • [11] MAE: Asie-Oceanie, Inde Française, Carton 79, Dossier Questions judiciaires, Letter from S. Ostrorog to Edgar Faure, Président du Conseil, 14 April 1955.
  • [12] MAE: Asie-Oceanie, Inde Française, Carton 79, Dossier Questions judiciaires, Letter from S. Ostrorog to Edgar Faure, Président du Conseil, 14 April 1955.
  • [13] Jacques Weber, Pondichéry et les comptoirs, 404.

The comments are closed.