In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section France and its Empire in the Indian Ocean

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • The Indian Ocean in France: Goods and People
  • The French East India Companies
  • Imperial Rivalries
  • The French Revolution
  • Knowledge Production
  • Madagascar and the Malagasy Diaspora
  • Slavery and Abolition in the Mascarenes
  • Slave Trades

Atlantic History France and its Empire in the Indian Ocean
Nathan Marvin, Blake Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0318


France was a latecomer to the Indian Ocean among European powers. After some tentative and short-lived initiatives by private merchants, the first French East India Company was founded in 1664 by a French monarchy eager to catch up with England and the Netherlands, which had founded companies of their own at the beginning of the 17th century. Competing with the English and Dutch to replace the Portuguese as the preeminent European power in the Indian Ocean, France gradually established a network of colonial holdings that included the island colonies of the Mascarenes in the southwestern Indian Ocean (Réunion and Mauritius) as well as a network of trading posts along the shores of the Indian subcontinent. Plans to expand this colonial empire to Madagascar, however, met with repeated failure. Established as a regional power by the middle of the 18th century, France would be reduced by the century’s end to the role of a spectator of Britain’s rising hegemony. Nevertheless, France held on to some of its Indian Ocean territories, including Réunion and Pondicherry in South Asia. These outposts of French imperialism would inspire nostalgia, regret, and new colonial ambitions among metropolitan observers, and they would become sites of cultural hybridity and exchange. Indeed, while France’s empire in the Indian Ocean is often overshadowed by the emergence of British dominance in the 19th century, or by the intensity of French investment in the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean was a key area of French military, diplomatic, economic, and cultural interest in the 17th and 18th centuries, and beyond.

General Overviews

No single-volume introduction to the topic of the French Indian Ocean is available, either for the 17th and 18th centuries or in general (although Ames and Love 2003 gestures toward this). There is, however, a large and growing body of literature that frames the Indian Ocean as a coherent object of historical study, building on earlier work that did the same for the Atlantic (Toussaint 1966, Pearson 2003, Parthasarathi and Riello 2014, Sivasundaram 2018). Much of this scholarship is concerned with the encounters of Europeans and South Asians, and with the emergence of rival European empires battling for control of the Indian Ocean littorals (Bose 2006). Margolin and Markovits 2015 focus on European rivalries in and interactions with the Indian Subcontinent, while Haudrère 1997, Haudrère 2014, and to a lesser extent, Pluchon 1991, explore French activities across the Indian Ocean region.

  • Ames, Glenn J., and Ronald S. Love, eds. Distant Lands and Diverse Cultures: The French Experience in Asia, 1600–1700. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

    This compendium features essays analyzing French travel narratives from a range of Indian Ocean regions, including Siam, China, Ethiopia, and Madagascar.

  • Bose, Sugata. A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674028579

    Monograph that centers the Indian Ocean region within the emergence of modern global empires, including those of Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain, and France.

  • Haudrère, Philippe. L’empire des rois, 1500–1789. Paris: Denoël, 1997.

    Excellent survey of France’s first colonial empire, based largely on the author’s own research, with particularly broad coverage of French activities in the Indian Ocean. A useful appendix of primary source extracts includes several on India.

  • Haudrère, Philippe. Les français dans l’océan Indien, XVIIe–XIXe siècle. Rennes, France: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2014.

    DOI: 10.4000/books.pur.50724

    Rather than a narrative history or synthesis, this is a collection of essays (most published elsewhere) that brings together some of the best scholarship of one of the leading historians of French imperialism in the Indian Ocean.

  • Margolin, Jean-Louis, and Claude Markovits, eds. Les Indes et l’Europe: Histoires connectées, XVe–XXIe siècle. Paris: Gallimard, 2015.

    Edited by specialists on Southeast and South Asia, respectively, this volume traces connections between Europe and the Indian Ocean world from the 15th century to the present.

  • Parthasarathi, Prasannan, and Giorgio Riello. “The Indian Ocean in the Long Eighteenth Century.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 48.1 (Fall 2014): 1–19.

    DOI: 10.1353/ecs.2014.0038

    Article of economic history that considers the Indian Ocean as a commercial space that was vital to western Europe’s transformation in the 18th century, the era of the “great divergence.” Trade between Europe and Asia via the Indian Ocean world shaped the rise of the modern global economy.

  • Pearson, Michael. The Indian Ocean. London: Routledge, 2003.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203414132

    Includes a helpful chapter on the emergence of a European presence in the Indian Ocean, beginning with the Portuguese and Dutch and including the French and English.

  • Pluchon, Pierre. Histoire de la colonisation française: Le premier empire colonial. Vol. 1. Paris: Fayard, 1991.

    Although written by a Caribbean specialist, this overview of France’s first colonial empire, unlike others of its kind, pays equal attention to the Atlantic and Indian Ocean spheres of French expansion. Its tables of population and trade statistics are particularly useful for comparative purposes.

  • Sivasundaram, Sujit. “The Indian Ocean.” In Oceanic Histories. Edited by David Armitage, Alison Bashford, and Sujit Sivasundaram, 31–61. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

    A state-of-the-field essay stressing the breadth of historiographical frameworks through which scholars have approached the history of the maritime Indian Ocean world.

  • Toussaint, Auguste. History of the Indian Ocean. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

    One of the first synthetic historical accounts of the Indian Ocean, inspired by Braudel’s longue durée history of the Mediterranean. Begins in the third millennium BCE and ends after the Second World War. Not unexpectedly, given the author’s long career as director of the Archives of Mauritius, French imperialism in the Indian Ocean plays a central role.

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