People sometimes forget—if they are even aware—that France’s empire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries included a colonial presence in South Asia, a presence...

People sometimes forget—if they are even aware—that France’s empire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries included a colonial presence in South Asia, a presence that at one time rivaled that of the British. Danna Agmon’s A Colonial Affair: Commerce, Conversion, and Scandal in French India (Cornell University, 2017) zooms in on the 1716 arrest and conviction of a Tamil commercial agent and employee of the French East India Company, a legal case that resonated throughout the empire for decades, even centuries, afterward. The “Nayiniyappa Affair” at the heart of this microhistory is Agmon’s way into a complex web of interests and fractures: the aims and actions of French traders, missionaries, and administrators, as well as the roles and agency of indigenous subjects and intermediaries. Moving from colonial Pondicherry to metropolitan France and back again, A Colonial Affair focuses on a local story and context with much broader implications for how we think about the workings of imperial power, authority, and sovereignty.

In chapters that revisit the narrative of Nayiniyappa’s case from different angles, Agmon treats the affair as a prism illuminating aspects of the history of French colonialism. Examining the scandal from various perspectives, A Colonial Affair considers the myriad ways in which the origins and outcomes of the Nayiniyappa scandal were and might be understood. Throughout the book, Agmon weaves together the richness of the abundant archival material on the affair with careful analysis of the social, political, economic, and cultural dynamics of the case and context, including the meanings and effects of language, religious belief, local and kinship networks. A Colonial Affair will be of wide appeal to readers interested in the histories of France, India, Early modern capitalism, law, and empire in its multiple forms.


Roxanne Panchasi is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. Her current research focuses on the cultural politics of nuclear weapons and testing in France and its empire since 1945. She lives and reads in Vancouver, Canada. If you have a recent title to suggest for the podcast, please send an email to: [email protected].

*The music that opens and closes the podcast is an instrumental version of “Creatures,” a song written by Vancouver artist/musician Casey Wei (performing as “hazy”). To hear more, please visit https://agonyklub.com/.

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