Intangible Heritage

A Walk Through the French Quarter: “This looks just like New Orleans!”

Map of Pondicherry 1705

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Fren­ch colo­ni­zers began their expe­di­tions later than most of the other Impe­rial powers of Euro­pe, but they first made claims to both Pon­di­cher­ry and New Orleans around the same time (1673 and 1684, res­pec­ti­ve­ly). And whi­le the Fren­ch empi­re isn’t as well-known as having been so vast, domi­nee­ring, and indus­tria­li­zing as tho­se of the Bri­ti­sh, Spa­ni­sh, and Por­tu­gue­se, they cer­tain­ly left their mark on the pla­ces in whi­ch they did set­tle.

The his­to­ric dis­tricts of Pon­di­cher­ry and New Orleans still today have dis­tinct auras of Fren­ch influen­ce in the buil­dings, the peo­ple, the cultu­re, the food. More than one visi­tor to Pon­di­cher­ry, in fact, has com­pa­red it to New Orleans, des­pi­te the cities being on oppo­si­te sides of the glo­be. The Fren­ch have crea­ted a connec­tion bet­ween them, howe­ver, and whi­le the for­mer colo­nies deve­lo­ped with dis­tinct his­to­ries, cer­tain fac­tors of the times per­iod, the envi­ron­ment, and the peo­ple pro­du­ced stri­king simi­la­ri­ties bet­ween the­se dis­tant cities.

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Consi­de­ring Pon­di­cher­ry and New Orleans from a wider his­to­ri­cal pers­pec­ti­ve, we see a few inter­es­ting connec­tions. Nota­bly, the Fren­ch lost and regai­ned control of both ter­ri­to­ries repea­ted­ly over time. But, although New Orleans was under Spa­ni­sh rule for almost fif­ty years, and Pon­di­cher­ry was ruled by the Bri­ti­sh for a com­bi­ned 27 years, the Dut­ch for 13 years, the Danes for 50 years, and the Por­tu­gue­se for near­ly a cen­tu­ry (!), it has been the Fren­ch who have had the most las­ting cultu­ral impact in both pla­ces. Ano­ther inter­es­ting obser­va­tion is that with the Trea­ty of Paris in 1763, whi­ch joint­ly ended the Fren­ch and Indian War in Nor­th Ame­ri­ca, the Seven Years War in Euro­pe, and the Car­na­tic Wars in India, the Fren­ch offi­cial­ly relin­qui­shed New Orleans to Spain, and in return gai­ned Pon­di­cher­ry back from the Bri­ti­sh.

Eco­lo­gi­cal­ly, both Pon­di­cher­ry and New Orleans are coas­tal cities, whi­ch were of cour­se attrac­ti­ve to mari­ne-based colo­ni­zers. Whi­le Pon­di­cher­ry abuts the Bay of Ben­gal, New Orleans sits at the mou­th of the Mis­sis­sip­pi on the Gulf of Mexi­co. Addi­tio­nal­ly, the Fren­ch laid claim to Karai­kal in 1739, whi­ch was situa­ted on the Kave­ri River del­ta, sou­th of Pon­di­cher­ry. Envi­ron­men­tal his­to­rian Chris­to­pher Mor­ris wri­tes that the Fren­ch trea­ted the Mis­sis­sip­pi and the Kave­ri essen­tial­ly the same way, and that the­se eco­lo­gies high­ly influen­ced the agri­cul­tu­ral and labor pat­terns of both regions. Plants whi­ch flou­ri­shed in Pon­di­cher­ry, for exam­ple, like cot­ton, indi­go, sugar, and rice, the Fren­ch attemp­ted to culti­va­te (with varying degrees of suc­cess) in New Orleans. And spe­cies that were being grown in Nor­th Ame­ri­ca – pota­toes, corn, pea­nuts – were trans­plan­ted to India. The depen­den­ce on the­se crops, whi­ch in gene­ral requi­red arduous culti­va­tion, contri­bu­ted to oppres­si­ve local sys­tems of bound labor (whi­ch his­to­ry too often igno­res).

Along­si­de the­se his­to­ri­cal and envi­ron­men­tal connec­tions, the­re is also the sha­red sym­bol of the Fren­ch Monar­chy: the fleur de lis. Fren­ch explo­rer Sieur de La Sal­le clai­med the land of New Orleans with a flag bea­ring the sty­li­zed lily in 1682. When the ter­ri­to­ry was offi­cial­ly made a colo­ny of Fran­ce in 1718 and named for the Duke of Orleans, the fleur de lis stu­ck as a las­ting sym­bol of city. Just as New Orleans was being colo­ni­zed, the Com­pa­gnie des Indes orien­ta­les was tee­te­ring on ban­krupt­cy. Eco­no­mist John Law had just foun­ded the Mis­sis­sip­pi Com­pa­ny to sup­port Fren­ch colo­ni­za­tion in Nor­th Ame­ri­ca, and in 1720 the Com­pa­gnie des Indes orien­ta­les was absor­bed under the Mis­sis­sip­pi Com­pa­ny for three years until its ope­ra­ting inde­pen­den­ce was res­to­red. Also in 1720, the Fren­ch in Pon­di­cher­ry began min­ting sil­ver and cop­per dou­dou coins, whi­ch fea­tu­red the name of Pudu­cher­ry writ­ten in Tamil on the back, and a fleur de lis on the front.

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For tho­se visi­ting either city today, both Pon­di­cher­ry and New Orleans still embo­dy a few per­va­ding cha­rac­te­ris­tics whi­ch seem to connect them across the glo­be. The­se broad­ly stem from their being loca­tions whe­re a par­ti­cu­lar confluen­ce of cultu­res has crea­ted a uni­que syn­cre­tism. In Pon­di­cher­ry, this is eve­ry­thing we call Fran­co-Tamil; and in New Orleans, this is all things Creo­le and Cajun.

The Fran­co-Tamil creo­le iden­ti­ty is a pro­duct of inter­mar­ria­ges and pro­ge­ny bet­ween Euro­pean colo­ni­zers and local Tami­lians, whi­ch was not uncom­mon from the very begin­ning of Fren­ch set­tle­ment. This fused cultu­re, howe­ver, came into its own in the late 19th cen­tu­ry when creo­les began to demand the same poli­ti­cal rights that were gran­ted to Fren­ch natio­nals. In 1880, the Fren­ch govern­ment pas­sed a decree whi­ch allo­wed Tami­lians in Fren­ch Pon­di­cher­ry to renoun­ce their legal sta­tus under Hin­du, Mus­lim, or cas­te autho­ri­ty, and beco­me sub­jects of Fren­ch law. Tho­se who signed their names and cho­se new Fren­ch sur­na­mes beca­me renon­çants and decla­red them­sel­ves as Fran­co-Tamil.

Like­wi­se in New Orleans, Creo­le typi­cal­ly refers to the gene­ral cultu­ral blend of Euro­peans (name­ly, Fren­ch and Spa­ni­sh), Afri­cans, and Nati­ve Ame­ri­cans, whi­ch was high­ly uni­que to the region. (The word creo­le – unca­pi­ta­li­zed – sim­ply means a for­ma­li­zed syn­the­sis of lan­gua­ge or cultu­re.) Cajun, on the other hand, refers to a very spe­ci­fic group of peo­ple and their des­cen­dants who migra­ted to New Orleans from the Aca­dia region of Nova Sco­tia. The­se Fren­ch set­tlers were at odds with the Bri­ti­sh in what is now Cana­da, and the Bri­ti­sh for­mal­ly exi­led them in 1713. When the Aca­dians joi­ned the Fren­ch in New Orleans, they beca­me known Cajuns and the mixed pot of local cultu­re thi­cke­ned.

Each of the­se uni­que ver­sions of cultu­ral syn­cre­tism has had las­ting mani­fes­ta­tions in dif­fe­rent aspects of local living. In Pon­di­cher­ry, one of the most salient fea­tu­res of Fran­co-Tamil cultu­re is its archi­tec­tu­re. Often with tra­di­tio­nal Tamil ground floors, exten­ded Fren­ch-influen­ced first floors, and other inter­ac­ting hybrid ele­ments, the Fran­co-Tamil buil­dings in Pon­di­cher­ry are the phy­si­cal repre­sen­ta­tions of other intan­gi­ble ele­ments of this rich heri­ta­ge. Lin­guis­ti­cal­ly, for exam­ple, Pon­di­cher­ry conti­nues to be a nucleus of both Fren­ch and Tamil. Like­wi­se, reli­gious prac­ti­ces inclu­de Hin­duism, Chris­tia­ni­ty, devo­tees who wor­ship Gods from both faiths, and Chris­tian rituals influen­ced by local Hin­du tra­di­tions.

In New Orleans, Cajun cultu­re is pro­ba­bly most visi­ble in the local cui­si­ne. Across the Uni­ted Sta­tes, New Orleans is known for its Cajun gum­bo, craw­fi­sh étouf­fée, and jam­ba­laya. Zyde­co music is also a result of Fren­ch Catho­lic musi­cal tra­di­tions fusing with tho­se of local Nati­ve Ame­ri­cans, Afri­cans, and Creo­les. Cajun Fren­ch like­wi­se refers to the creo­le dia­lect whi­ch is spo­ken throu­ghout the region.

In both of the­se for­mer colo­nial cities, the­se dyna­mic cultu­ral iden­ti­ties contri­bu­te to a par­ti­cu­lar aura within the town. In Pon­di­cher­ry and New Orleans ali­ke, the­re seems to be a cer­tain roman­ti­ci­zing of per­am­bu­la­tion (or, as we’ve tal­ked about befo­re, le fla­neur.) The best way to expe­rien­ce each city, they say, is to wan­der through its streets. Lis­ten for the music, smell the food and the flo­wers, hear the water lap­ping at the sho­re, obser­ve the grand colo­nial archi­tec­tu­re, meet with locals and dis­co­ver their lan­gua­ge, pau­se to rest in a café with Fren­ch pas­tries and café au lait. Whe­re are we now? A small town on the Coro­man­del Coast of India, or a live­ly city on the mou­th of the Mis­sis­sip­pi?

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Mor­ris, Chris­to­pher. “Wet­land Colo­nies: Loui­sia­na, Guangz­hou, Pon­di­cher­ry, and Sene­gal.” Culti­va­ting the Colo­nies: Colo­nial Sta­tes and Their Envi­ron­men­tal Lega­cies, edi­ted by Chris­ti­na Fol­ke Ax et al., 1st ed., Ohio Uni­ver­si­ty Press, Athens, 2011, pp. 135–163.

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