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.
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.
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?
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.