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French explorer's memoirs on travel to Assam

September 17, 2008

On the trail of an intrepid adventurer French explorer Chevaliar's 
memoirs shed light on the life in 18th century
Eastern India, writes Utpal Borpujari
Utpal Borpujari

Sakaal Times
September 13, 2007

For nearly 150 years, it lay hidden from public view, until it was 
discovered at the Bibliotheque de lâ institue, Paris in 1926. Another 
62 years passed before French scholar Jean Deloche restored, edited 
and got it published in 1984 through the French School of Asian 
Studies (EFFO), Paris. And finally, now, the "â Adventures of Jean-
Baptiste Chevalier in Eastern India" (1752-1765), a highly-interesting 
account of the governor of the French enclave Chandennagore in present-
day West Bengal during 1767-78, has become accessible to the people in 
India, thanks to a Normandy-born financial expert whose interest to 
translate the account into English got stoked by primarily by the fact 
that she got married to an Assamese family.

Chevalier, who was known for his adventurous trait, travelled 
extensively in Assam, Bengal and Tibet, and his first-person accounts, 
despite being historically important for the simple fact that his was 
one of the earliest about these regions from the viewpoint of an 
outsider, lay virtually unknown to the outside world for such a long 
period. And that was exactly what attracted the attention of Caroline 
Dutta-Baruah, incidentally married to the family that owns LBS 
Publications, one of the oldest publishing houses of Assam that has 
brought out, in collaboration with EFEO, the English translation done 
by her and Deloche.

It was the historical relevance of the long-lost account that caught 
the immediate attention of Dutta-Baruah, as also the sense of 
adventure that it brought in. "Chevalier had clear instruction to 
discover the fabled riches of Assam."  In those days, the French had a 
very vague idea of the land but it was fabled to be very rich and hold 
a strong potential for trade.  The wool, silk, gold, ivory that came 
from there had been intriguing them for a while."  Its close proximity 
with Tibet, China and Burma made it attractive as a potential trading 
hub, and Chevalier had been instructed to confirm these reports and if 
they turned out to be true, to try by all means to get allowance for a 
plot of land there and build a French lodge. The travels to Tibet were 
with the same motive, to enter China through Tibet and explore the 
riches of China," she says.

As the book reveals, Chevalierâ s description of places and people are 
clearly not the writings of a poet or a creative writer, but it brings 
out the sense of life in the areas he visited. â When it boils down to 
business and especially when someone tried to interfere with his work, 
a sudden burst of energy prompted him to write in a very incisive and 
aggressive manner.  It is interesting to note how he would indulge in 
paying off the officers or try to please them and yet grumble about 
their corruption. He was an out and out adventurer, braving the 
Brahmaputra to reach Assam and then embarking on the tedious journey 
to Tibet,â Dutta-Baruah says about the man whose two manuscripts - 
"Journals of my travels in Assam" and "Historical memoir from my 
arrival in India in 1752 to date" were combined by Deloche in the 
version restored from papers donated by one Henri Cordier to the 
Bibliotheque de lâ institut, Paris in 1926. Cordier had in turn got 
the papers from the family of Chevalier De Conan, a descendent of 
Chevalier.

  As she translated the work, Dutta-Baruah found that Chevalier had 
the habit of going into details of whatever he saw or experienceed.  
"These descriptions are by themselves very important for intricate 
historical research as well as for light reading," she says, 
"particularly mentioning the descriptions of the palace of Ahom king 
Rajesvara Singha, the Kamakhya temple and the hunting expeditions."  
"The monarch's attitude towards foreigners has also been portrayed in 
detail, providing a background to the mindset of 18th century Assamese 
society."  The wealth, the lavish lifestyle yet the inherent 
simplicity of the royalty and upper class society comes to light from 
the account," she details.

  Another aspect that interested her was the peep she got from the 
accounts into the modus operandi of the French and the British as they 
set about expanding their bases in India. "We can arrive at the 
conclusion from his descriptions that the English had definitely 
invested more in their efforts in India than the French," she says.
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