As I walked through the Ranga Pillai Street in Pondicherry, I asked my colleague if he knew the reason why the street was so named. Thankfully, he had heard of this colourful personality Ananda Ranga Pillai of French India who lived during the tumultuous times of the mid 18th century when both the English and the French tried hard to have its foothold over South India.
Ananda Ranga Pillai (1709-61) was the first secretary and adviser of the French East India Company in Pondicherry during the early decades of the 18th century. He was the “Dubash” or the translator and commercial representative of the French Governors, notably that of Joseph Francois Dupleix with whom he had a very personal rapport throughout his life. His private diary written in Tamil and covering the period from 1736 to 1761 is an amazing record of personal, historical, political and social matters during those momentous years of South Indian history.
We should be thankful to two French men Gallois Montbrun and Edouard Ariel (1818-1854) who had found the diaries of Ananda Ranga Pillai written in Tamil and which they got translated into French. Gallois Montbrun’s copy was used by Father Price and Rangachari to translate the diaries to the English language towards the end of the 19th century. Of the 12 volumes in English, 3 were published by them before 1914. H.Dodwell subsequently completed the next 9 volumes. The copies done by E.Ariel, who died at the age of 36 in 1854, are now preserved at the Bibliothèque Nationale François Mitterrand in Paris. Unfortunately, the original diaries written by Pillai are lost for ever.
Ananda Ranga’s father, Thiruvenkitam Pillai was a merchant in Madras who came to settle down in Pondicherry at the instance of his brother in law, Nainiya Pillai who was courtier and agent of the French there for which M.Herbert was the Governor. The business flourished and they became quite prosperous when Nainiya Pillai was imprisoned by Herbert on some flimsy accusations and he died in prison. His son, Guruva Pillai, a determined young man out to prove the innocence of his father, escaped to Madras with others and he traveled to Paris and had an audience with the Regent, the Duke of Orleans.
Guruva Pillai who embraced Christianity was made a Chevalier of St.Michael and was appointed the head of all Indian subjects of the French at Pondicherry and returned with great success. In the mean time, Herbert had been recalled and the new Governor welcomed back Thiruvenkitam Pillai and other wealthy merchants to Pondicherry. Guruva Pillai died without issues followed by Thiruvenkitam Pillai in 1726.
M.Lenoir, who had taken charge as the new Governor employed Ananda Ranga Pillai, a young and ambitious businessman in his father’s slot and later appointed him the native head of the French factory at Porto Novo manufacturing clothes. Ananda Ranga Pillai started his own trading posts and became a successful and wealthy trader. M.Dumas, who took over from Lenoir too held Pillai in high esteem but his star began to rise further with the arrival of Dupleix as Governor in 1742. Having known the father-son duo during his earlier tenure as an official in Pondicherry, Dupleix appointed Ananda Ranga Pillai as a Courtier or Chief Dubash in 1747.
As Chief Dubash, Ananda Ranga Pillai extended yeoman service to Dupleix with whom he seemed to have a very special relationship as could be observed from his notes. Dupleix indeed counted upon the advice of Pillai on many matters though they had their fair share of differences too. The greed of Dupleix especially that of his wife comes out clearly through the diaries. All the weaknesses of Dupleix as a human being and all his strengths as a Governor of the French are depicted by Pillai with consummate ease through his observations. The financial and political power Pillai enjoyed under the French rule also are visible from his recordings.
We also come to know of the personal rapport he had with Maharajah Anizhom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the founder and of modern Travancore as also with many rulers that included Chanda Sahib (Nawab of Carnatic between 1749-52) the Nizam of Hyderabad and others from erstwhile southern principalities.
A random selection of his notes with references to Travancore is given below to enable the readers to have a glimpse of his style and his eye for details. These notes unfold history from the vantage point of a remarkable person who witnessed history not as a bystander but as an active player who did his part remarkably well in a time of glorious uncertainties. Pillai died in 1761 just four days before the British occupied Pondicherry in a devastating battle with the French.
Those interested can read more direct from the twelve volumes of “The private diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai “, some of which are available online with Internet Archives.
Saturday, 3rd March 1741
This forenoon at 11, Naranappaiyan, an, envoy from the Raja of Travancore brought a letter, accompanied by presents, to the Governor. He came by land as far as Karikal, and taking a boat thence, arrived at Pondicherry. A salute of seven guns was fired when he delivered the gifts and letter to the Governor. The latter, after perusing the communication, conversed with him for a while, presented him with a turban and shawl, and bade him farewell. The envoy took leave, and repaired to his lodgings.
Monday, 11th April 1746
At 6 this evening, the Governor received a letter from Karikudi, to the following effect: A ship called the Pondicherry Marchand and commanded by M.Puel, proceeded from Mascareigne to Mahe. Instead of returning to Mascareigne, as the original intention appears to have been, she was cruising off Kolachel and the neighborhood of that port. The Raja of Travancore sent for M. Puel, and suggested to him that as news had been received that two or three English ships were making for those parts, he ought to consult the safety of his charge, and depart for some more secure locality. M. Puel then took his vessel to Karikal, and having discharged the cargo of firewood with which she was laden, and her ballast, sailed for the Danish port of Tranquebar, where he anchored. Whilst in the roads there, the ship was surrounded by five English men-of-war, which engaged her during the whole night. M. Puel, seeing that he could not cope with the enemy, ran his craft on shore, landed with his men, and blew her up. The Danish Governor commanding the fort of Tranquebar saw what occurred, and enraged at the manifestation of hostility by the English in a friendly port, ordered a few cannon shot to be fired at their ships, which returned the fire, killing a gunner, and wounding two of the garrison. The Danish Governor, seeing this, exclaimed:
“We are weak; they are strong. Let it be. God is just. An inquiry will surely be made into this matter in Europe." So saying, he wrote a letter to M. Paradis conveying intelligence of what had taken place.
The Governor of Pondicherry is .reported to have said on receipt of this news.
“M.Puel has done well to run his ship ashore, to escape capture by the English. When the circumstances of this matter become known in detail to the King of Denmark, he will surely demand satisfaction of the King of England for the hostile attack made by the English in a friendly port, and for the killing of a gunner, and the wounding of two men in the Danish service. The people of one nation cannot attack those of another, although they are their enemies, when the latter are protected by the flag of a neutral power. If such a thing happens, it is equivalent to a declaration of war by the first nation against the third. If the former of these, however, repudiates any hostile intention, it is bound to decapitate the offenders. This being the law of Europe, there is scarcely a doubt that the head of Commodore Barnet will be struck off."
Two or three respectable Frenchmen, who overheard these remarks of the Governor, communicated them to me. M. Le Maire, M. Cornet, and two or three other Frenchmen told me that other matters will be made known when M. Puel, the captain who blew his ship up, comes to Pondicherry.
Tuesday 4th October 1746
I next went to the Governor's house, and some time after my arrival a Palmyra-leaf letter from Vala Martanda Raja, of Travancore, and a letter from the French priests residing in that country were delivered to the Governor. The former of these contained the following:
“Some time ago, two of your ships anchored in the roads here, and we saw to the repair of these. The Dubash of Mahe was then here. A report is current that a fleet of nine sail on its way from France had an engagement with six of the English off Negapatam, but that the latter escaped. We desire to be informed in writing whether your fleet will reach our dominions in October."
As Tanappa Mudali desired me to go with him to the Governor, to interpret the letter, I went. When he began to translate it, the Governor interrupted him, saying that he knew what it was about, because the other letter had already given him the information, and therefore that he need not interpret it. Tanappa Mudali attempted to proceed, and the Governor again said that he was quite aware of the contents of the letter. Nevertheless he persisted in going on, on which the Governor expressed his annoyance, and thereupon Tanappa Mudali withdrew.
8 February 1747
Five ships which lay in the roads were despatched to-day, on an expedition. Two of them, when at Madras, encountered a storm, and had been dismasted. They were brought to Pondicherry, and refitted. The third was the St. Louis. The remaining two were under the command of M. Dordelin, and had arrived from Acheen. All five were fitted out as men-of-war, and were supplied with the necessary munitions and stores. Their objects of mission was to engage and take the English ships, which were said to be cruising on the Malabar coast, off Anjengo and Tellicherry; the capture of these places, also, forming one of the objects of the expedition. The captains of the ships were directed to take on board 6,000 Angrias, * who had offered their services. The Raja, of Travancore was also written to, asking him to procure the assistance of the Angrias*, and the letter was carried by one of the ships. The squadron set sail from Pondicherry, about one watch before sunrise.
- This name was applied to the followers of a noted piratical chieftain—one Toolajee Angria—who, following, at the time that Ranga Pillai wrote, in the footsteps of both his father and step-brother, had long been a constant source of trouble and danger to the sea trade of the Malabar coast, and of frequent annoyance to the servants of the East India Company. His misdeeds, and those of his people, were finally put an end to, in February 1756, when his last stronghold, Gheria, was captured, and his 6eet destroyed, by a combined sea and land force under the command of Admiral Watson and Colonel Olive, and he, being made a prisoner, was handed over to the Mahrattas, who took good care that he should do no further harm.
8 March 1747
On Monday the 6th March or 26th Masi, I wrote a letter, in the name of the Governor, to Maharaja Vanji Vala Martanda Varma of Travancore, and despatched it by his agent Kunti Nayakkan. A copy of it is in the file of papers with Madananda Pandit.
October 25, 1748
When I went to the Governor's this morning, he gave the letter for Vanji Vala Martanda Varma, Raja of Travancore, to the two Christians waiting and sent them away, telling me to give them 20 rupees. I got the money from Parasurama Pillai, gave it to the Christians, and sent them off.
18 September 1751
This evening a letter came from Mahe saying that, in spite of all assistance afforded to the Raja of Kolattanad, the English and the Ikkeri people were helping his enemies who had become very powerful, so that more troops were needed.
There are indeed various other more interesting details in the diaries of Ananda Ranga Pillai which can be of great interest to the discerning readers.
Tripunithura, South India
25th September 2011.