On the trail of an intrepid adventurer
French explorer Chevaliar’s memoirs shed light on the life in 18th century Eastern India, writes
For nearly 150 years, it lay hidden from public view, until it was discovered at the Bibliotheque de l’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 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, Chevalier’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. “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,” Dutta-Baruah says about the man whose two 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 l’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.