What happens when a country which considered itself a sophisticated market leader is flooded by fine manufactured goods much superior to what it could itself produce? How do consumers react? What does government do? How do producers face the growing competition? Do intellectuals start considering their own country and the producer country differently?
My research looks at the impact of Asian fabrics in ancien régime France, from their increased imports with the foundation of the French East India Company in 1664, to their oft repeated prohibitions from 1686 onwards, the lifting of the bans in 1759, and their role in French politics and thought up to 1780, when the last edition of Raynal’s History of the Two Indies was published.
It traces the path from the production of these fabrics in India and China to the hands of their consumers in urban and provincial France, considering the ubiquitous culture of smuggling that sprang up with the prohibition of the use of these textiles and its consequences. It studies not only the government’s response to this, but also the wider debates on political economy, mercantilism, and liberalism surrounding the import and use of Asian fabrics in France: whilst the birth of economic liberalism in France and Europe is often linked to the French grain debates, more rarely connected to the preceding debates surrounding the French East India Company’s monopoly in 1769, scholars largely ignore the fact that it found its first success in the liberalisation of the import of Asian fabrics in 1759. Europe’s modern economic doctrines are intimately connected with her early modern Asian trade.
But the almost universal infatuation with these goods provoked more than only economic debates. My research also considers French knowledge gathering about Asian production, as information both publicly available and individually sent to government agents. It then considers the wider intellectual impact that such evident examples of Asian superior skills had: how did this influence the French discourse on Europe, India, and China in French? How did it shape reactions to the emerging European colonial rule in Asia?
By connecting disparate fields of investigation my research aims to contributing to a wider study of the impact of Europe’s imports of fine manufactured Asian goods which preceded European world hegemony in the later eighteenth and nineteenth century.