chapter
10 Pages

Introduction

Maria Texeira was a widow who lived in the town of Chandernagore, a small French colony about 24 miles from Calcutta on the banks of the Hooghly river. She first emerges in the colonial archives of Bengal in the late 1770s where her letters act as a window into the world of those who did not fit neatly within national, cultural and racial categories. Her deceased husband was the former notary of the settlement, a high-ranking French colonial official who was the chief registrar responsible for all deeds and testaments. She identified as a Catholic woman, loyal to the French flag and by all accounts she was independently wealthy before marriage. Living in la ville blanche, or the white town, she was a descendant of previous generations of interracial relationships between local women and the Portuguese settlers who started to make Bengal their home in the early 1500s. When French men established this outpost in 1673, they arrived to find Portuguese Eurasian women already living in the area and, in the absence of large numbers of accompanying white women from France, these women became preferred Catholic wives. As a French subject, she enjoyed the relatively privileged status as a European woman in colonial society despite never having been to Europe. The American Revolutionary War seems a world away from the life

of Maria Texeira but it was interwoven with it as part of a wider frame. In the context of late eighteenth-century global history, Peter Marshall argues that the decline of British power in America and the making of the British Empire in India were intimately entangled. They were interconnected events that are better understood as part of the same analytical field.1 The Declaration of American Independence in 1776 and the formal recognition of the United States by the British in 1783 occurs in the same period as the formal consolidation of British territorial sovereignty in India with the Regulating Act of 1773 and the India Act of 1784.2 In early 1778, France entered the American War on the side of the revolutionaries, thus initiating another global stand-off between the two powers. As a French subject, Maria Texeria was caught up in this web of seemingly distant connections since Chandernagore was occupied by the British during times of Anglo-French war, leading to the imprisonment or

expulsion of able-bodied Frenchmen and the seizure of French trade and communications. It was during one of these periods of occupation that Maria wrote two

protest letters, dated 1 October 1779 and 29 May 1780, addressed to the British authorities at Calcutta. She explained how the loss of her husband had caused her to be in a state of distress with no independent support to care for her four-year-old son. In her letter, she expressed her gratitude to the British for allowing her to remain in the town of her birth, but asserted that she should also be entitled to financial support on the same basis as that given to other European widows.3 The subtext of her plea spoke to an inherent clash of perceptions since she went to great pains to explain that she was a European and not a ‘native’ woman. Drawing on concepts of social justice, clemency and benevolence, she called on the British to grant her a pension because she was a political and economic hostage in her own home due to the circumstances of war. The letters of Maria Texeira were part of a wave of similar pleas from

widows and stranded women who spoke out against their plight in occupied Chandernagore. Hanging on the coat-tails of this far-flung remnant of the French Empire in Asia, and yet dependent on the mercy of British generosity to survive, these letters speak of cultural identities and of political experiences that seem to go against the grain of singular and monolithic historical interpretations of imperialism with their revelation of transnational lives and complicated loyalties. The distinction between European and ‘native’ was indefinite and often fuzzy in a setting that was further blurred by the fact that the French themselves were often under British imperial subjection. In reality, colonial categories were highly complex due to these political circumstances where the boundaries of race, culture and nation did not map neatly into binary frameworks. Cultural historians have often considered the lens of the individual life

narrative to look at these kinds of imperial tensions through the relationship between biography, geographical mobility and global history.4 This work does not follow this particular approach but, instead, treats these letters as a discursive window into the complex landscape of globalization, racial hybridity and inter-imperial relations. This gives us the context for understanding the marking of race according to what Ann Stoler has called different ‘grids of intelligibility’.5 While Stoler looks at these different grids according to axes of class, gender and citizenship from a transnational perspective, it might also be interesting to consider how far religion also played a significant role in the early modern period and how these different grids were often operating across empires in the same geographical location.6