Montesquieu, the Persian Rousseau, and Napoleon’s French Revolution in India

Soltan Hosayn, by Cornelis de Bruijn

Soltan Hosayn, by Cornelis de Bruijn. (Rijksmuseum)

The year 2021 marks the tercentenary of the publication of Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes and the two hundredth anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. At first glance, the philosophe who penned a novel about a fictional Persian’s travels to Paris in the first half of the eighteenth century seems to have little in common with the Corsican who marched his army across three continents at its end. But in fact both men were motivated by the same sequence of events to cast their eyes towards Persia. Pierre Victor Michel’s embassy to Shah Soltan Hosayn in 1708 and Mohammad Reza Beg’s delegation to Louis XIV in 1715 inspired Montesquieu’s peripatetic Persian protagonist and Napoleon’s 1808 treaty with Persia’s Fath-Ali Shah. Napoleon was an avid student of Persian history. His admiration for Persian conqueror Nader Shah ran so deep that he brokered his treaty to continue Nader’s invasion of the Asian subcontinent and bill it as a French Revolution in India.

Nader Shah

Nader Shah. (Unknown artist, Victoria and Albert Museum)

One of the chief architects of this revolution was Jean-François Xavier Rousseau, a forgotten Persian first cousin of another philosophe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Unlike the Citizen of Geneva, who eschewed trans-imperial trade and warned against commercial luxury, Jean-François embraced it. His father Jacques had arrived in Persia as part of Louis XIV’s first official delegation to Soltan Hosayn in 1706. He remained there and became jeweller to the Safavid and Afsharid shahs. Jacques’s son was born in Isfahan in 1738. By the age of eighteen, Jean-François secured a position as chancellor of trade in Basra. Following the deaths of the French consuls of Baghdad and Basra in the Great Persian Plague Epidemic of 1773, he assumed their consulships for three decades. Across the reigns of the Zands and the Qajar shah Fath-Ali, Jean-François lobbied Persian rulers, French kings and revolutionary governments to establish alliances while he organized plans for their joint conquest of India.

Jean-François’s project ran contrary to the French Bourbon monarchy’s long-standing partnership with the Ottomans. But from the late seventeenth century, missionaries and entrepreneurs who hoped to enrich themselves and grow French influence further east had peddled the idea of negotiating trade agreements with Turkey’s adversary, Persia. Following Michel’s commercial treaty with Soltan Hosayn in 1708, abbé Martin Gaudereau, Jean Billon de Canserilles, and Greek-French drogman-turned-consul Etienne Padéry attempted to convince Louis XIV, the duc d’Orléans, and Louis XV to secure more privileges by providing weapons and ships that the Safavids and their successors needed to suppress tributary populations and imperial competitors. Persia’s borderland violence intensified as famine and plague forced the Baluch, Kurdish, Ghilji, and Abdali tribes to migrate into the empire and the Omani Ya’rubids fought for control of the Gulf. Having exhausted English and Dutch aid, the Persians increasingly turned to France.

French rulers who sought to repair their global reputation following the disastrous Seven Years War found Persia’s entreaties enticing. Louis XV’s foreign minister, Etienne François, duc de Choiseul, toyed with the idea of colonizing Egypt and weighed opportunities in Basra and Baghdad to weaken Britain’s India trade. Under his direction, Jean-François Rousseau negotiated an agreement with Shah Karim Khan Zand to support French shipping through the Persian Gulf. Plague, borderland conflicts, and succession crises frustrated these plans. But Jean-François continued to lobby for a belligerent anti-British policy in western and south Asia. Following the fall of the Bourbon monarchy, he repackaged his project for a Franco-Persian offensive on India as a logical continuation of the French Revolution.

Napoleon breathed new life into Jean-François’s plans. Imagining a French corridor from Africa across the Indian Ocean and fantasizing being crowned emperor in Asia, he corresponded with Fath-Ali Shah, promising military aid against the Russians in exchange for a joint assault on India. Jean-François submitted a Tableau général de la Perse to Charles de Talleyrand, co-authored with his son Joseph and outlining plans for French marines to join Persians, Afghans, and Sikhs in the Gulf of Sindh, march on Delhi, and seize ‘the places that have knelt under the yoke of British domination’ (see ‘References’ below, no.1). The ‘liberation’ of the subcontinent would allow Napoleon and his Persian ally to surpass Nader Shah as warriors of the century.

Signing of the treaty of Finkenstein, by François-Henri Mulard

Signing of the treaty of Finkenstein, by François-Henri Mulard (1810).

But as soon as Napoleon signed his Treaty of Finkenstein with Fath-Ali’s ambassador Mirza Mohammed Reza Qasvini in 1807, he abandoned Persia and set his sights on Eastern Europe. Jean-François died in Aleppo the same year. While the subcontinent was spared a French offensive, Napoleon’s about-face reignited the Russo-Persian War of 1804-13. Without French aid Fath-Ali could not prevent carnage in the disputed northern frontier as Tsar Alexander drove a wedge into the Caucasus.

So the French Revolution in India never materialized. Then why remember another of Napoleon’s failures? Historians who studied eighteenth-century political ruptures traditionally ignored Asia, focusing on the three revolutions in England, France, and North America. But these were just a few of many political earthquakes that shattered old regimes during the Age of Revolutions. European contemporaries who witnessed the Siamese Revolution of 1688, the janissaries’ revolt against Ottoman Sultan Mustafa II (1703), Mahmud Hotaki’s siege of Isfahan (1722), and Nader Shah’s conquest of India (1738-40) described them as Asian ‘revolutions’, reflected on their causes, and mused over their effects on politics at home.

But as western powers jockeyed for global dominance, European elites consolidated a view, made famous by Montesquieu, that in Asia ‘power is always despotic’ and ‘liberty never grows’ (see ‘References’, below, no.2). The more they associated ‘revolution’ with a modern, democratic experiment, they saw its ideals as exclusively European. Asia was written out of the history of revolutionary progress, and labelled a political aberration. It is time to insert it back in. When we reconsider the Age of Revolutions globally we can better understand how two of the most significant processes of the century – competition among Eurasian empires and the development of democratic revolutions – were more intertwined than scholars have allowed.

Iran and a French empire of trade, 1700-1808: The other Persian letters is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.


  1. Centre des archives diplomatiques du ministère des affaires étrangères (La Courneuve), Correspondance politique Perse [AE CP] 8.64, f.182-89v, Jean-François Rousseau to Talleyrand, 28 vendémaire An XII (October 20, 1804); AE CP Perse 8.89, f.236, Rousseau to Talleyrand, 25 ventôse An XIII (March 20, 1805).
  2. Montesquieu, ‘Cause de l’immutabilité de la religion, des mœurs, des manières, des loix, dans les pays d’orient’, De l’esprit des lois, book 14, ch.4, p.288.

Junko Takeda, Syracuse University

A version of this text appeared on the Liverpool University Press blog.

Would you survive four radical political changes? Venetians in the early 19th century tried

If you think that you live in a rapidly changing society, consider the people who lived during the revolutionary and Napoleonic period.

Napoleon I as king of Italy by Andrea Appiani

Napoleon I as king of Italy by Andrea Appiani. (Wikimedia commons)

In 1797 the French army led by general Bonaparte brought about the end of the thousand-year-old Republic of Venice. It was a shock for the Venetians, yet they did not know what awaited them. The democratic period inaugurated by the French lasted only a few months, as Bonaparte ceded Venice and its mainland to the Habsburgs. But the Austrians didn’t stay long either. In 1805, after Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, Austria was forced to hand over Venice and its mainland to the Kingdom of Italy, created in 1805 by Bonaparte with himself as king, as Napoleon I. In 1813, after Napoleon’s many defeats, the Venetian mainland was occupied by Austrian troops, while Venice surrendered after a six-month siege. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna sanctioned the return of the Habsburgs, who ruled Venice until 1866. So, if you had been born in Venice in 1770 or 1780, you would have lived under five different regimes!

Il mondo nuovo

Il mondo nuovo (Edizioni Ca’ Foscari, 2019).

What were the effects of these rapid political changes on society? What happened to the ruling classes of Venice and the mainland? Did they maintain their position or did other people rise to prominence? These questions led to my research which is summarized in a book entitled Il mondo nuovo. L’élite veneta fra rivoluzione e restaurazione (1797-1815) (The New World. The Venetian elite between revolution and restoration).

The ‘new world’ in Italian has a double meaning, as it refers not only to the post-1789 era, but also to a precinematic device called ‘mondo nuovo’ (or ‘niovo’ in the Venetian language), a mechanical peep-show, also called panopticon, that could entertain people by illustrating for example what happened during the French Revolution. You can see the device, which was part of the entertainment in Venice’s carnival, in this illustration by Gaetano Zompini (1700-1778), printmaker and engraver. It also features in Giandomenico Tiepolo’s murals at the family villa in Zianigo and was the subject of a decorative porcelain piece by the Frankenthal factory.

Engraving of a panopticon by Gaetano Zompini

Engraving of a panopticon by Gaetano Zompini. (Wikimedia commons)

What will you find in this book? The first section describes the composition of the various governing and administrative bodies during the different political phases. The second section analyses the redefinition of noble status, the connection between kinship and politics (some cases are studied through social network analysis), as well as the informal power of social relations. The latter point is developed through the analysis of the networks of relations of key figures such as Giuseppe Rangoni, head of a Venetian Masonic lodge, and Giovanni Scopoli, director general of public education of the Kingdom of Italy. The last part of the book is focused on moments of crisis and transition phases. It explains how complicated it was being re-employed in such unstable contexts. It was mainly the ‘experts’ who succeeded, while the more ‘politicised’ public officials were purged.

This was the case of Giovanni Battista Sanfermo, judge at the Court of Appeal of Venice and member of a Venetian family who had rallied to the Napoleonic regime. His father, former ambassador of the Republic of Venice, was a councillor of state. In the spring of 1814, during the Austrian siege of Venice, general Seras (1765-1815), an Italian in Napoleon’s service, invited the Venetians to grow vegetables on public land to meet food supplies. Giovanni Battista decided to grow potatoes, earning the nickname ‘Count of Potatoes’. The Venetian people interpreted his act as an attempt to extend the siege, and thus their sufferings: Sanfermo became the symbol of all oppressive aspects of Napoleonic rule, so he had to be punished.

Ponte Santa Caterina, Venice

Ponte Santa Caterina, Venice.

On 19 May 1814 on the bridge of Santa Caterina a straw dummy bearing the motto: ‘death to the potato farmer’, was exposed on a stage. The dummy, which represented Giovanni Battista, had a potato stuck in his mouth and in each of his ears, a potato crown on his head and another potato basket at his feet. Crowds of people rushed there, shouting: ‘death to the potato farmer!’ Once darkness fell, lanterns were turned on and a mock trial was held, ending with a death sentence. Then the dummy was hit with around fifty gunshots, set on fire and dragged along the calle (street) of Santa Caterina. In the meantime, the crowd continued to insult this effigy of Sanfermo. But far from being frightened by this popular outburst, the real Sanfermo continued to walk peacefully along Venetian calli.

Countess Lucia Memmo Mocenigo by Angelika Kauffmann

Countess Lucia Memmo Mocenigo (1770-1854) by Angelika Kauffmann. (Wikimedia commons)

In conclusion, how could you enter the elite? Being noble was not fundamental, but still useful; being rich (especially being a landowner) was important, as well as having skills. As the Venetian noblewoman Lucia Memmo wrote to her son: ‘You should consider that public offices are given to people of every class.’ Hence, he had to study. My book gives more information about Lucia and her husband, Alvise Mocenigo, who built a self-sufficient agricultural-manufacturing town called ‘Alvisopoli’ (‘the town of Alvise’, in Veneto) and much more.

Valentina Dal Cin (Italian Institute for Historical Studies, Naples, and Ca’ Foscari University, Venice)

A free pdf of Il mondo nuovo is available here.