The French Republic of Letters, Persia, and the Global Age of Revolutions

By Junko Takeda

In 1721, the same year as the publication of Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes, the Afghan Ghilji chief Mahmud Hotak began making incursions into Persia. After besieging Isfahan, he overthrew Shah Soltan Hosayn and forced the collapse of the Safavid dynasty in 1722. Mahmud’s victory ushered in several decades of political turmoil. His short rule was followed by the brief reign of Soltan Hosayn’s son Tahmasp. Within a decade, Nader Shah Afshar (Tahmasp Qoli Khan) claimed the throne, invaded India, and garnered fame as the period’s most formidable conqueror. 

Book Cover of Iran and a French Empire of Trade by Junko Takeda.

Though few and far between, French subjects in Iran commented on the “revolutions” they witnessed. They were nowhere near as famous as Montesquieu or his fictional Persians, but their letters informed European policy makers and literary audiences about political earthquakes transforming Eurasian empires. These writings highlight the impact of the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean worlds on European revolutions and empire-building in the age of Enlightenment. They also raise useful questions about the centrality of the “west” and the Atlantic in scholarship on the Age of Revolutions. 

French observers of Asia were students of revolutions. China, Montesquieu would note in De l’esprit des lois, “experienced twenty-two general revolutions [and] infinite particular ones” while southern Asia “continually suffer[ed] very great revolutions.”[1] Peasant rebellions, the Manchu conquest, and famine ended Ming rule by 1644. In south Asia, Mughal emperor Aurangzeb began his reign in 1658 with a war of succession that wrested power from Jahan. King Narai’s Ayutthaya, or kingdom of Siam, fell to his councilor Phra Phetracha’s revolution as England’s King James II lost the throne to William and Mary.[2] And across Persia, epidemics, famines, and silver drainage triggered riots and invasions. The Safavids’ fall opened the way for dynastical competitions and Russian, Ottoman, Afghan, and Omani incursions across the century. 

French merchants, missionaries, and consuls in Persia were certainly aware of the turmoil, and focused their reports on imperial and fiscal crises. In the mid-seventeenth century, merchants and jewelers Jean Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier already described how “revolutions” had shrunk Persian’s borders as “despotic governments” deteriorated the empire. In the last decade of Safavid rule, the consul Etienne Padery commented on frontier instability, noting that “we have never seen revolutions so great in Persia as those today.”[3] He and fellow consul Ange de Gardane in Isfahan also deployed the word to discuss turmoil at the heart of the regime. They described the fall of Soltan Hosayn’s vizier Fath Ali Khan Dhagestani in December 1720 as a “joyous” revolution.[4] Two years later, they characterized Mahmud’s overthrow of the Safavids as a “revolution” and contrasted his “tyrannies” against Soltan Hosayn’s courage. Back in France, the Gazette’s May 1722 issue described Mahmud’s advances and Russian expansion into Persia. Developments in Turkey, Persia, and Russia topped the Mercure’s headlines between September 1722 and July 1723.[5]

Map of the Persian Empire.
Reiner and Joshua Ottens, Regnum Persicum Turcicum, public domain (c. 1730)

The French term “revolution” evolved across the seventeenth century from a word confined to astronomical discussions to one used to describe unfortunate political upheavals.[6] By the late eighteenth century, writers would connect “revolution” to political regeneration. Across the mid-eighteenth century, French observers of Persia applied the term both ways. These usages particularly emerged in discussions about Nader Shah, the famous conqueror who led military campaigns against the Ottomans, took back the Caucasus, and invaded India while ruling Persia from 1736 to 1747. Some depicted him as a revolutionary who restored a fractured Persia. The November 1731 issue of the Mercure de France introduced him as a “warrior savior.” Excusing his atrocities and conquest of India, authors pit the strongman’s masculine power against the effeminacy that Europeans typically ascribed to “oriental despots.” Others suggested that he embodied the virtues of republicanism. The brother of French consul Gardane in Isfahan described Nader’s inspirational ascent, chronicling how the humble herdsman became “the restorer of Persia.” In Histoire de Thamas Kouli Kan, roi de Perse(1743), André de Claustre, the abbé de Cerceau, described him as a general who “remedied disorders,” “relieved poor families,” and “judged complaints against governors.” Highlighting his democratic tendencies, he noted how Nader declined the throne until he “convoked the Estates General” to “freely elect” him king.[7] Authors like Louis, chevalier de Jaucourt, who qualified Nader as a “usurper” in the Encyclopédie still admired the “ambition, courage and activity” of “this extraordinary man.”[8]

That the gendered appraisals of Nader captivated French audiences at the same time that Louis XV lost France’s Atlantic and Caribbean colonies and Louis XVI struggled to produce an heir is perhaps more than a coincidence. 

But these writings did more than reflect French domestic anxieties or satisfy orientalist curiosities. They also impacted some of France’s interventionist policies after the Seven Years War. Louis XV’s foreign minister Étienne François, the duc de Choiseul, and secretary of state for the navy, César Gabriel de Choiseul, the duc de Praslin, paid particular attention to opportunities around the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, hoping to instigate proxy wars, deal arms, colonize Egypt, and replace lost Caribbean revenues with African and Asian trade. They dispatched France’s trade commissioner in Baghdad, Jean-François Rousseau, first cousin of the philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to shah Karim Khan Zand in 1768 to boost trade in the Persian Gulf. Jean-François’ father Jacques had served as chief jeweler for Soltan Hosayn, Tahmasp, and Nader. Born in Isfahan in 1738, Jean-François devoted his life to planning a French invasion of India, which he marketed to Napoleon Bonaparte at the turn of the century. 

Fantasizing about becoming emperor in Asia, Napoleon corresponded with Persia’s Qajar shah Fath-Ali, promising aid against Russia in exchange for a joint assault on the subcontinent. His and Fath-Ali’s conquest of India, which would unite the “Orient’s courage and genius” and western “military arts and discipline,” he argued, could represent the culmination of Nader’s and France’s revolutions.[9] Jean-François and his son Joseph submitted a Tableau général de la Perse to Talleyrand, outlining plans for French marines to march on Delhi with Persians, Afghans, and Sikhs.[10] The “liberation” of India from British “despotism” would allow Napoleon and his Persian ally to surpass Nader as warriors of the century.[11]

After signing the Franco-Persian Treaty of Finckenstein in 1807, Napoleon focused on Eastern Europe and abandoned Fath-Ali. But the abortive Franco-Persian revolution nonetheless provides important historical lessons. The Enlightenment’s republic of letters linked political observations from Isfahan and Baghdad to audiences in Paris and Versailles and stressed the relationship between revolutionary regeneration and imperial expansion. Policy-makers realized that Persia’s domestic turmoil and Nader’s conquest of India, which they branded as “revolutions,” molded a favorable environment for European conquerors, diplomats, and merchants to cut their imperial teeth. While traditionally left out of scholarly discussions about eighteenth-century revolutions, Asian empires’ roles in shaping European revolutionary ideas and practices cannot be underestimated. It is time to draw more connections between the Asian and Atlantic worlds and rethink our narratives about the making of modernity.


Junko Takeda is Associate Professor of History (early modern France) at Syracuse University. Her research focuses on early modern globalization, statecraft and migration. She is the author of Between Crown and Commerce: Marseille and the Early Modern Mediterranean (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011) and Iran and a French Empire of Trade, 1700-1808: The Other Persian Letters (Oxford Series in the Enlightenment, Liverpool University Press, 2020). She is currently writing a global microhistory about Avedik, an Armenian patriarch of Constantinople kidnapped and imprisoned in France during the reign of Louis XIV.

Title Image: François Mulard, Napoléon reçoit l’ambassadeur de Perse à Finckenstein, 27 avril 1807 (1810)

Further readings:

Armitage, David and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, eds. The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c. 1760-1840. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Matthee, Rudi. Persia in Crisis: Safavid Decline and the fall of Isfahan. London: I.B. Tauris, 2012.

Mokherbi, Susan. The Persian Mirror: Reflections of the Safavid Empire in Early Modern France. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Endnotes:

[1] Montesquieu, “Fatale consequence du luxe à la Chine,” Book 7, chapter 7., p. 126; 

[2] Takeda, Iran and a French Empire of Trade, 1700-1808: The Other Persian Letters (Liverpool, 2020), 134-37.

[3] Centre des archives diplomatiques du ministère des affaires étrangères, AE CP Perse 5.91, fo.270-271v, Padery, April 15, 1720; AE CP 5.105 fo.316, Padery, October 31, 1720. 

[4] AE CP Perse 6.1, folio 7-10v, Gardane, January 2, 1721.

[5] Takeda, 152.

[6] Keith Baker, “Revolution,” The French Revolution and the creation of Modern Political Culture, vol. 2, ed. Colin Lucas (Oxford, 1988), 41-62.

[7] André de Claustre, Histoire de Thamas Kouli-Khan, roi de Perse (Paris, 1743), 19, 92, 280-81, 362-63.

[8] Chevalier de Jaucourt, “l’empire de Perse,” Diderot and D’Alembert, Encyclopédie, accessed at http://artflsrv02.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.11:914:1.encyclopedie0416.4114302.4114309.4114316 on January 8, 2021.

[9] AE CP Perse 8.83, “Bonaparte empereur des Français à Fathali sha emperor des persans,” March 1805.

[10] AE CP Perse 9.26, fo.50-52v, Rousseau to Talleyrand, May 1, 1806.

[11] AE CP Perse 8.64, f.182-89v, Rousseau to Talleyrand, 28 vendémaire An XII; AE CP Perse 8.89, f.236, Rousseau to Talleyrand, 25 ventose An XIII.

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