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Book Extract: The Memoirs of a French Soldier Who Came to India in 1773

Louis Laurent de Federbe, Comte de Modave, came to India in hopes of making a fortune. After his death, his journal and other papers reached France where they remained in the National Library for nearly 200 years before being published.

Louis Laurent de Federbe, Comte de Modave, came to India in search of fortune in 1773. He spent four years in the country, the greater part in and around Delhi, either with Shah Alam II or his general, Mirza Najaf Khan. He was disappointed in his expectations of making a fortune and died a miserable death. However, his journal and other papers reached France where they remained in the National Library for nearly 200 years, until the Ecole Nationale d’Extreme Orient published it in a carefully collated edition in 1971. This book, Voyage en Inde du Comte de Modave, has recently been translated into English.

The following is an extract from Soldier of Misfortune: The Memoirs of the Comte de Modave, edited and annotated by Jean Deloche and translated by G. S. Cheema.

G. S. Cheema
Soldier Of Misfortune: The Memoirs Of The Comte De Modave
Manohar (2024)

At last the promised day, so earnestly desired, arrived, and though I had been informed the day before, I did not quite believe it. On 24 April [1775], at five in the morning, the minister sent for me ceremoniously through a nobleman, his special confidante, one Raja Daya Ram, who was accompanied by a numerous cortege and most of those who had interacted with me since my arrival. This noble lord found me in the briefest possible dishabille. I excused myself, saying that I thought that they were playing games when they told me the previous day that my audience had been fixed. However, the raja sat down calmly at the door of my tent to give me time to get dressed and we proceeded to the palace, at about seven o’clock.

We passed through different courtyards finally stopping at the door to the one where the King would receive us. The opening was closed by a red coloured hanging. We stood there waiting for about three uarters of an hour, for no better reason than the need for awaiting the arrival of the King, at whose orders we had come. We saw them pass three baskets within, and then we were called.

Ceremonial 

As we entered we saw the King seated in a palanquin without its bamboos, or rather, a kind of throne that is supported by eight men on their shoulders. His dress seemed quite magnificent and his turban, among other things was of fine gold tissue which they make in Delhi. The prince had a sword, a bow and a quiver filled with arrows. His seat was at the end of the courtyard, in relation to the entrance, and he sat motionless, like a statue. Two or three hundred persons surrounded the throne, arranged in rows like a horseshoe, so that the approach was free. An old chobdar, with a baton in his hand, and his back against the gateway by which we had entered, gesticulated with his arms and legs like a man possessed, crying out with all his force, words whose sense is ‘Salute the King of Kings, the Conqueror of the World, the Master of the Earth’ and other extravagant platitudes, as false as they were ridiculous. They led us all close to the man, and they made us do the salaam which was not executed according to the rigid Indian protocol. Thereafter we were conducted to the left, about three steps from the throne where we again performed another salutation. I placed seven gold rupees on a white handkerchief and approached the King. The monarch accepted our offering and gave them to someone on his right to keep. It seemed to me that he counted them. Messieurs Dieu and Moncelet moved up after me and tendered their respects in the same manner. We were then taken to the doorway where we again repeated the salaams and returned to the side of the throne. The King now looked at us properly, one after the other, but he did not utter a word. I noticed his minister, Abdullah Khan, with a painted baton in his hand which he kept shaking and he seemed to be paying close and affectionate attention to all our movements. The King gave a signal by saying two or three words. Then they grabbed us and we were brought back behind the doorway where we had waited earlier, however without having to salaam again.

The Khillat  

There they made us wear, over our French clothes, the clothes of the country. Round our caps they wound a piece of gold tissue. We were then given a large cabaye, or if you wish, a cassock of those beautiful fabrics, and as I showed some impatience at the length of this ceremony, they placed round my neck the pieces intended to serve as a belt, and that which covers the toque or turban.

These presents are called khillats here, as in Persia. Mine was composed of six pieces which formed the complete outfit. There were also two aigrettes set with stones, but they were of little value. The other two gentlemen received khillats of four pieces.

After we had been so magnificently decked out they again led us up to the Emperor, with the same ceremonies and salaams as on our previous entry. When I was close to the person of the prince he made a sign to an officer who brought me a sword which I accepted, repeated my salaam and offered another present, this time of Rs 2 in gold, which he took on the previous occasion. It was then necessary to return to the door for a fourth time and re-commence the salaams. The old chobdar gesticulated and cried out like a veritable demon.

When I returned close to the Padshah, he looked at me for some moments without saying a word. Then he ordered the bearers who had brought him to take him back to his apartments.

G. S. Cheema
Soldier Of Misfortune: The Memoirs Of The Comte De Modave
Manohar (2024)

Our conductor, who filled the roll of master of ceremonies, now led us into a vast and magnificent hall which is at the end of the side of the court, and overlooks a parterre on the opposite side. This hall is almost as large as the courtyard, and is supported by many rows of pillars. It was not so long ago that its ceiling had been of solid silver. It had escaped the greed of Nadir Shah, and of those before and after, who had played with the Mughal emperors. They had spared it out of respect for the dynasty’s former power, and because they had stayed in the palace. But finally, the Marathas helped themselves to it, as a relic that still had some value. We stayed a few minutes in this beautiful hall, seated on Patna carpets and left it when we were informed that Abdullah Khan had left the King.

Meeting with Abdullah Khan  

The minister hastened to meet us with great eagerness and cordiality. He is a venerable old man, by his looks and the whiteness of his beard. He is a Kashmiri, and could be mistaken for a European by the vivacity of his manners and the fairness of his skin. He embraced all three of us and we followed him to a separate pavilion, where he gives his audiences. We were with him for half an hour, then he had some fabrics and shawls brought which he presented to us and saw us off. He stated several times that he was sorry he did not have anyone to serve as an interpreter for him, but it was entirely his fault. He had insisted and managed to ensure that my diwan should not be admitted to the audience with the King, as a consequence of the annoying intrigues which I had spoken of earlier. This was the end of our presentation. All this ceremony took up nearly three hours. I returned to my tent in the accoutrements which had been bestowed on me at the King’s audience. It will not be out of place to add that a cursed eunuch pestered me for some time trying to extract a bakhsheesh, that is, a gratification from me. He pulled me by my arms, tapped me on the shoulder, and tried to obstruct my passage as I tried to walk away. At first I suffered his importunities and insolence with patience, but finally I lost my temper. I shouted insults and abuses, for these are learnt first of all in all foreign languages, and following his example, joining gestures to my words, I threatened him with the sword that the Padshah had presented me. With this I was so successful that I heard no more from him. We returned to our tents by ten in the morning.  

G.S. Cheema is a retired IAS officer.