VegHist Ep 11: Enlightenment. Colonial India, Voltaire, Rousseau, and the French Revolution; with Partha Chatterjee, Christophe Martin, and Renan Larue; at the Black Hole of Calcutta, and Musée Rousseau Montmerency
The philosophers of Paris discuss reports of Indian vegetarianism, question the morality of eating animals, and inspire radicals who preach vegetarianism from the barricades of the French revolution.
Episode 11: Enlightenment
Ian traces a winding path of vegetarian inspiration from the personal diary of an Indian vegetarian working for the French, to the darkest corner of British imperial propaganda, to the Enlightenment’s favourite Paris café, to a rural retreat that inspired a social revolution, and to the squares where citizens plotted a real one.
There are many vegetarians in eighteenth century southern India, but only one, Ananda Ranga Pillai, who kept a diary of his daily life – whilst serving as a senior aide to the French governor. Ian meets historian Prof B. Krishnamoorthy in a temple Pillai had built in the French capital.
Meanwhile, the British produced a governor of Calcutta – John Zephaniah Holwell – whose fascination for Indian culture crosses into Hindu vegetarianism. Ian meets Prof Partha Chatterjee, an expert in the incident – the Black Hole of Calcutta – that made Holwell famous.
Paris was the heart of the enlightenment, where the Lumières condemn organised religion and discuss the nature of humanity over coffee.
Holwell and other writers out of India inspire the leading figure of the French Enlightenment, Voltaire, to criticise Christian attitudes to eating animals, and Ian meets vegan Voltaire expert Renan La Rue in the Lumières’ favourite haunt, Café Procope.
Then Ian and Renan visit the hillside home of Voltaire’s sentimental rival Rousseau, who suggested that children should be raised without the corruption of meat-eating, along with Prof Christophe Martin of the Sorbonne.
The ideas are revolutionary; but it takes the radicals of the revolution to put them into practice. Ian visits Prof Pierre Serna at the Sorbonne, and travels to the heart of the French Revolution with Matthieu Ferradou to discover the vegetarian Scotsman who led the French revolutionaries in battle, and the Pythagorean aristocrat who dressed like an ancient Greek and was rumoured to have made possible the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the revolution.
It’s a chain that links the conservative vegetarianism of southern India to the heart of European radical politics.
- Partha Chatterjee (Columbia University New York)
- B. Krishnamurthy (Pondicherry University)
- Tristram Stuart (tristramstuart.co.uk) (on Wikipedia) (@TristramStuart on Twitter)
- Renan Larue (UC Santa Barbara)
- (Regardez il parlent sur l’histoire végétarien en Français)
- Christophe Martin (Paris Sorbonne)
- Pauline Prévot (of Musée Jean Jacques Rousseau Montmorency)
- Pierre Serna (French Revolution Institute at Panthéon-Sorbonne Paris) (Modern & Contemporary History Institute, ENS)
- Matthieu Ferradou (Modern & Contemporary History Institute, ENS)
- Ananda Ranga Pillai, Diary
- vol V p334-5
- vol VI p265 (Nov 16 1749)
- vol VIII p296 (Apr 4 1753)
- Voltaire, “Essays on the Encylopedia: Meat”, 1770-4
- Bernardin St. Pierre
- Paul et Virginie, 1788
- Letter to Brissot, see Stuart p 317
- John Oswald
- The Cry of Nature, 1794
- Review of the Constitution of Great Britain, 1792 (see Stuart p 301)
- Marquis de Valadi
Geek Reference of the Month
The “Black Hole of Calcutta” we visit this episode is almost certainly the namesake of the cosmological phenomenon.
The theme music is by Robb Masters.
With the voices of Guillaume Blanchard, Brian Roberts, and Selva Rasalingham.
My thanks to Vincent Migeotte, who acted as my volunteer fixer in Paris – in particular setting up location interviews at Café Procope and the Musée Rousseau; and to Elisabeth Lyman for translation and swapping flats.
The featured image is “Banyan tree with Hindu temples at Agori, Bihar” by Thomas Daniell, 1796, CC-BY Wellcome Trust – an early colonial vision of Indian religion to match the information about Indian religion that sets the episode in progress.
This episode is kindly sponsored by Kickstarter backer Martin Taylor Costumes, which specialises in vegan costumes, particularly ones for the eighteenth century, the period of this episode.