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

18th century painting of a Hindu temple amongst Banyan trees

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.

Play or download (61MB MP3 43min) (via iTunes) or read transcript

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.



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.


Anantarankam Pillai, 1709-1761, and Henry Dodwell. 1900. The Diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai. Madras : Printed by the Superintendent, Government Press.
Armand, Colin, ed. 2014. L’animal en révolution. Annales historiques de la Révolution française. Paris: Armand Colin : Société des études robespierristes.
Chatterjee, Partha. 2012. The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Chevallier, Jim. 2009. Vegetarians in Old Regime France.
Davis, Michael, Iain McCalman, and Christina Parolin. 2005. Newgate in Revolution: An Anthology of Radical Prison Literature in the Age of Revolution. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Erdman, David V. 1981. “The Man Who Was Not Napoleon.” Vol. XII, No. 1, Winter 1981.
Gibson, Edgar C. S. (Edgar Charles Sumner). 1901. John Howard. London : Methuen.
Guerrini, Anita. 1999. “A Diet for a Sensitive Soul: Vegetarianism in Eighteenth-Century Britain.” Eighteenth-Century Life 23 (2): 34–42.
Larue, Renan. 2010. “Le végétarisme dans l’œuvre de Voltaire (1762-1778).” Dix-huitième siècle 42 (1): 19.
Larue, Renan. 2014. Le végétarisme et ses ennemis: vingt-cinq siècles de débats. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.
Marshall, P. J. 2000. “The White Town of Calcutta under the Rule of the East India Company.” Modern Asian Studies 34 (2): 307–31.
Parker, Reeve. 1988. “‘In Some Sort Seeing with My Proper Eyes’: Wordsworth and the Spectacles of Paris.” Studies in Romanticism 27 (3): 369–90.
Stuart, Tristram. 2007. The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
“Valadi.” 1797. In Biographical Anecdotes of the Founders of the French Republic, and of Other Eminent Characters, Who Have Distinguished Themselves in the Progress of the Revolution., 150. London: Printed for R. Phillips, and sold by Mr. Johnson, and Mr. Debrett.

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About Ian McD

I'm a British new media person with a passion for radio, and interested in the kind of stories best told when we see humans as part of the world of animal minds. I blogged about why I'm producing The Vegan Option.

One response to “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”

  1. Avatar for Ian McD
    Ian McD says :

    If you’re interested in hearing more of John Oswald, the vegetarian pikeman of the French revolution, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau recorded a podcast episode in which she read excerpts from his books (also on SoundCloud).

    And I came across history blogger Rodama reviewing Renan LaRue’s work on the treatment of vegetarianism by Voltaire, which is interesting further reading.

    I should probably have included a “See also” section from the start …

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