Episode 103: French Child Ambassadors in the East

Host: Christopher Rose, Department of History, University of Texas at Austin
Guest: Julia Gossard, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Utah State University

In the 17th and 18th centuries, France had its eyes on creating a worldwide trading empire. French merchant families began sending young men–teenagers by modern definitions–to the Ottoman Empire, India, and Southeast Asia, where they were expected to learn local languages and trading customs, while representing French values and serving as the vanguard of French imperialism. However, things didn’t always go according to plan.

Guest Julia Gossard shares her research into the fascinating world of child ambassadors who were expected to live in two worlds and create lasting relationships between France and a global network of allies.

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We’re going to be talking about one of your specializations, which is French children in the Ottoman Empire. We’re talking about the 17th and 18th centuries, which is when the Ottoman Empire is still one of the dominant navies in the Mediterranean and one of the dominant trading partners for European nations. Let me just dive right in: French children in the Ottoman Empire! How? Why?

I’m working on a book called Coercing Children right now, which deals with the history of children as agents of social reform as well as imperialization in the 17th and 18th centuries, and looking widely at what we consider to be the French world. So, even though the Empire is not French, the French really want to create a worldwide trading empire like the Dutch, which is primarily a trading network of outposts and alliances in the Levant, in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia, and in China as well. And a key strategy is to send children to these areas.

I’ve heard you talk about this before, so I’m going to shorthand just a little bit. One of the things that fascinates me about the way you’ve presented this in the past is that, to begin with, you have to reassess childhood–


–and what it means to be a child. Because these are young children we’re talking about.

Right. One of the difficult things about studying children, whether it be children in the Ottoman Empire, or French children in France, or American children is trying to determine what we mean by “child.” I think modern lexicon has something like seven categories of what we call a “child,” so it can be something like a “toddler,” it can be a “child,” it can be a “pre-teen,” a “teen”, etc. My sources use two words: enfant and jeune–so “child” and “youth”–interchangeably.

Oh, dear.

They use them for people anywhere between the ages of about nine up until about twenty-five, even up until the age of thirty, depending upon life stages. So, to determine what childhood is is less about a numeric age in France, and more about the attainment of life stages. So children than I’m talking about in the Ottoman Empire, by age they’d probably be what we would call “adolescents”–so, between the ages of twelve to sixteen, and they have completed a rudimentary education that includes education in both French as well as Turkish or Arabic in this way. They’re able to read, they’re able to write, and they’re able to do basic mathematics, so you can say that they’ve completed their formal schooling in that sense.

And they’re going out, as you said, across the world to establish a new chapter in the family business. So, this does not strike me as something that would have been common practice – at least, I haven’t run across it in my own research on the Ottoman Empire at the time. So, how did this get started?

Merchants in Marseilles, France, for a long time had sought ways of creating cultural, political, and economic alliances with people all around the Mediterranean. And they would typically send a godchild out to a post. And the godchild would learn a language, in this case Turkish or Arabic, in order to set up trading relationships. It’s sending someone who is connected to the family, but not a son because the son was needed at home to make sure that he would learn the business, but close enough to make sure that he would be loyal to their interests while in a new place. Obviously they needed to approach the people on their own terms. They couldn’t walk in and start speaking French and demand that these merchants learn French, they understood that, in order to make this relationship work they had to learn the language and learn the customs. So, we Marseilles merchants doing this first, and then this ad hoc practice becoming very normalized and state sponsored, especially under Colbert and Louis XIV.

So, how were these children chosen and what did that training look like?

Like I said, most of these children were godsons or nephews, members of these large trading families that were being sent over there. When they were in Paris or Marseilles they would initially go to a school called a school de l’Orient, or Oriental school where they would receive a basic education in the Turkish or Arabic languages. while there, they would get basic grammar and learn a bit of basic history, and once they were about sixteen years old, they were immediately sent off to the Ottoman Empire or the Persian Empire, or to Siam or Pondicherry, India, where they were told to live either with armies–French armies who were there–or with missionaries. So, we see both of them living there. Once they were there, the basic goal was for these people who had, according to the French ideology of the time “spongelike minds,” that they were capable of learning language in a way that adult minds were not. We also have the strategy of sending a child versus an adult, it seems less threatening.


Think about it, if you send a sixteen year old versus a thirty-four year old, it seems like perhaps you can persuade the sixteen year old to do more what you want, versus having an adult come and conquer. It seems like a negotiation tactic.

So, what happened when they arrived in port in the Ottoman Empire, or in South Asia, or Siam? 

There was an idea that the state had that these children would go out, and they would learn the language, and they would be dressed in this French military garb, actually. It’s funny to see some of these images because the children are wearing quite really tiny soldier outfits. Now, you can imagine that if they arrive in an Ottoman market dressed in French military garb that no one wants to talk to them.

Yes, that’s very easy to imagine.

It’s very easy to imagine, and it’s one of the big complaints that they have. They said, if we’re here to learn the language, and we want to be able to learn trading customs, then we need to have different identities than what we’re doing. So the children started to create these hybrid identities that are fascinating to study, where they would don a turban with the French military pants, or in Siam, they had little caftans that they would wear over their outfits. So, we see them create these French/Turkish, French/Ottoman, French/Siamese identities that were really important in visualizing that they were somehow between the two.

How did the French authorities who were supposed to be supervising them respond to this? It wasn’t quite according to plan.

It was a very poor response that they had. There is a great letter from the ambassador in Smyrna at the time and he writes that he can no longer tell the difference between the French children and the native children of the town, which I think it fascinating. Because it says that these children went so far as to adopt the dress, to adopt practices like drinking coffee, speaking in Turkish or speaking in Arabic while amongst each other. And, so that ambassador thought that this has gone a little too far. So, there’s push back to these children and these students saying, yes, you can learn languages and you can learn the customs, but we’re pushing back because, remember, you’re here to spread French tradition. And some of the students decide that what they’re going to do to push back against that tradition is open a French language school where they would teach Ottoman children the French language, and they would have almost this conversation buddy group where the Ottoman children would help the French children with their language skills and the French children would help the Ottoman children with their language skills.

That’s fascinating. So, going back to the whole purpose of this experiment in the first place, which was to facilitate the trade relationships, was that successful?

Yes, it was! For many years, this was the go-to practice, especially for those Marseilles merchants who wanted to establish really strong working relationships with Ottoman merchants. And we see their existence until the mid 18th century.

So, how long did these kids stay abroad? Was it expected that they would stay indefinitely, or that they would come home after a time?

They were expected to be there for a few years. The longest I saw somebody staying was someone who stayed 10 years, but the majority were staying between four and seven years depending on how much money their sponsor had, or how much money they had made. The idea was that once they had learned the language or the customs is that they would come back to Paris or Marseilles, teach their fellow merchants both languages and customs, and then accompany journeys out to these merchant trading posts as necessary and serve as guides once they were adults.

Presumably while they were still in country they were supposed to be facilitating new arrivals as well. 

Yes, absolutely. One of the most fascinating things about these records, though, is that when these children created these hybrid identities while living in the Ottoman Empire, they bring back those same identities to France itself, and that causes a bit of a problem for some of these merchants. Again, they feel like the purpose was to create French interests abroad, and not bring back this idea of the Ottoman Empire, or this conception of the East at the time.

How were they able to deal with that? Or were they? Do we know what happened to any of these children after they came back to France? 

I have been able to trace some of them, at least, and see they they were able to become high ranking within their own merchant institutions. There was at least one example of someone I found who moved back to France, and then decided to move back to the Ottoman Empire, actually defecting from his French identity. Now, that’s an exceptional case that I’ve only found one of. But it seems that these people are able to create these long lasting relationships, at least for their lifetime.

Let me ask you a question about the formal schooling. How widespread was that? Or was this something that the merchant association set up so that these children would have these skills?

That’s a great question, because my particular research doesn’t just look at these l’ecole de l’Orient, or schools of the orient, and studying more widely educational programs throughout France. What I see more widely is that there are a great number of charity schools–so, free public schools–getting established in the 1670s and continuing on with many children being educated throughout the 17th century right up to the revolution. We do see a good number of poor children going to school and getting very basic educations as well as vocational skills. We see that combination in the 17th century of basic education includes reading, writing, and arithmetic as well as craft skills for every member of society. Now these schools of the Orient are a bit more advanced, because they’re for children from the merchant classes. So, they have private tutors, maybe, who are giving them those same reading and writing components.

But they’re also learning to read and write Arabic, Persian …


Is this something that has emerged from the archives fairly recently?

Yes. I came to this project right at the end of my dissertation research, and I scrambled to put a little bit of it into my dissertation. You were there when I presented one of these first papers, which was so exciting to get to do. But what’s exciting is that many people are starting to work on this – I have a good friend at UNC Chapel Hill who is working on the images of children in Cochin China and the Ottoman Empire and looking at how France at the same time that they have their eye looking westward, toward North America, they very clearly have their eye looking eastward as well. So, more and more historians are looking not only at these children, but at these projects of imperializaiton as the next forefront in French historiography in the 18th century.


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