French Astronomers in India

Rajesh Kochhar

The 1498 discovery by Vasco da Gama of a direct sea route to India opened up the subcontinent to the Europeans.[1] The Portuguese were followed by the British, the Dutch, and finally the French. Echoing the unanimous desire of the French merchants and mar­ iners, Jean-Baptiste Colbert set up in 1664 the Compag­nie des Indes Orientales for trading with India. In 1674 Frarncois Martin founded the city of Pondicherry on the east coast of India which became the headquarters of French presence in India. In tow with the Europeans came modern science.

The first modern men of science in India were the Jesuit priests, who acquired their foothold in 1542. [2] In keeping with the requirement of the times, they aimed at geographical knowledge, often took astronomical observations of latitude and longitude, and compiled sketches and maps.

Selected letters from Jesuit missionaries in all parts of the world were p’.lblished in 34 volumes from Paris between 1702 and 1741. An abridged edition was brought out in 1780-3 by Querboeufin 26 volumes, of which volumes X to XV refer to India. These volumes were constantly referred to by later geographers. [2]

The French Jesuit priests arrived in India under rather trying circumstances, from the east rather than the west. [3,4] In  1687,  King  Louis XIV  had  sent,  on  an invitation from the King of Siam (Thailand), a team of 14 Jesuits, formally designating them ‘The Mathemati­cians of the King’. The Jesuits arrived in Siam in 1688 but could not stay very long. In 1688 itself there was a revolution that overthrew the King of Siam and expelled the missionaries, who then left for India. Only three were able to survive the ordeal, and reached Pondicherry on 17 February 1689.[3,4] Two of them were Father Richaud and Father Bouchet, who made their mark in pure astronomy and geography respectively. It is not clear who the third Jesuit was.

Father Jean Richaud SJ (1633-1690)

Jean Richaud [3] was born on 1 October 1633 at Bor­deaux, France. He entered the Society of Jesus at the age of 15, and took his vows two years later. He taught mathematics at the Royal College at Pau between 1668 and 1686. Richaud was a keen astronomer. He observed a solar eclipse on 12 July 1684 and a comet during 7-15 September 1686.

Arriving in Siam in 1688, Richaud set up an observ­atory at Luovo with his 12-ft focus telescope. He also prepared a calendar for the Kingdom of Siam, which he presented to the King. [5]

Once in India, Richaud lost no time in getting down to astronomical observations. He observed for the longitude and latitude of Pondicherry and the latitude of San Thome (or Mylapur) in Madras, where St. Thomas had stayed and died. Richaud also made observations of zodiacal light. He observed a comet in December 1689. [3,4]

Richaud’s most significant contribution was made while viewing the comet. He discovered that the bright southern star Alpha Centauri is in fact a double star.[3,4] This was the second binary to be spotted. Earlier, in 1685 another Jesuit, Father Fontenay, had discovered from the Cape of Good Hope the first binary, Alpha Crucis.

On 19 Dec 1689 the French Jesuit missionary Jean Richaud observed Alpha Centauri and Alpha Crucis from his observatory in Pondicherry and discovered that they were both doubles.

Richaud’s discovery is the first ever modern astrono­mical discovery from India. Indeed it is the first ever recorded astronomical discovery from India. (It should however be mentioned that Richaud’s is not the first recorded use of telescope from India. An Englishman, Jeremiah Shakerley (1626-ca. 1655) used a telescope at Surat in 1851 to observe the transit of Mercury, and in 1652 a comet [5])

Father Richaud taught astronomy at a school opened by the Jesuits at San Thome. He died at Pondicherry on 2 April 1693.

Carte de l’lnde

Interestingly, although the French were thwarted by the British in their attempts for supremacy in India, the first worthwhile maps of India were the result of the French efforts. Accompanying Father Richaud from Siam was Father Jean-Vevant Bouchet SJ (1655-1732) who was born on 10 April 1655 at Fontenny-le-Comte, France, and was admitted to the Society of Jesus on 7 October 1670. [2]

On reaching India in 1689, Bouchet entered the Madurai mission which he left in 1702 to found Cama­ tic mission. Bouchet covered the Coromandel coast on foot, made astronomical observations at Pondicherry and other places, and prepared maps and sketches. He sent his account to France in 1719. From these Jean­ Baptiste Bourguignon D’Anville (1697-1782) prepared in 1737 his first map of the south Indian peninsula. [2]

Bouchet’s astronomical work is partly described in Memoirs de l’Academie des Sciences, volume VI and other writings are preserved in the library of the school of St Genevieve, Paris.

Another French Jesuit who made significant contri­ butions to Indian geography was Father Claude Stanis­ laus Boudier SJ (1686–1757). Born on 16 October 1686 in the diocese of Sens in France, he left for Bengal in 1718 and after arriving at Chandernagore in 1719 established himself as an astronomer. In 1734, on the request of Raja Jai Singh, he visited Jaipur along with a companion, making a journey of more than 1500 km. He returned after about a year. Boudier made frequent observations for latitude and longitude and also sur­ veyed a part of the route he traversed. His memoir on the journey gives the description of places on the road from Agra to Allahabad, mentioning distances from the rivers Ganga and Yamuna.

A forgotten name in Indian surveying annals is that of the French navigator Jean-Baptiste Apres de Mannevillette (1707-80) who was born at Harve de Grace. He made a number of voyages and published in November 1745 the Neptune Orienta/is, an atlas of marine geography. He used a Hadley’s quadrant as early as 1736, when it was definitely regarded as an English instrument. [2]

On an invitation from the French East Indian Com­pany, D’ Anville prepared in 1752 his Carte de l’I nde.2 It was the first ever map of the country based on well­ attested observations and surveys rather than traveller’s tales. D’Anville was the first geographer who preferred to leave his map blank rather than insert details for which he had no good authority. His map was accompanied by an account of all the works he had consulted. His most valuable material included astro­nomical observations by various Jesuit missionaries, like Bouchet and Boudier. His map and memoir were published in England in 1754 and again in 1759.

Guillaume Le Gentil de La Galaisiere (1725-92)
Guillaume Le Gentil de La Galaisiere

Le Gentil probably ranks as the unluckiest astronomer of all time. He was an assistant to Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625-1712) the director of the Paris Observ­ atory, and was deputed, on the recommendation of the Royal Academy of Sciences, by the King of France to observe the 6 June 1761 transit of Venus across the disc of the Sun. [7] The transit had aroused great interest and a large number of French and English astronomers jour­neyed to far-off and little known places. In 1761 the phenomenon was visible in its entirety from Asia (and north polar regions), while in the western Europe and the Atlantic only the end could be seen.

When Le Gentil set out for India, the seven year war (1756–63) was raging between England and France, and Le Gentil’s ship had to make wide detours to avoid an English attack. [7] By the time he reached Pondicherry, the transit was already over. He decided to remain for the transit of 3 June 1769. He could not observe this transit either, because the skies were cloudy. On his way back home he was ship wrecked twice, and eventually when he reached France after an absence of 11 years, he found that he had been declared legally dead and his property distributed among the next of kin. [8,9]

During his stay at Pondicherry he determined its longitude by a series of observations, and kept himself busy with magnetic and other scientific work at Pondi­ cherry and over the Indian ocean, an account of which he later published as Voyage dans !es Mers de l’Inde, Paris 1779. [2]

The two transits aroused a feeling of competition among the traditional rivals France and England. The Royal Society of London sought the help of the East India Company for the 1769 transit, its secretary writing [10] on 22 January 1768, ‘The honour of this Nation seems particularly concerned in not yielding the palm to their Neighbours, and the Royal Society in­ tends to exert all its strength and influence in order to have this observation made…’

As it turned out, both the English and the French palms were left high and dry because of the cloudy skies over the neighbouring Madras and Pondicherry. Most Frenchmen who worked in India were asso­ciated with the French territory. An important sur­veyor-mathematician who was a part of the British establishment was Capt. John Warren.

To know more about Le Gentil’s Pondicherry’s journey and the observation of transit of Venus, read here.

Capt. Jean-Baptiste Franois Joseph de Warren (1769-1830)
Jean Baptiste François Joseph de Warren as a boy.

Known simply as John Warren, he was a direct descen­dant of Guillaume de Warren, first count of Warren and Surrey who had accompanied William the Con­queror to England in 1066 and married his youngest daughter Gondrada. The younger branch of the family settled in Ireland with the title Count of Warren. On the accession of William III in 1688, Edward Warren was banished and his estates were confiscated for having supported the Catholic James IL Edward settled in Lorraine. [2]

John Warren was born on 21 September 1769 at Leghorn, Italy, the fourth child of Count Henry Hya­ cinthe de Warren and his wife Christine Walburge de Meuerers. John Warren joined the army but left the country in 1791 after the revolution, and in January 1793 came to London, penniless. He tried to earn his living as an artist, who could draw and etch. He failed. Using his family connections and armed with letters of introduc­ tion to indigo-planters he arrived at Calcutta on IO December 1793. After a four-year rather unsuccessful stint as an indigo-planter, he bought a commission as ensign (the lowest commissioned rank = 2nd lieuten­ant) in the army and participated in the war against Tipu Sultan of Mysore under the command of Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, [2] with whom he struck a warm and personal friendship.

In view of his ‘addiction to mathematical studies’, John Warren was appointed in December 1799 to assist in the Mysore survey, and when in I 800 trigonometrical survey of the southern peninsula began, Warren was involved in it.

Warren was the first European to notice in 1801 the existence of gold in workable quantities in the Kolar area near Bangalore. He also suggested that there should be milestones on highways. Going ahead, he placed – at his own expense of two rupees per miles­ tone – 262 milestones between Serigangapatnam and a place spelt Naickenchero, and on the lower road between Bangalore and Balamangalam. [2]

During February 1805-October 1811 he was the acting director of Madras Observatory, when John Goldingham was on leave [2]. (The Company would not spare its officers for permanent civilian duty). Besides holding the post of Company Astronomer, Warren [2] also held (till 1810), like his predecessor, the additional posts of Marine Surveyor, Superintendent of the Surveying School, and Inspector of Revenue Surveys. In 1807 he served as the ADC to the acting governor, William Petrie. Warren also held at various times till 1813 the military posts of Brigade Major, extra ADC to the commander-in-chief and deputy quartermaster general.

Warren was one of the rare Company officers who were asked to return the money they had embezzled. The superintendent of the surveying school used to draw I00 pagodas per annum for each of the pupils for meeting contingent expenses. By the custom of the times, Warren drew 1200 pagodas a year irrespective of the number of students at the school. Following a complaint by an ex-pupil, Warren was brought to book on this count and made to refund the excess amount of 3860 pagodas (about Rs.13 500).

His most notable work at the observatory was the determination in 1807 of value of the longitude of Madras, which was retained in official maps for almost hundred years until 1905. He wrote papers on the effects of terrestrial refraction, on the length of the simple pendulum and on the ellipticity of the Earth. He also published an account of the ancient city of Bijapur, which he had visited in 1813 (Asiatic Journal, January 1821, p. 47), as part of campaign against the Marathas. After receiving in September 1814 the news of the restoration of the monarchy in France, accompanied by his eldest son Edouard, he reached France in October 1815 and was reinstated in the French army with the brevet  rank  of  Lieutenant  Colonel  and admitted Chevalier of St Louis. In April 1816, on the death of his eldest brother, he became the 24th Comte de Warren. In Paris he met many men of science, including Laplace, and, after Waterloo, his old friend the Duke of Wellington. While in France, he was elected a corres­ponding member of ‘le Bureau des Longitudes’. Leav­ing his son behind to be educated at Nancy, Warren returned to India, quit the army, and settled in Pondicherry.

In 1814 Warren started work on the south Indian methods of timekeeping ‘at the call of private friendship’. Warren’s research was brought by the Board of Superintendence of the College of Fort St George to the notice of the Government, which in 1815 purchased the manuscript as it then stood. The work, it was felt, would make Indian calendars intelligible to the Euro­peans, facilitate a comparison of the European and Indian chronologies and thus be ‘of service to gentle­ men employed in the Revenue and Judicial departments’.

This authoritative work was finally published in 1825 having continued for 11 years because of ‘the various employments which he held in His Majesty’s Civil and Military Service in different parts of the world’.

Warren wrote in the Preface [11] ‘The present produc­tion… will at least serve to show nearly the present extent of our knowledge in Hindu astronomy in these southern provinces, and… the author may perhaps be suffered to claim some credit for having been the first in Camatic, since the days of Beschi and Le Gentil, who unassisted has endeavoured to draw the public atten­tion on a subject of this nature’.

When Warren had started on the project it was his desire ‘to familiarize the learned Natives with the use of Tables constructed and disposed in the manner of those of the European Mathematicians, also to reconcile them to the idea of brevity and expedition in compu­ tations .. .’ In this Warren ‘found himself more success­ ful than he had a right to accept’. As he noted, with pride and satisfaction ‘His Tables … after the due examination by the best informed Jyautish Sastras [should be Sastris] have been pronounced equivalent to the respective rules which they were intended to abridge and they [scholars] have manifested an intention of using them in future’.

The whole work [11]- consisting of four Memoirs, four Appendices, four Fragments, and 52 Tables (three compiled, the rest computed) – ‘collectively taken was denominated by some learned friends Kala Sankalita, Sungscrete word signifying the doctrine of times. It presents (as far as the author knows) the first attempt that was made in India to investigate and explain the elements of Hindu Astronomical Chronology, and to disclose to Europeans the contents and structure of these humble annual Kalendars which, written on palmyra leaves, had for nearly two centuries, been sold under their eyes without their even suspecting the skill and labour which their computation required’.

In the meantime, in 1821, he took up the study of French law, and was appointed councillor at the Court of Justice (September 1815) and advanced to Judge of the Chief Court (August 1828-April 1829). In August 1824 he was appointed Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, and decorated in 1829. [2]

He was so popular that when his second daughter got married in 1829, the Hindus wanted to pay the expenses of the festivities. Jean-Baptiste de Warren died at Pondicherry on 9 February 1830. His son Edouard de Warren published in 1844 a book L’Inde Anglaise en 1843 on the services of his father with the British. [2] By a remarkable coincidence just as the first tele­scopic discovery in India was made by a Frenchman, 200 years later it was again a visiting Frenchman who made the first discovery in the new field of astrophysics.

Rajesh Kochhar is an astronomer and a historian of sciences. He is also the advisor of this project.


  1. Dodwell, H. H., (ed) The Cambridge History of India, Volume 5, Cambridge University Press.
  2. Phillimore, R. H., Historical Records of the Survey of India, Volumes I – 4, Surveyor General’s Office, Dehra Dun, 1945.
  3. Rao, N. K., Vagiswari, A. & Louis, C. Bull. Astr. Soc. India, 12, 81 (1984). (Father J. Richaud and early telescope observations in India, this paper wrongly makes these the oldest telescopic obsevations from India).
  4. Memoire de /’Academies Royale des Sciences, Volume 7.
  5. Hutchinson, E. W., 1688 The revolution in Siam: The memoir of Father de Beze, SJ, Hong Kong Univ. Press, 1968.
  6. Kocchar, R. K., Ind. J. Hist. Sci., 24, 186 (1989).
  7. Pannekock, A., A history of astronomy, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1961.
  8. Kochhar, R. K., Indian Institute of Astrophysics Newsletter, l, 11 (1986) The transit of Venus 1761 and 1769.
  9. Spencer-Jones, H., Nature, 253, 184 (1944).
  10. Love, H. D., Vestiges of old Madras, 1640–1800, Volume 2, John Murray, London, 1913.
  11. Warren, John Lt. Col., Kala Sankalita, College Press, Madras, 1825; also Indian Chronological Tables, College Press, Madras (also included in the first).

This article is an excerpt from the original article by the author in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association (vol.101, no.2, p.95-100), reproduced here with permission from the author.

%d bloggers like this: