The Other Persian Letters: Marie Petit and Franco-Iranian Diplomacy on the Iranian Frontier, 1704–15

Friday, January 5, 2018: 9:10 AM
Blue Room Prefunction (Omni Shoreham)
Junko Takeda, Syracuse University
On March 2, 1705, Marie Petit, a gambling house madam, boarded the royal vessel Tridanin Toulon with Jean-Baptiste Fabre, a textile trader from Marseille just appointed Louis XIV’s first official envoy to Safavid Shah Sultan Hosayn. When Fabre died, rumored poisoned by the Khan of Yerevan, Petit allegedly assumed the title “representative of French princesses” and secured an audience with Sultan Hosayn. Following her audience with the Shah, Petit proceeded to the court of Vakhtang VI, regent of Kartli, Georgia. She became instrumental to Vakhtang’s struggle for independence from Sultan Hosayn, his Safavid overlord. Couching his fight as Christianity against Islam, he used Petit’s presence at his court to initiate overtures to Louis XIV: he offered to open his territory to French missionaries and proposed to direct French trade away from the Ottomans by opening up a cheaper Black Sea corridor. In exchange, he asked the French king for military aid to back a Georgian uprising against the Safavids. Louis considered the Georgian deal potentially his “most important project.”

While denounced as a whore, concubine, renegade, traitor and murderer by French missionaries and diplomats, Petit illustrates how political and religious conflicts among the gunpowder empires shaped French commerce and diplomacy in the east. She serves as a prism into the world of early modern trans-imperial trade, where states’ expansionist hopes relied on provincial and foreign risk-takers who aligned their interests and assets with the greater good. In the parlance of the time, they were entrepreneurs. But the violence endemic to mercantilist entrepreneurialism brought about the downfall of Petit and her allies. This paper examines Petit in the broader context of confessional struggles and trans-continental trade and highlights how on the margins of empires, misinformation, disinformation, and ruthless competitions for political and diplomatic legitimacy rendered entrepreneurs vulnerable to charges of renegadism.

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