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Yankee India: American Commercial and Cultural Encounters with India in the Age of Sail 1784-1860.

Yankee India: American Commercial and Cultural Encounters with India in the Age of Sail 1784-1860. By SUSAN S. BEAN. Salem, Mass.: PEABODY ESSEX MUSEUM; Ahmedabad: MAPIN PUBLISHING PVT. 2001. Pp. 288, plates. $40.

As the South Asian community in the United States has grown, so has the interest in the history of American connections to India. Numerous works on post-independence India and Pakistan in their relations to the United States have appeared through the last decades, but less attention has been lavished on the earlier decades of the American-South Asian relationship.

Therefore, we are most fortunate now to have Susan S. Bean's long-awaited book dealing with the earlier period. Whatever scholarly reservations are made below, I want to say at the outset that this is a beautiful and valuable book which I had great pleasure in reading. Reading here must also include looking, because it is filled with stunningly reproduced photographs of all manner of objects, drawings, paintings, life-size figures, etc., to be found mainly but not only in the Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, of which Ms. Bean is the curator.

The author explains that she wanted to "zoom in" and "zoom out" and give us an opportunity to taste, read, savor the artifacts of the late eighteenth century and first half and more of the nineteenth century. She has tried to do this through the use of numerous illustrations, but also by alternating historical chapters with selections from the journals of her "Yankee merchant mariners." At least half the volume is taken up with these selections. Though a few are dry details of voyages and trading, others, particularly those by William A. Rogers and Edwin Blood, present as vivid pictures of nineteenth-century Bombay and Calcutta as one will ever find in American writing.

By "Yankee India," Bean means in large part the trading expeditions carried on mainly from Salem and Boston during her chosen period. Since these two ports more than New York or Philadelphia were home to the India trade this makes sense. She does her best to tie the American-India trade into economic and political developments in the United States and India to understand how the trade changed so much over time. In the earlier decades India was a source of finished textiles, but by the end of the period India was a supplier of raw cotton, linseed oil, indigo, and hides rather than the fine textiles that earlier traders sought. What intervened, of course, was the Industrial Revolution, first in Great Britain and then developing rapidly in America in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The British controlled an ever larger sphere of India through the period and the conquest was complete by its end. Among the many interesting facets of the history detailed here is how American merchant mariners coped with wars, control of the Indian market by the British, and changing administrations in the United States, some favoring overseas trade, others not. Although there is a lot of detailed information here, often vivid and telling, there are not so many over-all trade statistics. At one point Bean does tell us that in the late eighteenth and very early nineteenth century, the India trade constituted about five percent of America's foreign trade. This was probably the biggest share of American trade that India ever had. It fell off rapidly during the War of 1812 and subsequently. Although she tells us there was a revival in the 1840s and 1850s, it never constituted a significant percentage of American overseas trade again. She drops the story with the expanding trade in mid-century and during the Civil War. Hopefully, economic historians will utilize the work of Ms. Bean, of G. Bhagat (Americans in India 1784-1860 [New York: New York Univ. Press, 1970]), and of Sirajul Islam ("The Cargo and Culture of the New Englanders' Voyages to Calcutta 1785-c. 1850," Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh [June 1994]), to analyze the whole sweep of America-India trade through the nineteenth century into the twentieth. Then we will have a fuller background for the expansion of trade between the two countries that has been taking place in recent decades.

Among the themes explored by Bean and touched on in several of the journal selections is that of Christians confronting Hinduism. This is dealt with most extensively in the Rogers and Blood extracts. Rogers is the more typical of the two in the way in which he responded:
 "Their religion is the most disgusting and at the same time the most
 degrading to the human mind that can be imagined. It unites every
 thing frivolous and horrible, childish and cruel, with the most
 disgusting lewdness and superstitious bigotry. It is near the temples
 dedicated to Maha Deva or Maha Deo that you will behold objects and
 witness scenes which degrades below the most abject of creation, that
 lofty supremacy of mind, which entitles man to that rank his God
 assigned him and makes us shudder ..." (p. 165).

Along with this horror, Rogers also reacted enthusiastically to the color and variety of Indian street life and proved a careful, amateur ethnographer of Bombay's many communities. He was most antipathetic to the Hindus, but was also dubious that the missionaries from America whom he met would ever make a convert. And while he was antagonistic to the Hindu religion, he presented a nicely detailed word-picture of Elephanta, which he made a special effort to visit. In addition to the Hindus, Rogers was also extremely critical of the British, though he knew he needed their cooperation to carry on his trading.

A nice contrast to Rogers is the journal of Edwin Blood, a young man from Newburyport who visited Calcutta as secretary to a supercargo in the 1850s. He gave a skillful portrait of the trading and social life of Calcutta and had a more tempered view of Hinduism. Though he too was repelled by many of its practices, he was able to stand aside and look at the bigotry of his own civilization and that of another, and he also provided the most touching passage in the book when he described the friendship of a sircar or clerk for a young American: "Such kindness as that of the old sircar for me is not soon forgotten: it sinks deep into the heart. And now, among the pleasantest recollections I have of my sojourn in the Far East is that, this poor old clerk, Hindoo and heathen that he was, of a different religion and race,--[and I of] a race that despise and ill treat his countrymen, befriended me in a manner that would do infinite credit to the most exemplary professor of the Christian Faith!" (p. 245).

Bean believes that the closest relationships between Americans and Indians in her chosen period were between mariners and their Indian agents. This is surely true in part and Blood's tender and insightful tribute is a mark of one such tie. But, by the mid-nineteenth century, quite a few American missionaries were on the ground in India and had also formed deep relationships. While Bean does an excellent job of extracting and commenting upon the mariners' journals, she does slight the other Yankees of her period who made connections to India. She touches briefly upon the first missionaries, upon Rammohun Roy's contact with the Unitarians, and upon the Transcendentalists, but these sections are all too brief. For an understanding of these connections, one is best to go elsewhere, for example, to Spencer Lavan's Unitarians and India (Chicago: Exploration Press, 1991), which she does use, as well as numerous other works on American missionaries in India, and to Arthur Versluis's American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993), which she does not use. In her brief treatment of Rammohun Roy she notes the hope by Unitarians that he might become a Christian, but does not mention the antipathy he aroused among missionaries with his own version of the teachings of Jesus Christ. In her short section on the transcendentalists, she does not touch upon the subtle ways in which Emerson and Thoreau, and even a few of the later transcendentalists analyzed by Versluis, used concepts taken from Asian religions.

On the literature of early American trade with India she is much more thorough and, as far as I can tell, accurate throughout. She also tells us a good deal about the history of the Essex Museum which explains why so many glorious artifacts have been preserved. This was due in part to the desires of the merchants themselves to keep a record of their voyages and experiences of India and surely to the work over almost two centuries by the staff of the museum.

Through her careful presentation of early American trade, unique and beautiful illustrations, and well-chosen extracts from mariners' journals, Bean has taken us much further along the road to an understanding of the "process of incorporating elements of Indian civilization into American life" (p. 269) than we have been before.


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Author:Gordon, Leonard A.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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