*Triangulating Trade and Culture:  The British Empire, India, and the Making of America

Review of Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830. By Jonathan Eacott. (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, 2016. xiii, 455 pp. Cloth, ISBN 978-1-4696-2230-9.)

Most narratives of the place of India in the making of America have revolved around a few well-worn themes, commencing with Columbus’ landing in America and his egregious error in supposing that he had arrived in India.  The first truly great milestone in the received narrative touches upon the deep-seated interest in Indian philosophy shared by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson:  there is now a substantial interest in how India seeped into the thought and writings of the American Transcendentalists, and I myself wrote a Master’s thesis, which remains unpublished, on Emerson and Indian philosophy (Johns Hopkins University, 1982).  Those who are familiar with Thoreau, for instance, may recall the famous indeed inimitable lines in Walden about how the waters of Walden Pond seemed to merge with the waters of the Ganga:

In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. 


Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts, 1 January 1908; photographer:  unknown.  Source:  Wikipedia, in the public domain.

Thoreau would also dedicate the Tuesday chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers largely to a discussion of a few Indian texts from he quoted copiously.  But in all this, he had been, in some respects, anticipated by his mentor (of sorts), Ralph Waldo Emerson—whose first engagement with the ‘idea of India’ may be seen in a long poem called Indian Superstition (1821), which the young student wrote when he was but seventeen years old, and who in his poem Brahma (1856, published in 1857) showed just how far Emerson had traveled in his understanding of Indian philosophy in the intervening 35 years.  But, to return to the main subject, after some tidbits here and there, whereby Hindu mysticism, yoga, and the interest in Sanskrit among some scholars are brought into the picture, and the origins of Indian immigration into the US around 1890 are identified, the narrative of India’s place in the making of the United States generally moves to the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Gandhi nearly became a household word in the United States after the embrace of his ideas of nonviolent resistance by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other stalwarts of the Civil Rights Movement.

The terrain covered by Jonathan Eacott in his meticulously detailed study, Selling Empire, enhances enormously our understanding of how India was configured in the American imagination and economy alike, though his ambition is yet greater as he seeks to place Indian within the global British imperial system.  The backdrop to his book is furnished by a more enhanced conception of the Atlantic world and a newfound interest in Indian Ocean studies; but there is also the stimulus of what these days are called “interconnected histories”.  Scholars of Britain’s possessions in America have seldom been concerned with the second British empire of which India, in the clichéd phrase, was the crown jewel; and, likewise, studies of British India have generally been written with indifference to what was transpiring in Britain’s empire in North America.  Curiously, the two figures who have on occasion surfaced in attempts to write an integrated narrative are altogether missing from Eacott’s study:  Elihu Yale, who amassed a fortune as the Governor of Madras (1684-92) before he was dismissed on charges of venality and went on to become the benefactor of a college that would eventually take his name, and Lord Cornwallis, who, if one had to put it cynically, seems to have been rewarded for his surrender to George Washington at Yorktown (1781) with the Governor-Generalship of India (1786-93).


Painted and dyed cotton from India, 1625-1685, not for the European market.  Collection:  Victoria & Albert Museum, London.  Source:  http://demodecouture.com/cotton/

Eacott shifts the focus to the 17th and 18th centuries and his history might be described as revolving around two axes.  The question at the outset for traders, mercantilists, and financiers in Britain was:  Could America be a new India?  In what manner could one conceive of a triangular trade between India, Britain, and the American colonies in North America?  Eacott lavishes much attention on the trade in calicoes, and not only because of their immense popularity.  1750-75 banyan, painted & dyed, India (fabric). Designed for European market.


Indian cotton fabric (banyan), painted & dyed, designed for European market, 1750-1775.  Collection:  Victoria & Albert Museum, London.  Source:  http://demodecouture.com/cotton/

There was much expectation in Britain that eventually consumers in the Americas would support the East India Company and thus support the British empire and the metropole (London) through which everything was funneled.  However, Eacott by no means confines himself to this terrain of cotton, chintzes, calicoes, silk, and woolens:  tea and spices were much in demand both in Britain and North America, but, quite unexpectedly, so were umbrellas and the Indian hookah.  Perhaps a scholar with a greater sense of play, and not so rigidly bound to the idea of what constitutes scholarly work, a scholarly ‘monograph’, and the notion of ‘historical rigor’, may have done wonders with tea and the hookah.  There are precedents, if I may put it this way, both to Starbuck’s marketing of “chai” and the proliferation of hookah bars and restaurants in recent years in American cities.


The English writer, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), at tea:  a print by by R. Redgrave and H. L. Shenton. Source:  http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/14/398833059/tea-tuesdays-the-evolution-of-tea-sets-from-ancient-legend-to-modern-biometrics

It is, however, Eacott’s discussion of the anxieties generated by ideas of the despotic and effeminate Orient that forms the most arresting part of his book.  Montesquieu is commonly seen as the originary point of European notions of ‘Oriental Despotism’, but the satirical play, Eastward Ho (1605), gave considerable expression to the idea of Asia, “with its great wealth,” as a “place of emasculating luxury” (p. 23).  India’s manufactures, an essay in the American Magazine and Historical Chronicle in 1744 proclaimed, displayed a “gaudy pride” and needed the sobering restraint of Protestant Britain (p. 165). The sensuous, profligate, and colorful Orient is never too far away from the idea of excess.  On both sides of the Atlantic, Eacott notes, reports of Company servants strutting around on horseback and accumulating fortunes “by every method of rapacity” circulated widely (p. 305).

In his unusual attentiveness, thus, to questions both of political economy and of the politics of representation, Eacott opens for historians new possibilities of linking Britain’s first empire to the British Raj.

[A shorter version of this review was first published in the Journal of American History (June 2017), 173-74; doi: 10.1093/jahist/jax024]

For a translation into Portuguese of this article by Artur Weber and Adelina Domingos, see:  https://www.homeyou.com/~edu/triangulacao-do-comercio



15 thoughts on “*Triangulating Trade and Culture:  The British Empire, India, and the Making of America

  1. Thank you so much for this! Loved it!

    Anubha Gupta rugrepublic.in +91-8826-728880 +1(424)402-7054

    On Fri, Oct 6, 2017 at 2:56 PM, Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal wrote:

    > Vinay Lal posted: “Review of Selling Empire: India in the Making of > Britain and America, 1600-1830. By Jonathan Eacott. (Chapel Hill: > University of North Carolina Press, for the Omohundro Institute of Early > American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, 2016. xiii, ” >


  2. Dear Professor,

    I find it very interesting how the Gita was picked up by such Western figures as Thoreau, Emerson, Oppenheimer, and so on. I wonder if their interest in it was a fetishistic attraction to the “East”. I apologize that this question is not necessarily related to the article, which is fascinating, but I recall that you had said in class that Gandhi interpreted the idea of karma yoga in the Gita to mean that one should focus on the means and not the ends. I understand where he gets the not focusing on the ends idea because of the “karmanye vaadhikaraste” verse, but I do not really understand where he gets the idea of needing to stick to ethical means. After all, Krishna repeatedly encourages the Pandavas to break the ethics of war in the Mahabharata, arguing that it is their dharma to do whatever is necessary even as they do not focus on the ends. I am curious how he grappled with this.


  3. It is perfectly clear why “Eacott lavishes much attention on the trade in calicoes,” as the above pictured prints feature strikingly beautiful designs! You write that “Scholars of Britain’s possessions in America have seldom been concerned with the second British empire…and, likewise, studies of British India have generally been written with indifference to what was transpiring in Britain’s empire in North America.” In at least one way, the two were inextricably connected, as the masts for British ships headed to India were logged in North America. I had wondered briefly whether any of those trees were found in Walden Woods; yet Maine History Online writes that “Great Britain had depleted its forests by the 17th century and looked to the tall, straight white pines of Maine and New Hampshire to supply its appetite for timber for wooden ships, especially the old-growth pines for masts.” Thanks Professor!


  4. Dear Professor, I enjoyed reading your paper very much. I am greatly attracted to the images of fabric works from India. I think the trade and connection between India and East originated long before. The West was always attracted by the mysterious spices and fabric works from the oriental world. I find the discussion of the study of Jonathan Eacott especially interesting. Though his book is furnished by an enhanced conception of the Atlantic world and a newfound interest in Indian studies, the idea of interconnected histories is really insightful. The world is always connected with each other. The trades between the West and the East benefit both parties. The triangular trade between India, Britain and the American colonies in North America really had a profound impact on the history of globalization.
    Tingyu LIu


  5. A most interesting analysis professor. I wonder, however, seeing as how Indian — and more specifically Hindu — philosophy took such a psychological foothold in the American world why we don’t see more of a social movement away from “Westernism” from the American people? Surely if works such as the Gita were as influential among the educated cultural and artistic classes does it not follow that we should see these trends manifested in the tangible history of our country? I am, of course, aware of the adoption of these ideas by counterculture hippies in the 1960’s, but I mean in less of a fad sense! For as popular as these works were to Emerson and Thoreau, we still appear to be steeped in a materialist world with no hope of breaking free.


    • The transmission of ideas across cultures is a complex matter. The fact that Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and some other writers and
      intellectuals in mid-19th century America were steeped in Indian philosophical thought or texts such as the Bhagavad Gita doesn’t mean that American culture as a whole was receptive to such ideas. Thoreau and Emerson were dissenters in their own way; we would also therefore have to understand why dissenters may embrace ideas, or may be intellectually open to ‘foreign influence’, and the same may not hold true for the dominant culture. I can point you to more writings of mine where I discuss this question at greater length.


  6. A very fascinating piece professor. I never realized that Indian Philosophy had a huge impact on many great American Transcendentalists. I think one of the main themes taken from India was the practice of non-violence. My belief is that Gandhi perfected the idea of non-violent protest, but Martin Luther King gets the credit for perfecting non-violent protest. My question is do Indian philosophers get the credit for their influence on many of the great thinkers in the West.


  7. It is no surprise to find out that philosophers such as Thoreau and Emerson find inspiration from a foreign culture. After all the same is to be said of the founding fathers who found inspiration for the Constitution by looking at the foundations of the Iroquois Confederacy. To your point about Eacott’s omission of Yale and Cornwallis in creating a bridge between the the first and second empire of Britain; it is strange that he ignores the direct intersection in the history of the two regions yet speaks of the economic relationship later down the line. If he omits such a connection then it diminishes the larger scope of the globalization Britain had under its control. While it is true the Indian subcontinent was never truly tamed, the British lust for wealth meant that it still held leverage over the colonies it lost as it dominated the world stage. You state Eacott opens new possibilities yet I feel that his omission of pivotal personae may dilute these possibilities. This is however just my thinking.


    • Hi Javier, Just a brief comment to say that, as my own review points out, Eacott misses some obvious points of intersection. Nevertheless, in saying that his book opens new possibilities of inquiry, I am suggesting that few historians have bothered to write connected histories of Britain’s first empire (north America) and Britain’s second empire (India). The trilateral nexus–India, Britain, North America–needs further exploration and to this extent the Eacott book is a useful intervention.


  8. What makes me particularly curious, and perhaps falls a bit outside the focus of the article, are the relationships between other British colonial posts and any existing similarities and differences between them, after thinking about how you wrote “studies of British India have generally been written with indifference to what was transpiring in Britain’s empire in North America” and vice versa. For example, you mentioned in a lecture how Cornwallis was shipped from America to an outpost in India after the British defeat in the Battle of Yorktown, instead of returning home back to Britain. In another instance, I thought about how you mentioned an official moved from one colonial authority to another, such as how some British authorities governing in India moved into Africa after when parts of Africa later became incorporated into the British Empire.

    I also thought about the connection that America and India unwittingly shared (or perhaps not unwittingly at all), was against the stamp duty placed on both colonial possessions. Jon Wilson, in “Chaos of Empire” mentioned that “In the mid-1820s it campaigned in favour of press freedom and trial by jury, and against the extension of taxation without representation” and then later continued that “In the same year, 1828, merchants in Calcutta condemned the Comany’s attempt to introduce a stamp duty in Calcutta as an encroachment on their historic liberties” (Wilson, 206). When I read these sentences, I strongly reminisced about the Stamp Act 1765 taught in American curriculum as part of the leading causes that later galvanized the American Revolution. It made me wonder what other similarities might exist elsewhere in the relationship that the British Empire had with its other colonial possessions.


    • A very good question, Elizabeth, but one that is really outside the purview of my short piece. Not only Africa, but the Caribbean would be an important point of intersection, especially because of the import of Indian indentured labor in very large numbers into places such as Trindad, Guyana, Jamaica, and so on.


  9. Hi Professor,
    One of the most striking things that you had mentioned was the influence Indian philosophy had over many American icons. While I did know that Martin Luther King Jr. did emulate the practice of non-violent protest from Gandhi, but I had no idea that a philosopher like Thoreau was also heavily influenced by Indian philosophy. While you mentioned that certain products like tea and other spices did very well in America it seems like a bit of a stretch for Britain to hope that the people in the American colonies would become mass consumers of many Indian products. I would think that the distance alone would become one of the biggest issues to deal with. If those in America could not support the East India Trading Company as much as Britain would have hoped for what other alternatives were the British left with?


  10. It always astounds me how interconnected world history has been the past few centuries, to the point where you have to bring up seemingly-unrelated conflicts like the seven-years war and Napoleonic wars to explain basically anything that happened in the Americas or the Southern Hemisphere. I’ve never thought to connect the 13 colonies and triangle trade to British endeavors in India, and it seems from this review the author (Jonathan Eacott) has successfully proven colonial and inter-colonial links like these were one significant cause of British economic dominance in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although I do have questions about the difference between Britain’s “first” and “second” Empire, that’s probably not addressed or relevant to the book’s main goals.


  11. It is surprisingly apt that this article concentrates on the review of a book that deals with the connections between India, America, and Britain. Before reading this article, I had not thought about the gaping plot hole in history texts where these connections should be. Still, I would be interested to learn more about the role of cotton and textiles in this relationship. I understand from previous studies that, as they say, in America “cotton was king,” but this reading reminded me that India, too, had a booming textile industry at one point. I wonder if American cotton was ever traded in conjunction with the Indian textile trade, or if one ever posed a threat to the other. Additionally, I would be interested to learn more about the idea of excess in connection with India. Connecting this idea both to the Company servants and the construct of ‘communalism’ is such a strange, yet understandable line of thinking. The former were enjoying the fruits of labor to excess and the latter expresses the idea that Indians, by nature, were prone to excessive violence. One could even say that the entire colonialist narrative surrounding not only India but all of Asia could be attributable to this summation by the British of these peoples as “excessive” in every sense of the word. This line of reasoning, I believe deserves more thorough exploration than can be effectively achieved in this reflection. However, it is an important conclusion to draw and dissect in future scholarship.


  12. An extremely interesting article, Professor. In this article you discuss the importance of Indian spices, tea and hookah and them being chief motivators to the conquest of India, it is interesting to see the reverse true as well; What I mean to say is that in Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj, he speaks of India’s conquest being, in part, India’s fault as well because they were lured by the material wealth and riches that the British brought. It was this transactional and two-way relationship for the conquest of material goods that ultimately led to the conquest of India, in my opinion. This is only true because as you say, “the sensuous, profligate, and colorful Orient is never too far away from the idea of excess.”


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