HISTORY MAY 31, 2010
by James R. Fichter
Harvard University Press, 384 pp., $35
Today’s Tea Party brigades imagine a connection with their eighteenth-century forebears chiefly on the basis of a shared outrage against excessive taxation and illegitimate government authority. But they haven’t a clue about the commodity that channeled the outrage in the first place. It was tea. At the time of Boston’s famed “tea party” in 1773, the American colonies imported about a quarter of a million pounds of tea annually. And virtually all of it came from the very distant port of Canton, on the southeast coast of China, part of a growing and increasingly lucrative trade in Asia and the East Indies.
Historians of colonial and early national America have, for the past decade or so, insisted that we broaden our horizons to encompass what they call an “Atlantic world.” After all, the colonies of British North America and then the United States took shape in an intense international environment of cross-cutting political, economic, and cultural currents. Oceanic trade, population movements (voluntary and involuntary), plantation agriculture, mercantile policies, spiritual practices, and revolutionary ideologies linked Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and regularly traversed the boundaries that various colonial powers attempted to impose. Admittedly, most of this scholarship has focused on the Anglo-American Atlantic, but it has pried inward-looking Americanists out of their parochialism, raised a host of challenging new perspectives, and on occasion delighted in its own self-satisfied cosmopolitanism.
James Fichter’s wonderful and important book suggests that the Atlanticists may be far less cosmopolitan than they presume. Fichter tells a story of war, empire, trade, smuggling, capital accumulation, and enormous transformations in political economy between the last decade of the eighteenth century and the third decade of the nineteenth. And the main actors would be familiar to anyone interested in the Atlantic world of the time: Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United States. But in Fichter’s telling, their world is the Pacific and Indian Oceans; and if he is right, they may have played a far more significant role there than we have previously thought. Indeed, Fichter finds in the East India trade both the reconfiguring of British empire and an enormous stimulus to American economic development.
Americans have had a much longer history in the Pacific and Indian Oceans than we usually recognize. In the early eighteenth century, as British subjects, they either engaged in smuggling and piracy or worked in more legitimate ways with the British East India Company, which was chartered by Parliament and the Crown. Almost within moments of American independence, they were then coursing and trading in the East Indies on their own. The first American merchant vessels reached Asia in 1784 and struck up relations in a number of ports, even in India where the East India Company permitted access.
But the great breakthrough came with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars (which Fichter together calls the “French wars”), when American neutrality opened enormous opportunities in Asian and European markets. Although the federal government refused to create an American version of the East India Company, American merchants managed to cast an incredibly wide net, and to compete successfully in Batavia (Jakarta), Manila, Cape Town, Calcutta, Canton, and the Mascarene Islands (including Mauritius), all of which tapped into dynamic economies in their hinterlands. “In the first decade of the nineteenth century,” Fichter writes, “American shipping to and across the East Indies…was second only to Britain’s [and] in many ports it was second to none.”
Availing himself of several national archives, Fichter paints a rich and evocative portrait of the East India trade, from the outfitting of the ships and the financing of the voyages to the length of the journeys and the pulse of the markets. He skillfully demonstrates how the distinctive features of the trade—especially the centrality of silver as the medium of exchange until opium began to replace it—helped to restructure mercantile operations, and to give rise to a truly “affluent” class of merchants based in the American Northeast.
Controlling the ships, these merchants not only transported their own cargoes but also rented out sections of the hold to lesser—“competent”—merchants who lacked the resources to trade for themselves, as well as to the occasional British investor who eyed prospective earnings. The capital that they—Fichter draws special attention to Stephen Girard, Israel Thorndike, and John Jacob Astor—accumulated, heavily in the form of specie, would then find its way into banking, real estate, and textile mills (such as the Boston Manufacturing Company of Lowell fame). Which is to say that the far-off East India trade played, in Fichter’s view, an important—and generally unappreciated—part in the subsequent industrialization of the American economy.
Yet there were other, and equally large, ramifications. The success that many of the American merchants achieved without benefit of government monopolies along British mercantile lines served as an alternative to the practices and the logic of the East India Company, which had insisted that profits in the costly and risky Asian trade could only be had in protected markets. Indeed, during the first decade of the nineteenth century Americans bought more goods from British India, and shipped more goods into British India than the East India Company did. As British liberals made the case for free trade—without the lobbying support that the East India Company could bring to bear—the American story helped to shift the argument from the level of abstraction to that of concrete experience. When the French wars finally came to an end, the liberals began to win the day: in 1813, they convinced Parliament to revoke the East India Company monopoly in the India trade.
This victory, as Fichter points out, formed part of a more fundamental transformation in the nature of the British empire itself. Before the 1790s, the British imperial regime was based chiefly in the Atlantic—especially in the Caribbean, where immensely valuable sugar plantation colonies were to be found—and governed by mercantilist policies meant to control the shipment and marketing of colonial and metropolitan goods. Thereafter, as most of the North American colonies wrested their independence and the Caribbean sugar economies began to decline, the British empire shifted eastward, first toward India and then toward the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Africa, dispensing with mercantilism and embracing free trade along the way.
In these new settings, unlike North America (though somewhat like the Caribbean), the British together with other European colonizers could count on the political loyalty of the local white and creole populations—and, in most cases, the successful policing of the native subalterns, who either worked on plantations and other colonial enterprises or remained in peasant villages. The twentieth century would be well along before anti-colonial movements there would explode, and they would be very different in their social compositions and political aspirations than those of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Americas.
Specialists may well question whether Fichter’s case study of the East India trade can carry the load of the ambitious arguments that he makes. How important was the American example in contributing to the power and ultimate hegemony of British economic liberalism? How significant was the capital accumulated in the trade in advancing American domestic economic development, and how extended were the ramifications of the institutional and legal reorganizations that the character of the trade encouraged? Fichter concludes So Great a Profitt by effectively inviting further investigations while hinting, perhaps, at a subsequent project of his own: “Just how capital shaped the nineteenth century is . . . another story.” It surely is, but he has suggested new ways in which it may be conceived.
Fichter has also, implicitly at least, drawn our attention to the importance of the Pacific in the early history of the United States. Well aware of the thriving trade that he writes about, American leaders and policymakers from the first days of the republic saw the Pacific as a vast source of economic enrichment, and the Pacific coast of North America as a vital launching pad. When Lewis and Clark set out from Illinois in 1804, Thomas Jefferson could instruct them that “the object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, and such principal streams of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean…may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across the continent, for the purposes of commerce.”
These views were shared by virtually all of Jefferson’s successors, especially those from John Quincy Adams to James K. Polk, who believed that the harbors stretching from San Diego in the south to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the north represented a central territorial ambition for the country. In 1835, President Andrew Jackson told his Mexican minister to negotiate for the “whole bay” of San Francisco, in what turned into a failed effort. His successor, Martin Van Buren, sent an expedition to gather information about the Pacific coast and, particularly, about the harbors there. John Tyler’s minister to Mexico thought that the “possession of San Francisco and Monterey would . . . secure the trade of India & the whole Pacific Ocean.” Polk’s main concern in going to war against Mexico in 1846 was the acquisition of California. And when Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois threw the future of slavery in America’s western territories into question by crafting the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, his principal interest was in promoting the construction of a railroad from Chicago (where he owned real estate) to the booming coastal city of San Francisco.
So the Pacific lay on the horizon of opportunity for Americans across the political spectrum, but its pursuit would nearly blow the country apart. James Fichter’s excellent book helps us to understand the political and economic genealogies of this powerful vision, and how the Pacific world would come to rival, if not supersede, the Atlantic in American history.
Steven Hahn teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author, most recently, of The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom (2009).