East Indies, Early U.S. trade, British trade, Jay Treaty, Capitalism
A common critique made of works on early American commerce with Asia is that the trade never lived up to the hype. Fables of oriental luxuries and millions of consumers belied the paucity of actual exchange, leading scholars themselves to overvalue the trade's history.
If this dismissal ever held weight, James Fichter's impressive new book, So Great a Proffit, puts it to rest. In considering the impact of American trade in the East Indies on Anglo-American capitalism during the years 1783 to 1815, Fichter demonstrates that American mercantile activity in Asia contributed to the liberalization of British trade and empire at a pivotal moment and generated profits (and hence capital) for a budding class of American industrial entrepreneurs. By shifting the emphasis from trade to capital, Fichter makes a distinction with a difference. Scholars too often focus on industrialization as an explanation for North Atlantic political and economic power in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Focusing on capital, however, places both trade and industry in a larger trajectory of the reorganization of finance.
In its barest sketches, So Great a Proffit tells a familiar story. As Douglass North wrote in 1961, the European wars emerging out of the French Revolution created an opening for neutral powers—especially Americans—to profit from markets otherwise monopolized by the French, British, Dutch, and Spanish. The re-export trade enabled by the 1793 to 1815 wars in turn allowed a nascent investor-capital class of merchants to finance American industrialization. The book is thus organized around the French Revolutionary Wars: The first two chapters examine the American-East Indian trade prior to the French Revolution and chapters 3 to 8 during the French Wars, with the final two chapters turning to consequences of the trade for the British and American economies in the wars' aftermath. In practice, however, this book pushes us beyond North's thesis into new and exciting territory. [End Page 327]
First, this is a work of breathtaking scope. While historians recognize that early Americans conceptualized "the East Indies" as a single region, few tackle such a range of international repositories and literatures. Fichter's enviable language skills and historiographical reach manifest repeatedly in the nuance with which he handles issues of global scope, such as chapter 6's contention that American trade shored up European colonialism in Batavia, Capetown, the Mascarenes, and Manila during the French Wars.
This scope especially pays off in Fichter's analysis of American trade in the Indian Ocean littoral. In 1938, Holden Furber suggested that the much-maligned Jay Treaty did better than John Jay himself had ever intended by allowing Americans to operate out of British East India Company ports. Surprisingly, Americanists have been slow to build upon Furber's thesis. Fichter illuminates how Americans used this opportunity combined with their wartime neutrality to play ports off each other. Anywhere Company vessels could go Americans could follow, but many ports that welcomed American neutrals barred British vessels. If the British attempted to curtail competitors carrying goods between Bengal and London, Americans stopped off at the Danish port of Serampore en route. Future scholars would do well to use this foundation to examine American agency houses in India and American engagement of foreign agents in the Indian Ocean littoral.
Second, Fichter points to an underappreciated eighteenth-century definition of free trade: one concerned not with tariffs and Corn Laws, but with monopoly power. In what is likely the most controversial claim in the book, Fichter contends that "there is little evidence that [British] merchants opened [their] trade to Asia solely or even primarily to export industrial goods" (5). Rather, jealousy of American merchants in India helped to kill off the British East India Company's commercial monopoly in southern Asia in 1813. In Parliamentary hearings, opponents of the Company's monopoly used the Company's own records of American competition to argue that a "free trade...