An Eye for Prices, an Eye for Souls: Americans in the Indian Subcontinent, 1784-1838


Between Independence and the late 1830s, Americans' perception of India changed dramatically. Such a shift was due to the transition from merchant-mariners to missionaries as the predominant professions to visit the subcontinent. From the Treaty of Paris to the War of 1812, American trade with India boomed as Philadelphia, Boston, and Salem merchants rode the winds of neutral trade to windfall profits. Largely forbidden from trading with the houses of the East India Company, however, American businessmen had to look elsewhere for trading partners. They found them in the well-educated native Indian merchants called banians in Calcutta and dubashes in Madras. Since their success in India was predicated on the quality of their commercial relationships with native Indian merchants, American captains and supercargoes had every reason to overcome cultural differences. While early national American merchants varied in their ability to drop prejudices, many of the most successful India traders forged remarkably respectful, fair, and even friendly relationships with their indigenous counterparts. The profitability of the America India trade dropped precipitously after Congress passed new tariff legislation in 1816. By then, a new, more evangelically minded generation of Americans had begun to land in Anglo-Indian ports. The rise of American missionary labor in the subcontinent resulted in a very different image of native Indians and their civilization. Unlike merchants, missionaries had every reason to exploit cultural and religious differences, both for publicity and for reasons of funding. Their writings and publications had a profound effect on the way in which ordinary Americans thought of themselves, of non-Christian peoples, and of their destiny as a people.