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  • Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600 – 1830 by Jonathan Eacott
  • Robert S. DuPlessis
Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600 – 1830. By Jonathan Eacott. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. 471 pages. Cloth, paper, ebook.

Two separate but inseparable empires—one material, the other territorial—form, interact, and transform in this subtle and important book. Selling Empire explores the long, circuitous, and complicated processes that, Jonathan Eacott forcefully argues, melded India, North America, and Britain into an economically integrated entity that overspilled imperial boundaries. Seventeenth-century mercantilists envisioned an empire that would comprise settlement colonies supplying raw materials to and buying manufactures from England to the benefit of metropolitan industry, trade, shipping, and state revenues. Their early nineteenth-century heirs governed a rearranged territorial empire while profiting handsomely from economic and cultural neo-imperialism: a new colony with few British settlers paid revenues and an ex-colony provided materials and markets. At the beginning, England ruled colonial America and traded with independent India; at the end, Britain ruled colonial India and traded with independent America.

This transition was neither linear nor simple. In Eacott's detailed account of ironies, shifts, and achievements intended and unforeseen, economic functions were redistributed among India, America, and Britain several times over the two centuries from 1600 to 1830. Manufacturing—notably but not exclusively of cotton textiles—changed locations, labor regimes, technologies, and primary materials suppliers. The East India Company (EIC) mutated from a commercial monopoly to a colonial government. Britons and Americans transferred their anxieties about corrupting Indian influences from commodities to culture and climate. The focus of imperial policies toward India shifted from commerce to conquest and colonization. Throughout, America remained dependent on products sold from Britain. Imperial political economy and cultural hegemony—at least the British version—did not require formal empire; political control followed rather than caused commercial supremacy.

Impressively researched, Selling Empire presents significant quantitative data displayed in seven judiciously interpreted figures on Indian and British textile trade, colonial commercial patterns, and Indian commodity exports; discussions of the consumption habits of Britons resident in India are grounded in probate inventory data. But the book's arguments are mainly and deeply developed by means of nimble close readings of a broad array of [End Page 560] primary sources, printed and archival, that delineate contending economic, moralistic, political, and literary currents of thought and propaganda regarding empire, trade, and goods. Eight substantial chapters, seasoned with about two dozen nicely chosen and carefully explicated illustrations (though, alas, just one map, dating from 1804) fall into two rough parts plus a coda.

With the early eighteenth-century Calico Acts as their centerpiece, Eacott's first three chapters examine fateful early reconfigurations of the British imperial project from the early seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth century. Initial proposals imagined America as a source of raw cotton, indigo, and silk, which would enable Britons to avoid the corruption accompanying Asian luxuries. Already in the mid-seventeenth century, however, Oliver Cromwell and Charles II planned "a global English empire of colonization, enslaved labor plantations, and national monopoly trades operating in the interests of the state" (56) in which both revenues from EIC imports and the 1660 Navigation Act would have central roles in promoting British commerce, industry, shipping, and state income at the expense, most of all, of the feared and envied Dutch. The results were not what had been foreseen. In the next few decades, Indian cottons became extremely popular in Britain, provoking a storm of opposition from producers of woolens and silks. The solution was found in the Calico Acts, which allowed the continued importation of printed and painted Indian cottons, but only for reexport outside Britain. A half century before the 1773 Tea Act, Eacott maintains, Americans were tacitly repositioned from producers to consumers—and consumers not of British manufactures but of Indian—a decision that also, and again unintentionally, laid the groundwork for revolution-era conflicts over consumer choice and freedom within confining imperial structures. More immediately, Indian products—particularly calicoes that encouraged the emergence of "an...

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