- Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600–1830 by Jonathan Eacott
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016
Over the last several years, historians have highlighted the pitfalls of assuming that early modern British officials subscribed to a single, coherent vision of mercantilism. In truth, the British political economy [End Page 778] changed and shifted over time, developing out of conflict rather than consensus. In Selling Empire, Jonathan Eacott provides a welcome addition to that historiographical conversation. Taking a global view of the British Empire between 1600 and 1830, Eacott reveals that English and later British parliamentarians, traders, investors, and subjects frequently clashed over the East India Company’s government-granted monopoly. The company and its commercial strength emerged as a result of imperial compromises rather than uniform beliefs about trade policy.
While the book reads much like a history of the company, Eacott maintains the larger purpose of elucidating the commercial connections among Britain, British America, and India. He lays aside traditional questions about where and when the British Empire emerged, addressing instead the question of which commercial factors (products, trade, laborers) imperial thinkers believed would allow the empire to thrive. He concludes that India held a central role in England’s imperial project even before the European nation wielded full political control over Indian territory. Following US independence, moreover, North American traders sent raw cotton to Britain, which British manufacturers developed into finished goods and sent to India. The United States remained as essential to the empire as India in the early nineteenth century. At times, therefore, both America and India constituted important components of Britain’s commercial empire without being politically subservient to it.
Eacott traces the origin of such interconnectedness back to the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Early proponents of empire such as Richard Hakluyt and Edward Wynne viewed the development of commerce in India and America as two components of a single project. They hoped that the regions would produce many of the same raw materials that would enrich English traders and fill government coffers. As Eacott reveals, India represented both a promise and a threat. It promised vast wealth to English traders, revenue to the government, and a counterbalance to the wealth generated for Catholic Spain in the Americas. At the same time, many English Protestants associated Asia with Muslim powers and its opulence with the fall of Rome. They worried that fine products emanating from India would lead to the corrupting influence of idleness and luxury. America provided an answer to the vexing problem of how to benefit materially from India’s produce without suffering from its inherent corruption. If American colonies could produce the same raw materials [End Page 779] as India, traders could acquire their desired wealth, remain untainted from interaction with non-Christians in Asia, and create a bulwark against Catholicism in the Americas.
In the face of competition from American plantations, the East India Company lobbied for governmental protection and fought against conceptions of Indian goods as inherently corrupting. The directors worked and succeeded at popularizing Indian calicoes, silks, and other luxury items. But their success heightened calls by moralists to abandon Indian luxuries and by domestic manufacturers to prohibit the importation of Indian manufactures into England. English woolen and silk producers complained that the company impoverished spinners and weavers in England by importing fashionable but corrupting textiles from India. Government officials also worried that the company sapped bullion from England.
Eacott reveals that the dueling tension between the East India Company and British manufacturers resulted in a series of imperial compromises embodied in the Calico Acts. The American colonies assumed a central role in that compromise. To secure the livelihood of domestic manufacturers and prevent the corrupting influence of Asian luxuries, the Calico Acts prohibited the importation of Indian calico into Britain. To ensure the company’s viability, the acts exempted British America from the prohibition, making it the principal destination for the company’s calico exports. As a result, imperial thinkers reimagined American colonists as consumers of Indian goods rather...