Triangulating trade and culture: The British Empire, India, and the making of America


Review of Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830 by Jonathan Eacott (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, 2016)

Most narratives of the place of India in the making of America have revolved around a few well-worn themes, commencing with Columbus’ landing in America and his egregious error in supposing that he had arrived in India. The first truly great milestone in the received narrative touches upon the deep-seated interest in Indian philosophy shared by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson: there is now a substantial interest in how India seeped into the thought and writings of the American Transcendentalists, and I myself wrote a Master’s thesis, which remains unpublished, on Emerson and Indian philosophy (Johns Hopkins University, 1982). Those who are familiar with Thoreau, for instance, may recall the famous indeed inimitable lines in Walden about how the waters of Walden Pond seemed to merge with the waters of the Ganga:

In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.

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