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Book Extract - The Yankees have Landed

They came, they saw and they wrote. About snake charmers and dancing girls, trade and Indian society. Extracts from Yankee India … .

Two centuries have passed since the beginning of American trade with India. Opinions about the legitimacy of diverse religions, the equality of races, and the connection between race and culture have been fundamentally altered, if not entirely changed. Yet, there remain haunting similarities between American views then and now. In the early nineteenth century, Americans noted ancient wonders such as the caves of Elephanta and judged India a civilisation in decline. Nearly two hundred years later, India is often characterised by a qualitatively similar notion: underdevelopment. Both perspectives support the belief, widely held by Americans then and now, of their own national superiority.

The fascination with India as an icon of the deleterious effects of exploding population and economic underdevelopment, assumed to be a twentieth-century phenomenon, was already present in only slightly different form in the journals of American visitors to eighteenth-century India. The responses to Indian poverty, particularly the practice of "begging" also have an uncanny resemblance to comments made by late-twentieth-century American visitors to India. Dudley Pickman, for example, at Tranquebar on the south-east coast in 1799, remarked on the great many beggars on the streets, some deformed, all "most pitiable objects" (chapter 6). Virtues of self-reliance, work, and individual effort were integral to the Protestantism of New Englanders, and everyone was expected to earn a living by a Western conception of honest labour. In India, the beggars, jugglers, dancing girls and snake charmers had an accepted place. Depending on the generosity of others was a customary way of life for many who were diseased or crippled. Jugglers and snake charmers, considered lowlife tricksters by Europeans, were appreciated for their illusionist skills and earned their livelihoods amusing passers-by. Dancing girls, considered morally suspect by Westerners, were essential participants in many religious festivals and celebrations. To most Yankee mariners, the everyday presence of such people was a demonstration of the degenerate state of Indian society.

Indian religious teachings have attracted followers in the United States since the impact of Swami Vivekana-nda at the 1893 World Congress of Religions in Chicago; today, Hindu philosophy and practice is well established with large numbers of adherents who are not of South Asian origin. Nevertheless, as the uproar over Southern Baptist missionary literature in the autumn of 1999 demonstrated, there are still many in America who believe that Hinduism is wrong and its followers are damned. In the same vein, for decades in the first half of the twentieth century, South Asians were excluded from "the land of opportunity" on racial grounds. From the beginnings of the trade with India, Yankees grouped Indians with others of dark complexion, and understood this as a racial classification entailing biological and psychological differences. The racial discrimination still encountered from time to time by Americans of South Asian origin is part of an entrenched culture of race with which Americans of all backgrounds still struggle.

Though the early U.S. encounter with India through commerce is all but forgotten, its significance cannot be diminished. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the trade was a leading source of U.S. custom duties, and many prominent leaders of the new nation learned about the world and America's place in it from their experiences in India trade. Yankee vessels brought admirable textile manufactures, especially cotton goods, whose utility and beauty would spur Americans to devise methods for producing satisfactory imitations. As the trade narrowed and was concentrated in Boston, sailing ships continued to serve as conduits, transporting missionaries and ice to India and returning with exotic curiosities and coveted Kashmir, spice jars, shawls, interesting art-pieces, food recipes for delicious items, as well as intellectually engaging and challenging translations of Sanskrit literature. Throughout this period, when the East was four months or more away from the United States and information was very limited, far-off exotic India provided an opportunity to envision dramatic differences-in religion, race, economy, and geography-and in doing so, to serve as a foil in the shaping of American identity. The encounter between America and India in the age of sail warrants a closer look-for its important economic and cultural impacts in the nineteenth century and for its illumination of long-standing, deeply ingrained American attitudes towards morality and civilisation.

From the Journal of the Belisarius
1799-1800 by Dudley L. Pickman

Fort St. George is a handsome brick fortification. It appears very strong, but is probably too much extended to make as able a defence as might otherwise be done. It contains a regular built town, containing several houses, many stores, shops etc. besides an English Church, the Government offices and accommodations for the troops. In the public square, in the middle of the Fort, is a statue of Marquis Cornwallis, lately brought from England. Not being entirely finished it was kept covered while we were here, but was to be opened with a great parade in a few days, on the anniversary of the victory gained by that nobleman under the walls of Seringapa-tam, which produced peace with Tippoo. The public buildings attract no attention from their splendour. No black is permitted to go into the Fort in a palanquin; they must walk in from the gates. All the European merchants have their stores in the Fort. They generally live a few miles from the Fort in the country.

The town outside the Fort, is called the Black Town. The Custom House is kept under here, near the beach where all goods are landed and shipped. The natives, with the Armenians and Portuguese, reside here. It is under the same Government with that part within the Fort. The habitations of the poorest class of natives are made of mats-are about thirty or forty feet circumference and six or eight feet high-the door three or four feet by two. The rich natives have large, handsome houses, with considerable gardens adjoining. One which costs 6,000 pounds sterling was not thought extravagant for a man in the first class of wealth. The Portuguese and Armenians who live in Black Town, have generally handsome houses, some of them three stories. They are all of brick or stone, and are built as airy as possible.

From the Journal of the Tartar,
1817-18 by William A. Rogers

A stranger, the first moment he sees an Indian city is probably more astonished, his curiosity more awakened, perhaps delighted, than it can be in visiting the first European cities. Although the latter may be decorated with more superb palaces and public buildings, although you find in than much more refinement and luxury, yet they cannot in my opinion excite half the emotion that you feel on first seeing the former. To be placed instantaneously in a crowded city, its houses are styled differently, streets thron-ged with every cast and kind from the pale European resident to the jet black Kauffree/ Caffie. Thousands of men and women almost naked, others though dressed yet so singularly as to exact attention, from the turban'd Turk to the "sans culottes" coolee-in fact English, Americans, French and Portuguese, Armenians and Jews, Parsees, Gentoos and Mahommedans, each wearing the costume of his nation, displaying its peculiar manners. I am sure that when I entered the city of Paris, so famed for wonders, my curiosity was by no means so raised as at Bombay.

The streets are very narrow, hard, level and dirty. In the middle of the city is the green, a large open space, covered with every kind of merchandise. You will see here piles of cotton bales, pepper, coffee etc.etc. from 50 to 80 feet high. The public buildings are few. An English (formerly a Portuguese) church is worthy of notice having in the interior some handsome monuments. One of Capt. Hardinge, of the Eng. frigate which took the Piedmontaise, is beautiful and would not disgrace the walls of Westminster Abbey. The interior of the church is much better than its exterior in appearance.

The Armenians have a church to which I went. It had the appearance of a Catholic church but rather more gewgaw finery. The Portuguese have likewise a church, the Jews a synagogue, the Parsees a temple within the walls. A Scotch Presbyterian church is building which I think will be a handsome edifice. The courthouse is an old heavy building, very uncouth. The Governor's house has quite an air of state about it although not very handsome. The Custom House is a large building of common construction.

The screw houses are very large. Here you will see 60 men entirely naked working at an enormous capstan through which the screw passes, screwing cotton. With this enormous power they can raise 1000 tons. Cotton is screwed to the density of wood. I am told they frequently fall dead either from suffocation by the cotton dust, or by the heat. Their pay is about 14 cents per diem.

There are some fine shops here belonging to Europeans. The native bazaar is crowded with shops stuffed full of everything, chiefly kept by Moham-medans and Parsees. Their rule is to ask three times more for an article than they intend taking.

Bombay dock is worthy of notice. There are four docks having two entrances, one large enough for a ship of the line, two for frigates, and one for a sloop of war. Some of the ships are so well-built that their presence beautifies the harbour. One can spend hours just gazing at them

From the Journal of the Rockall,
1854 by Edwin Blood

On the shore-As we stepped from our palanquins we were received by a Hindu in the full dress of the country, who made a low salaam and made us follow him. Carrying us up a long flight of stairs he left us standing in a large hall he disappeared. The scene now before us was purely Oriental; Hindu servants, in flowing pants and robes and turbans of the purest white were hurrying to and fro. Then Farnham appeared and handed me some letters.

Having seen Greenleaf fairly off, Farnham introduced me to the office. This was a large cool room opening upon the veranda containing two desks over which a punkha or large fan pendant from the ceiling was hung and at work at the punkha string was another Hindu servant.

I had just time to finish my letters when dinner was announced and we proceeded to the dining room. There were five of us at the table. I will not stop to comment upon the variety or richness of the dishes laid before us; suffice it to say that the table as a whole is such as is not seen in America. Behind the Supercargo stood the Kunsemar (khansama) or supplier of the table with folded arms and behind every guest also a servant all dressed in the purest white flowing pants, robes and turbans, while overhead, and moved by a string passing out of the room was a huge punkha, giving an artificial and highly acceptable breeze. An occasional glance at Farnham convinced me that he did not suffer the transition from shipboard to onshore to affect his appetite, nor to confess the truth did I; but I gulped down the food set before me, notwithstanding half a dozen Asiatics were staring at me with considerable gusto.