Published by EH.Net (January 2012)
James R. Fichter, So Great a Proffit: How the East Indies Trade Transformed Anglo-American Capitalism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. xi + 384 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-674-05057-0.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Thomas H. Cox, Department of History, Sam Houston State University.
James R. Fichter?s So Great a Proffit: How the East Indies Trade Transformed Anglo-American Capitalism sheds new light on America?s early trade with Asia during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Seeking to move beyond traditional portrayals of national economic development, Fichter contends that ?American trade to the East Indies as a whole had repercussions for society, economics, and politics on both sides of the Atlantic? (p. 4). In particular, competition from private American merchants undermined British mercantilism and ?helped begin Britain?s nineteenth century free trade empire.? For the young American republic trade with Asia meant ?the accumulation of wealth and financial capital into the hands of the wealthiest Americans, creating financiers who would profoundly alter the shape of American business? (p. 4). Located at the intersection of economic, cultural, American, and British history, Fichter?s work is necessarily broad based, painting in broad strokes themes for future historians to further flesh out.
The publication of So Great a Proffit coincides with an emerging body of scholarship on the ?Pacific World.?? In recent years Katherine Gulliver and Matt K. Matsuda have pointed to the increase of cultural contacts between European and American traders and the native peoples of the Pacific Rim from the late 1700s through the mid-twentieth century as a formative period in world history. Such activity led to not merely exchanges of plants, animals, pathogens, and people but also linguistic, religious and cultural traits. Although slower to catch on than the concept of the ?Atlantic World,? the increasingly important relationships between the United States and Asian countries such as China has promoted new scholarly interest in the notion of a ?Pacific World.?
Fichter begins his narrative in colonial British North America. Drawing from Bernard Bailyn and Pauline Maier, Fichter discusses the role of anti-monopoly sentiment in the creation of republican rhetoric. In the post-Revolutionary period lingering distrust of large mercantile corporations prevented the creation of an American East India Company. It thus fell to individual American merchants, already excluded from British markets in the wake of independence, to form primitive business corporations and seek new business opportunities in the Pacific.
Following the outbreak of war between Britain and France in the 1790s, neutral American merchants conducted a bustling trade throughout the world. Over the next decade American ships carried Spanish silver, American furs, and Hawaiian sandalwood to the Far East, returning home with holds full of Sumatran pepper, Indian cloth, and Chinese tea and porcelain. Many of these goods were subsequently smuggled into European countries (including, ironically Great Britain) to be sold at exorbitant rates.
Fichter reveals that profits garnered from the lucrative Pacific trade helped to create the first class of American millionaires. Traditional American merchants pursued trade to achieve a ?competency? or ?enough money not to need to work, enough to retire on, but not enough to be rich.? In contrast, younger merchants like Jacob Crowninshield, Stephen Girard, and Israel Thorndike pursued trade with Asia to achieve ?affluence? characterized by ?profuse wealth and a liberality towards others commensurate with noble station? (pp. 117-18). By decorating their spacious mansions with Chinese tapestries, silks and lacquer ware these individuals showcased their refinement and gentility. By injecting large amounts of silver into the economy American merchants furthermore helped underwrite the costs of northern industrialization. T.H. Breen, Richard Bushman, and Daniel Vickers have traced the gentrification of America?s merchant community in the early 1800s. Fichter adds to their work by uncovering the previously unexamined role which trade with the Pacific Rim played in this process. Conversely, Fichter also relates how the British East India Company selectively attempted to lease its ships and privatize key aspects of its overseas operations to stave off competition from American free traders until its final demise in 1874. Crucial in the defeat of the unpopular monopoly were the lobbying efforts of British free traders who argued that it was their rights as British subjects to carry out trade anywhere within the Empire they chose. Ironically it was rise of private business partnerships which allowed Great Britain to remain a dominant economic power well into the twentieth century.
Fichter wastes no opportunity to depict American free trade as more effective than British mercantilism. Yet How Great a Proffit does not blindly celebrate the ?virtues? of capitalism. Fichter candidly admits that ?[f]ree trade was, despite Adam Smith?s sentiments, amoral? (p. 205). As late entrants into the Pacific trade and lacking notions of noblesse oblige shared by many royal and East Indian Company officials, American traders brutally overharvested seal skins and sandalwood and intervened in tribal wars throughout the Pacific to secure lucrative trading agreements with different chieftains. Most damning, Fichter recounts the vast fortunes British and American merchants made off the suffering of thousands of Chinese during the Opium Wars.
Despite the breath of Fichter?s research, many questions about America?s early trading relations with Asia remain unanswered. How, specifically, did trade with India and China influence the development of the modern American business corporation and how substantial was this impact? How did the lives of American sailors, dockworkers, clerks, and ordinary consumers change as a result of increased trade with Asia? Most important, what actions did Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and Chinese peasants take to resist economic domination by British and American merchants? Further research is thus needed before the complex webs of commerce and culture identified by Fichter can be brought into clear historical focus. Nevertheless, How Great a Proffit remains a well written, carefully researched book which points the way for scholars interested in recapturing America?s early trading relationships with the diverse cultures of the Pacific World.
Thomas H. Cox is Associate Professor of History at Sam Houston State University. He is the author of Gibbons v. Ogden: Law and Society in the Early Republic (Ohio University Press, 2009). In 2009-2010 he served as Visiting Fulbright Professor at the Institute for American Studies, Northwest Normal University, Changchun, China.
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