Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America


Adam Nadeau
University of New Brunswick

Review of Jonathan Eacott, Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600–1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. $45.00 (Cloth).

JacketJonathan Eacott’s Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600– 1830 (2016) reinforces two important historiographical points. One is that, contrary to David Armitage’s insistence that ‘the emergence of the concept of the “British Empire” . . . was long drawn out, and only achieved by the late seventeenth century at the earliest’,[1] the English polity that later incorporated the kingdoms of Scotland and Ireland was consciously imperial as early as the late sixteenth century. The second is that Britain’s imperial efforts were, from the start, transoceanic in nature. On the latter point, Selling Empire breaks with the older historiographical trend of distinguishing between a ‘first’ and ‘second’ British Empire delineated by a late eighteenth-century ‘swing to the east’.[2] Instead, Eacott asks readers to consider ‘America the India’ as well as ‘India the place’, for it was the idea of India that ‘fostered, propelled, and supported English and British imperial expansion and power in America’ (1–3). Rather than ‘separate “worlds” of empire’, Eacott sees ‘the British empire in the world’ (7), an important shift in perspective that, along with other recent studies of the peripheries of Britain’s American empire,[3] will continue to push scholars of early modern British imperialism nearer towards contemporary interdisciplinary debates surrounding notions of indigeneity and the legacies of settler colonialism.[4]

The concept of ‘India’ arrived in England during the Renaissance via the Middle East and Europe as the relatively vague idea of a distant eastern land rich in produce and home to unimaginable luxury. Initially experienced through trade with the Venetians and Ottomans in the eastern Mediterranean, and later through commerce with the Portuguese and Dutch in the Atlantic, Britons like Edward Wynne, the Welsh captain and proprietary governor of the Ferryland colony in Newfoundland, believed that the English, too, would soon find ‘their India’ (1). But where exactly Britain’s India might be located was yet unknown. John Cabot believed it might lie somewhere just beyond the northeastern coast of America. Cabot, like most of the navigators of his time, had cut his teeth in the East. In 1497, the Duke of Milan’s agent in London noted that Cabot had become interested in the spice trade while visiting Mecca, and that he expected to reach Asia from Newfoundland by rounding the Atlantic rim ‘until he shall be on the other side of an island, by him called Cipango’.[5] In 1524, however, Verrazzano calculated that the landmass that obstructed Europe’s access to the Pacific Ocean stretched much farther north and south than did the combined latitude of Europe and Africa.[6] For Edward Wynne in 1623, therefore, Britain’s India would have to be Newfoundland. It was more southerly than Britain and had a milder climate—not to mention access to the Grand Banks fishery. To the seventeenth-century English mind, there were many Indias sitting out in the world awaiting discovery; it was only near the turn of the eighteenth century that ‘India’ came to denote the subcontinent and adjacent islands of South Asia exclusively.

Englishmen had ventured eastward into the Ottoman Empire as early as the 1570s, and in 1583 a group of English merchants travelled overland through Syria to the Persian Gulf and onward to India, Burma, and Malacca in 1591. Following the Dutch example, a group of Levant and Muscovy Company merchants established a joint stock of over £68,000 in 1599 to finance English trade to India by sea around the Cape of Good Hope.[7] As Eacott demonstrates, the degree of cross investment and shared leadership between the East India Company and the Virginia, Plymouth, and Somers Isles Companies was significant (22–23). ‘India’ was something to be  profited off and consumed, and it was still unclear which region would emerge as England’s primary source of tropical and subtropical goods. Some thought it would be America. John Smith’s interest in Virginia, for instance, grew out of his vision that England might obtain from the New World those commodities previously gotten from Asia via Portugal and the Netherlands (14–15). In 1621, EIC director Thomas Mun estimated that sidestepping Continental middlemen would save England upwards of £75,000 annually (33). And so throughout the seventeenth century, there were various schemes to cultivate India goods such as cotton, silks, and spices in America (70), though it would take a few generations before cotton production eventually took off in the American South. Nevertheless, by the early 1700s, Britain had established in America an agricultural empire built on the cultivation of land seized from indigenous populations. The acquisition of American land was, in turn, legitimated by appeals to European divine and natural law.[8]

On the subcontinent, however, where ancient hierarchies were pronounced and autochthonous polities already monopolized indigenous labour to remarkable heights, trade and diplomacy necessarily took place on more formalized terms. Following the movement of India goods into the British Atlantic, Selling Empire analyses how East India Company merchants created demand for Asiatic merchandise in Britain and, especially, British America by selling consumers an ‘imperial aesthetic’ that allowed Britons and Anglo-Americans to participate in global empire from a position of relative privilege (120–121, 151). Prior to the great tea boom of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Indian commodities most widely consumed in the British Atlantic world were textiles such as cottons, chintzes, and calicoes. Mughal-style floral patterns in dress and décor functioned as a marker of social gradation from London to Charleston to the point of considerable concern among British policymakers. It was feared that such an influx of wealth and decadence as the East India trade brought into Britain would have an effeminizing effect on society at large, and English ideologues were quick to draw parallels between Muslim India and Catholic Europe. Eastern rites were equated with Catholic ritual, and the pope in Rome was portrayed as an Oriental despot on par with the Mughal emperor (17–19, 40–41). Indian luxuries were associated with the frivolities of French fashion in a mixing of Franco- and Islamophobia not entirely unknown in contemporary Britain (59, 67). Fabrics, it was feared, were merely the beginning of England’s ‘Roman-style decline’ by the corrupting influence of Eastern opulence (50).

Yet trade with India was perhaps the most effective means of challenging Catholic and Muslim powers on a global scale; ceasing East Indian commerce was simply out of the question. Regulating it was more pragmatic. In 1696 and 1721, Parliament passed two Calico Acts which limited the volume and restricted the grades of fabrics imported into Britain in order to protect the interests of domestic textile manufacturers. There were no prohibitions on the sorts of India goods that could be imported into America, however—provided, of course, they were reexported from London and carried in EIC vessels. American colonists, according to the metropolitan government, would and should be the primary consumers of Company goods, even those deemed immoral by many in Britain. Banyans, for instance, were popular in the colonies but banned at home, and Indian bandannas, which became a staple of American fashion in the twentieth century, were long used as kerchiefs and headwraps in America and the West Indies although they were prohibited in Britain. Umbrellas, on the other hand, symbols of status in India where they provided shade from the hot sun, were quickly adopted in rainy England (173–176). Britons oscillated between a pusillanimous aversion towards and a deliberate acculturation of India goods as it suited their fancy.

A Mughal soldier during the Deccan campaigns. Circa 1670. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Wikimedia Commons.
A Mughal soldier during the Deccan campaigns. Circa 1670. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Wikimedia Commons.
Nicholas Boylston, a wealthy Boston merchant, wearing a green banyan and Indian-style cap by John Singleton Copley. 1767. Harvard University. Wikipedia Commons.
Nicholas Boylston, a wealthy Boston merchant, wearing a green banyan and Indian-style cap by John Singleton Copley. 1767. Harvard University. Wikimedia Commons.

Atlantic-wide constitutional debates over the Sugar Act (1764), which included duties on silks and calicoes transhipped from Britain, and the Townshend Acts (1767), which transferred those duties to the East India Company—who would then compensate the government and pay tribute to Parliament—led many Americans to fear the Company’s increasing capacity to act as sovereign. The Tea Act (1773) confirmed such fears, reinforcing the longstanding custom of using ‘the Atlantic colonies as a market for Asian goods to support the Company and generate revenue for the state’ (206). The Company had conspired to enslave the colonists, it was believed, and British Americans ultimately argued that if a private trading company was sovereign, then surely so were their publicly elected civic bodies—however localised their jurisdictions. Yet throughout the War of Independence, Congress was unable to incite revolution in Bengal or effectively bring the war to the Company. During the Revolutionary era, Americans relied on France and the Netherlands for India goods, and initial American voyages to Asia after 1783 mostly failed without the support of European and British capital and French maritime expertise. American vessels were relegated largely to the carrying trade of items transhipped through London and other European ports, though British merchants enjoyed using the Stars and Stripes as a flag of convenience at hostile ports and to avoid Company restrictions. After deregulating the Company around the turn of the nineteenth century, Britain had itself become ‘an India’ by becoming the world’s greatest producer of ‘Indian’ fabrics. This ‘transition from Indian to British cotton cloth at the same moment that American merchants began to engage directly with India helped to keep the United States [firmly] within the British imperial orbit,’ as Eacott writes (437–438).

Perhaps the one shortcoming of Selling Empire is that it is relatively light on tracing the South Asian origins of the trends and products that were so integral to the consumer culture of Britain’s Atlantic empire. The Mughals, for instance, who feature prominently in Eacott’s story, are denied any treatment comparable to the tremendous influence they wielded on the subcontinent for much of the early period covered in this book. Arising in the 1520s in Northern India near Afghanistan and expanding eastward across the Gangetic plain, the Mughal Empire encompassed the Punjab, Agra, and Delhi by 1530, and added Malwa in 1570; Gujarat in 1572; Bihar, Bengal, and Orissa in 1576; and most of the Deccan plateau by 1689. Early Mughal emperors had established the inconceivably lucrative land revenue system that was inherited by the East India Company following the British conquest of Bengal in the mid eighteenth century, and the cultural and economic exchange between Mughal India and early modern Europe was substantial. The Mughals’ massive economy relied heavily on external sources of bullion, particularly New World and Japanese silver, for its continued expansion. And in terms of agricultural exchange, New World crops such as tobacco and maize were adopted by many Mughal agriculturalists, and indigo from Agra and Gujarat was a staple of the Indian Ocean trade, creating such a demand for blue dye in Europe that the Spanish, French, and English from Brazil to the American South all began producing indigo from a New World species of the plant.[9]

When the Mughals annexed a territory, moreover, its boundaries and jurisdictional divisions remained unaltered, and in many cases local rulers retained their internal sovereignty. Conquered Muslim sultanates and various Rajput and other Hindu polities were simply integrated into the ever-expanding imperial apparatus in a manner replicated by the British in their relations with Indian princely states. Colonial British India was built directly on top of autochthonous political and economic structures, and Britain therefore sought to redefine its political ideas and institutions along the lines of an imagined ancient Indian constitution.[10] The Company’s Indian land revenue made up as much as 10% of Britain’s national budget, and by the 1770s it paid for most of the fabrics that were sold and taxed in Britain. The proceeds, as Eacott explains, were the roundabout means by which the British transferred their diwani tribute from Bengal to the metropole (168, 204). Such funds were then used to finance the Crown and Parliament.

Selling Empire is an excellent political-economic study in which Eacott peruses through a vast literature of Atlantic world and British imperial history in order to discern patterns in early modern transoceanic Anglophone commerce. Eacott’s work isn’t the first to integrate the histories of eighteenth-century British politics, colonial British North America, and Britain’s early empire in India and Asia; Philip Lawson made similar connections during his short-cut career in the 1980s and ’90s.[11] However, Selling Empire does illustrate the extent to which the modern American consumer economy was borne out of ‘British imperial and trading policy concerning India as well as of British industrialization in imitation of India’s goods’ (444). Eacott’s vantage point of a British empire engaged in a larger world economy illustrates the workings of various material forces on early modern British and American commerce and politics.


[1] David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge, 2000), 7.

[2] See, for instance, Vincent T. Harlow, The Founding of the Second British Empire, 1763–1793, 2 vols. (London, 1952–64), and the more recent work of Peter Marshall, who argues for the ‘death’ of the ‘old American empire and the birth of the new Indian one’ in The Making and Unmaking of Empires: Britain, India, and America, c. 1750–1783 (Oxford, 2007), 1.

[3] Eric Hinderaker, Elusive Empires: Constructing Colonialism in the Ohio Valley, 1673–1800 (Cambridge, 1997); John G. Reid et al., The ‘Conquest’ of Acadia, 1710: Imperial, Colonial, and Aboriginal Constructions (Toronto, 2004); Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 2011); Daniel K. Richter, Trade, Land, Power: The Struggle for Eastern North America (Philadelphia, 2013); Michael A. McDonnell, Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America (New York, 2015).

[4] For an overview of settler colonialism, see Lorenzo Veracini, “ ‘Settler Colonialism’: The Career of a Concept,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 41, no. 2 (2013): 313–333.

[5] Raimondo de Soncino to Ludovico Sforza, 18 December 1497, in “Documents Describing the Voyage of John Cabot in 1497,” American Historical Leaflets, no. 9 (New York, 1893), 8. Martin Frobisher sailed into the Canadian Arctic in 1576 similarly hoping to find a northwestern passage to ‘those fruitfull and wealthie Ilands, we doe usually call Moluccaes.’ Peter C. Mancall, “The Raw and the Cold: Five English Sailors in Sixteenth-Century Nunavut,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 70, no. 1 (January 2013): 8–9.

[6] See Giovanni da Verrazzano to Francis I of France, 8 July 1524, in “Verrazzano’s Voyage, 1524,” Old South Leaflets, no. 17 (Boston, n.d.), 13–14.

[7] P. J. Marshall, “The English in Asia to 1700,” in The Oxford History of the British Empire, vol. 1, The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century, ed. Nicholas Canny (Oxford, 2001), 266–268; Anthony Farrington, Trading Places: The East India Company and Asia, 1600–1834 (London, 2002), 10–19.

[8] Anthony Pagden, “The Struggle for Legitimacy and the Image of Empire in the Atlantic to c. 1700,” in The Oxford History of the British Empire, vol. 1, The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century, ed. Nicholas Canny (Oxford, 2001), 38.

[9] John F. Richards, The Mughal Empire (Cambridge, 2011); Anne Mattson, “Indigo in the Early Modern World,” James Ford Bell Collection, University of Minnesota Libraries, accessed 16 July 2016.

[10] Richards, Mughal Empire; C. A. Bayly, Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (Cambridge, 1988); Robert Travers, Ideology and Empire in Eighteenth-Century India: The British in Bengal (Cambridge, 2008).

[11] See Philip Lawson, George Grenville: A Political Life (Oxford, 1984); The Imperial Challenge: Quebec and Britain in the Age of the American Revolution (Montreal, 1989); The East India Company: A History (London, 1993); A Taste for Empire and Glory: Studies in British Overseas Expansion, 1660–1800 (Aldershot, 1997).

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