So Great a Proffit: How the East Indies Trade Transformed Anglo-American Capitalism
James R. Fichter
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In a work of sweep and ambition, James Fichter explores how American trade proved pivotal to the evolution of capitalism in the United States and helped to shape the course of the British Empire.
Before the American Revolution, colonial merchants were part of a trading network that spanned the globe. After 1783, U.S. merchants began trading in the East Indies independently, creating a new class of investor-capitalists and the first generation of American millionaires. Such wealth was startling in a country where, a generation earlier, the most prosperous Americans had been Southern planters. This mercantile elite brought its experience and affluence to other sectors of the economy, helping to concentrate capital and create wealth, and paving the way for the modern business corporation.
Conducted on free trade principles, American trade in Asia was so extensive that it undermined the monopoly of the British East India Company and forced Britain to open its own free trade to Asia. The United States and the British Empire thus converged around shared, Anglo-American free-trade ideals and financial capitalism in Asia. American traders also provided a vital link to the Atlantic world for Dutch Java and French Mauritius, and were at the vanguard of Western contact with Polynesia and the Pacific Northwest.
Based on an impressive array of sources from Europe, Asia, Africa, and the United States, this pathbreaking book revolutionizes our understanding of the early American economy in a global context and the relationship between the young nation and its former colonial master.
from Europe on to China. Between 1760 and 1821 the English East India Company alone exported roughly £150,000 in silver a year to China—over half a million ounces—the level varying annually.6 America Sails East . 33 At the same time, Spain shipped yet more silver to Asia via the Pacific Ocean, sending galleons from the Americas to the Philippines, where the silver was transshipped to China. This was the most direct link between the Spanish American mines and the Chinese merchants who bought
attacked the Dutch Company’s posts: Cochin on the Malabar Coast, Pulicat on the Coromandel, and Chinsura in Bengal. As Company troops stormed the Indian factories, Crown forces seized additional Dutch posts to the east: the Cape Colony in Southern Africa (1795), Malacca (1795), and the littoral of Ceylon (1796). British forces arrived with letters from the stadholderin-exile ordering Dutch governors to stand down and turn over their colonies to “protect” the colonies from rapacious France. But
standing with the good people of this Town . . . as Commissioners for the sale of the Monopolized and Dutied Tea, we do not wonder in the least that your apprehensions are terrible . . . long have this people been irreconcilable to the Idea of spilling human blood, but . . . this is the last warning you are ever to expect. Thursday evening 9 O’clock November 4th, 17739 Similar threats and plenty of rumors circulated in the days that followed. Then, mid-month, the Fanueils began to hear stories
capital, signed for as cargoes in American impost books, was American. And the implication that the U.S. East Indies trade lacked an important American component is wrong. The ships were American owned, and the American shipowners took one-third of the profits of any investor—British or American. During the French Wars these earnings were significant. As Cathy Matson has pointed out, U.S. “freight earnings . . . averaged more than $20 million a year between 1793 and 1802, compared to about $6.3
agricultural reforms. American and neutral purchases kept these colonies pro- Beyond the British Empire . 159 ducing cash crops and even encouraged the intensification of this sort of agriculture: sugar on Ile de France, coffee on Réunion, sugar and coffee on Java, and sugar again, among other crops, in the Philippines.35 Later British occupation of many of these places intensified commercial farming further. Asia and the Indian Ocean had been sources of high-value and finished