Research Trip Wrap Up: From “Heathens” to “Hindoos”

Cotton Mather just thought they were heathens.

The first research trip is over and as I look back over my notes I’m realizing that I may have been asking the wrong questions all along. Going into the trip I thought the East India Marine Society would be the perfect case study for how ideas about Hinduism floated into America through trade networks. But after spending four days going through all of the records left by the society I now see it differently. The society and its museum did not present visitors and the folks of Salem with Hinduism or even Hindoos. Instead, they presented the Orient, the Indies, the East. It was undifferentiated. Yes, there was India, China, and other countries, but they were all swallowed up in the East/Orient/Indies. This was why it didn’t seem dissonant for someone in full Mandarin dress to lead a procession that included a Bengali made palanquin carried by African Americans in turbans. It was about the Oriental mood. This is why it made sense to put the Ganesa image from Java right next to the Rama and Sita image from Bengal. It was different but it wasn’t. Yes they were people known as Hindoos, but they were part of the larger group of Orientals.

So, the questions change. The question for chapter one had been: How did the East India Marine Society introduce local New Englanders to representations of Hinduism? The new question: What made it possible for New Englanders to imagine people known as Hindoos? This new questions gets at the limits and production of knowledge about India in America. In India Christiana, Cotton Mather does not distinguish between Indians-be they from the West or East Indies. Rather, they are all heathen and they all need Christianity. In the 1830s Rammohun Roy emerges in Unitarian magazines as a Hindu and when he is labeled a heathen by conservative Protestants he is quickly defended by his liberal Christian allies. Thus, my task in chapter one is to explore where, when, and under what circumstances Americans began to see “Hindoos,” and “Hindoo religion” as something unique. When did “Hindoo religion” or “Hinduism” emerge from heathenism in the minds of Americans. I’m sure this happened in fits and starts and among liberals long before conservatives but that’s still the question.

Now, off to research.

Research Trip Post #3: Toasts, Gods, and Museum Catalogs

 I got out of the library archive and into the museum the past couple of days. Yesterday, thanks to a wonderful curator at the Peabody Essex Museum,  I was got a quick tour of the East India Marine Hall and saw a handful of the original EIMS collection that is on display currently. She even took me back to a storage building and showed me the palanquin. It was covered in plastic but I could imagine it being carried down the streets of Salem. I went back today and took some pictures of the items on display to help me think about what folks might have run into when they entered the museum in the 1820s.

Back in the library, I spent yesterday going through old catalogs and manuscripts trying to find out what items were in the museum when and who donated them. I’m realizing that there was a good bit of stuff from Hindu religious culture in the museum, but that there was a lot of other stuff too.

Today, I looked at a bunch of lists of toasts given at the societies anniversary dinners, some scrapbooks, and some guest books. The toasts were useful because they revealed how nationalistic and commercially minded the society was. It was all about an amazing virtuous America built upon strong commercial enterprise. The toasts are like early American tweets-little bursts of thought that crystallized ideas floating in the culture. Going the guest books was tedious but interesting. I knew I’d find John Quincy Adams and Nathaniel Hawthorne. I also knew I’d find a spot where Andrew Jackson had had his signature clipped out in an act of pro-Whig vandalism by two young girls. But I didn’t know I’d find Lyman and Harriet Beecher or Franklin Pierce. I also didn’t know I’d find visitors from as far away as Mississippi, Charleston, Kentucky, and Alabama. Seems like the museum was the thing to do when you visited Salem (maybe even Boston)  in the early nineteenth century.

Tomorrow is the last day. Time to finish with the guest books and head back to Atlanta.

Trying to Find the “Hindoos” in Salem

East India Marine Hall

East India Marine Hall, Built by the Salem East India Marine Society in 1825

So yesterday I spent all day working in the beautiful reading room of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum. If you are wondering what I was looking for you can find out here. So what did I find?

Not much.


I spent yesterday going through the minutes of the East India Marine Society meetings from the founding in 1799 to about 1820. What stuck out to me initially was a few years in a row the society held a dinner and procession through the town to celebrate its anniversary. The first of these was referred to as “a festival.” But after a few years they stopped. From the minutes it looks as if the members just didn’t want to do them anymore. Once the processions stopped the dinners got fancier. Including music and invited guests from around the Salem and Boston area. These fancy anniversaries peaked with a dinner that  included William Emerson, Ralph Waldo’s father, and where the Justices of the Supreme Court, the Solicitor General and the Attorney General had been invited but declined.

But then the next year, no dinner. There were anniversary dinners in subsequent years but always much smaller and each year required a vote to determine if they’d have one or not. The votes became closer and closer but usually they ended up voting to leave it up to the President and Standing Committee to decide about the dinner and to arrange for it.

The dinner’s aren’t exactly my interest here, though. They reflect the rise and fall of the financial affairs of the merchants that make up the society. The processions are what I need to know more about. From what I can gather they included “costumes” from the museum’s collection, the use of a palanquin from Calcutta, and turbaned African Americans. What did these processions look like, how did they function in local Salem society? How was “the Oriental” deployed for local social ends? I suspect, and another researcher I ran into in the archives confirmed, this has something to do with class.

Today I’m thinking about going straight to the museum’s catalogs from 1820 and 1830 and just seeing what the heck they had in there. Then I think I’m going to take a look at a set of scrapbooks kept by the society and see what I can find in there.

I have been thinking that if I can’t find enough on the museum and its holdings and influence then I might expand the chapter and look at Boston area libraries (I could probably include Philadelphia, New York, and Charleston too but that might be a FTB (for the book). Then I could tie the ideas in English books about Indian culture in circulation to the artifacts in the museum. While they were decontextualized within the museum itself, the objects in the museum did fit into a larger context of American consumption of knowledge about India and its religions.

Ok, time to head to the library.

The First Research Trip: Hinduism & Sailors in Salem, MA

It’s that time of year again: research trips! I have begun my first official dissertation research trip this week. I’ll be spending four days in the lovely Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusettes. While I’m here I’ll be digging into the records of the Salem East India Marine Society (EIMS).

Here’s what I know now: In 1799 a group of merchants who had been involved in the nascent East Indies trade decided to form a society with three goals. First, they would combine their knowledge of the seas and routes from America around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean. Second, they would provide for the widows and families of seamen. Finally, and most interestingly for me, they wanted to keep a “cabinet of curiousities” that they brought home from their voyages. This “cabinet” eventually became the Salem East India Marine Society Museum (which eventually became the Peabody Essex Museum). The cabinet/museum had some stone images of Hindu gods, I’ve seen a Ganesa listed in an old  museum catalog, and some engravings of life in India. They also had a large palanquin from Calcutta they would use in annual processions through the city.

Here’s what I want to know: How many “average New Englanders” wandered into the museum from its opening in 1799 to around 1840 or so? What did people in Salem make of a group of old sailors trapsing through the city with a boy on a palanquin dressed “in Oriental style” being carried by four African Americans outfitted in  turbans? And most importantly, what was the representation of Hinduism the museum offered Americans and (how) did it change over the years?

We’ll see what I find in the archives today. If you are interested in what I find (and why wouldn’t you be?) follow my Twitter feed for breaking news from the museum archives.


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