Americans, The could not establish direct maritime relations with India before their independence, because the British Navigation Act barred them from having overseas trade beyond the West Indies and England. Immediately after independence (1783), American merchants resolved to participate in the eastern trade, particularly with India and China. Such participation was not to take place in the form of joint stock companies as was normally done by maritime Europe at that time. Capitalist adventurers of the time organised a voyage to the East Indies under a mercantile captain and a supercargo (officer in charge of cargoes). Interested investors were invited to join the voyage either personally or through an authorised person.
The American merchant ship, the United States, commanded by Thomas Bell first entered the bay of bengal in 1785. The next American ship to come to Bengal was the Chesapeake, which arrived in Calcutta in 1787. Both voyages were exploratory and both ships returned home safely and with the impression of good business prospects for Eastern trade. From 1788, American trade with Bengal began on an ever-increasing scale. The growth was so phenomenal that by the close of the century, America, according to an official estimate, became one of the biggest maritime partners in the Bay of Bengal trade. The main contributing factor to the growth was the Napoleonic Wars. Since the European belligerents were capturing each other's merchant ships on the high seas, America, as a neutral power in the war, had almost a monopoly on the business. For reasons of safety, Anglo-Indians who nad amassed wealth in India preferred to remit their ill-gotten fortunes illicitly through American ships.
As Bengal was traditionally an exporting country, and imported only a few items, foreigners were forced to come to Bengal with bullion, which was converted into local currency to purchase their cargoes. Americans brought with them huge amount of treasures for Eastern trade. From the Bengal market they procured mainly piece goods, salt petre, gum lac, gum copal, skins and hides, gunny bags, aniseed, senna, turmeric, sago, ginger, indigo, silk, mats, and so on. From the 1820s, American traders could sell some of their own textiles in the Bengal market, particularly jeans, naval stores, and wine that they procured from Madeira. A group of American merchants did have brisk business in the 1840s by marketing American ice in Calcutta, which was a great innovation indeed. But the market created by them was short-lived because soon manufactured and Himalayan ice captured the market since they were much less expensive.
The American ports, which sent most ships to Bengal, were Salem, Philadelphia, New York, Marblehead and Boston. The number of ships coming to Calcutta every year varied according to business conditions at home. During the Napoleonic Wars, the number of American ships bound for Calcutta were as many as three dozens a year.
The American trade with Bengal was interrupted by President Madison's embargo on American overseas voyages in 1807 and the Anglo-American War of 1812. The Americans came back to their Bay of Bengal trade with renewed vigour from the establishment of peace at the Congress of Vienna, 1815. But their business transactions never reached the level of the Napoleonic era. However, their volume of trade increased considerably in the 1820s and 1830s. With increasing interest in the China trade, American contact with Bengal declined in the 1850s and reached a vanishing point during the American Civil War.
Unlike European merchants, who transacted their business through European agency houses, American merchants employed banians (native agents) whose services could be obtained at a much cheaper rate than that of the Agency Houses. Consequently, Bengal banians were financially benefited by the American presence. Additionally, they learnt modern business methods from them. Ram Dulal De, who is said to be the first Bengali millionaire, began his career in the 1790s as a sarkar to the Americans. Later he became their chief banian for Bengal trade. He became so influential and indispensable to them that they named one of their ships after him.
In their dealings with their Bengal counterparts, American merchants demonstrated great interest in Indian history and culture. Many of their newly built ships were named after Indian symbols, such as, the Ganges, the Hindoo, the Devi, the Hindustan, the Indus, the Laskar, the Sultana and so on. Alongside trade and commerce, the American merchants collected arts and crafts, terracotta, iconography objects, handicrafts, religious and literary texts and manuscripts, military weapons and so on. The Salem merchants established a museum called East India Marine Society and Museum at Salem in 1799 with the object of collecting and preserving oriental curiosities. This museum, now called Peabody Museum, after Joseph Peabody (1757-1844), a leading East India merchant of Salem, has the richest collection of oriental objects in America.
The intellectual pursuit of American merchants is demonstrated by the fact that quite a number of them left business and turned out to be great Orientalists. For example, Jacob Bigelow, who arrived at Calcutta in 1812, studied Indian languages, wrote a grammar of Hindustani language, studied Indian flora and fauna, and returned home to become the first Orientalist of America. He joined the Harvard Medical Faculty as Professor of Oriental Medicine. Senator Henry Lee, a constitutional reformer and a writer on American economy and foreign trade, lived in Calcutta as a merchant for five years (1811-16). Charles Eliot Norton, editor of the influential North American Review (1863-1868) and Professor of the History of Fine Arts at Harvard (1874-1898) lived in Calcutta as a young merchant (1843-1849). Alongside his normal business, he studied Hindu iconography and oriental civilisation. Later he became the professor of Oriental art at Harvard. His banian at Calcutta was Rajendra Dutt, a leading intellectual and scholar of Bengal in the mid-nineteenth century. Rajendra Dutt served another American merchant, David Hull, who studied Sanskrit from him in order to become an expert in the Hindu scriptures. [Sirajul Islam]