Secondary Source Analysis

Secondary Source Analysis

Analyzing Selling the East in the American South: Bengali Muslim Peddlers in New Orleans and Beyond, 1880-1920 by Vivek Bald

In Selling the East in the American South: Bengali Muslim Peddlers in New Orleans and Beyond, 1880-1920, Vivek Bald discusses Bengali muslim peddlers that began arriving in New York in the late nineteenth century. These immigrants did not stay in New York or follow common migration patterns. Rather, they headed towards beach boardwalk towns in New Jersey, and trickled down south to New Orleans, Charleston, and other cities along the Mason-Dixon line. While they were able to settle within local communities, they established a network that was rooted in the South but expanded further during as anti-Asian sentiments grew. Bald’s work explores the history and context of the “forgotten migration” by addressing the desire for “Oriental” goods that happened over the early 20th century, and examining archival sources.   

Despite heightened anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, Bengali peddler networks were established across the East and US South because of what they were selling. Bald claims that aside from compact and transportable goods, the peddlers were also selling ideas about India and the East. The author mentions John Kuo Wei Tchen who argues that the changing American opinions and attitudes towards Asia were integral to American national identity as it transitioned into the twentieth century. As society approached the end of the nineteenth century, American Orientalist desire shifted from China to other parts of the East such as India and the Middle East. On page 36 Bald mentions Kristin Hoganson, who in Cosmopolitan Domesticity explained that “Oriental goods” came to represent a range of meanings during an age of mass consumerism. She explains that during this time items from the “Orient” such as hookahs, animal skins, rugs, and weapons became symbols of white masculinity, while Eastern fabrics, jewelry, and decorative items allowed women to “stake a claim to the cosmopolitan, independence, self-definition, and ultimately, a liberated, post-Victorian sexuality,” (Bald 37).

Bald analyzes archival records to make sense of the “forgotten migration.” He uses shipping and census records as evidence of Bengali peddler presence in New Jersey in 1891. An example he uses is from an 1888 census for five Indian Muslim merchants. Then he mentions one for seven merchants arriving at Ellis Island in 1894, and 21 merchants arriving in 1895 (Bald 38). He makes sure to note that these peddlers’ homes were near African American neighborhoods. Knowing that African American communities have been established in the South before the Bengali Muslim peddlers raises the question of why and what allowed them to live among each other in the same areas, but Bald does not go into this (Bald 38). The author continues with other examples from censuses from 1900 and 1910. Further, on page 41 Bald claims that ship manifests from the period confirm a network of interconnected peddler households in which men heading to the households in America were joining a male relative who was already living there. Similarly, the manifests show that many of them originated from a specific group of villages.

Bald continues on to discuss why this network of peddlers settled mainly in or around New Orleans. Bald believes that its position as a center of travel and tourism was increasing due to political and economic shifts nearing the 1900s (Bald 42).  Due to the mass consumerism of “Oriental” goods and New Orleans political and social situation, it is Bald’s opinion that private and public Oriental fantasies made the city into a fertile market for what the Bengali peddlers were selling. Aside from goods, the peddlers in a way also sold their Indian-ness by playing the role of an exotic, ethnic, Asian. To support his argument Bald refers to an article from the Chicago Daily Tribune from 1891 where the writer comments on his appearance and work ethic. One other argument for New Orlean’s importance as a hub for the Bengalis is the increasing presence of Western tourism in the Caribbean and Central America (Bald 45). According to Bald, records such as passports, census, and ship documents show peddlers were already making regular trips to Cuba, Belize, Honduras, and Panama from New Orleans.

Although archival records tell us much about transnational migration and reveal to us the journey of the Bengali muslim peddlers, they only tell part of the story and often misrepresent women because they are focused towards the lives of men. Because of this, first person accounts are essential to uncovering the truth of the past. Unfortunately, Bald claims that there aren’t any known first person accounts from the peddlers or their wives or children (46). This type of primary information would have certainly revealed more about their experiences of transcontinental and transregional migration.

Bald concludes by stating that Bengali Muslim peddlers who came to the United States in the early 20th century followed different pattern migrations than foreigners before them due to historical and economic reasons, determined by consumer demand of Oriental goods and emerging travel and tourism (46). This allowed them to enter and work in the US to fulfill the consumer obsession with the East and be successful. Through his work Bald expands the South Asian American narrative to include the peddlers who were a previously unknown group who lived and worked in the US by the 1880s. This narrative challenges historians to expand the analytical approaches to South Asian immigration to include a larger variety of migrant experiences. Because of this, Bald continues to urge his readers to account for the complex relationships between global movement, local roots, and geographic and temporal impermanence which characterize the migration journey for many South Asians to this day (48, 49).


Bald, Vivek. Selling the East in the American South: Bengali Muslim Peddlers in New Orleans and Beyond, 1880-1920. Edited by Khyati Y. Joshi and Jigna Desai. Chicago: University of Illinois press, 2013