Commercial Expansion, Invention, and Ambition across the Pacific World: US Merchants and Diplomats in the Asian Pacific, 1781–1845

AHA Session 108
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Bowery (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Robert M. Senkewicz, Santa Clara University
Early Pacific Connections and the Problem of Commercial Fantasy
Michael Block, California State University, Channel Islands
The Pacific World of Caleb Cushing
Laurie Dickmeyer, Angelo State University
Ryan Fischer, University of Wisconsin–River Falls

Session Abstract

The Pacific Ocean is the world’s most geographically vast and culturally diverse ocean highway for migration and trade. Yet exploration of how transpacific connections influenced contemporaneous events in the Americas and China over the long nineteenth century lags behind other scholarly fields. While historians have invested much time and energy in examining various “Atlantic Worlds” and the transatlantic connections they fostered between Europe and the Americas, a similar engagement with the Pacific World is still a relatively new historiographical development. Building on this recent historiography, this panel focuses on the shared modes of transpacific commerce and cultural exchange between inhabitants of the United States and the Asian-Pacific. It presents an opportunity to reflect on and discuss how adopting Pacific and global perspectives might change the ways that we view and interpret the history of Sino-American relations.

While U.S. scholars have increasingly worked to define early America’s relationship to the Asian-Pacific, historians of China have also endeavored to better characterize the changing nature of East Asia’s seaward commerce and how it corresponded with the United States’ economic activities. Taken together, these overlapping historiographies tell a broader story about international diplomacy and commerce. Each paper in this panel demonstrates how a global approach focused on exchanges across oceans and hemispheres can provide a useful framework in which to view the centuries-long transpacific links between the Americas and East Asia.

The late eighteenth century saw emerging global markets and trade networks draw the coastal Americas, the Pacific Islands, and Asia into frequent and sustained interaction with one another. Graeme Mack examines the central and constitutive role that Boston merchants played in expanding U.S. commerce into the Pacific, while also facilitating the transformation of western North America by connecting the region to manufactured goods, raw resources, and communities in East Asia and the Pacific Islands. The rise of new commodity flows between Asia and the United States also saw a growing proliferation of misconceptions about the China trade. Michael Block investigates the problematic nature of U.S. scholarship focused on the China trade, which often reaffirms contemporary merchants’ fantasies more than reality. He highlights where these commercial realities and fantasies diverge. By the mid-nineteenth century, U.S. merchants saw British competitors gain increased control over China’s international trade. Laurie Dickmeyer examines a U.S. diplomat’s efforts to buttress British expansion and bolster the United States’ commerce by establishing footholds in new transpacific markets.

This panel brings together the seemingly-disparate fields of North American, Pacific Islander, Asian, and Latin American histories and examines how a study of transpacific connections challenge and enlarge the customary boundaries of U.S. history. By examining the flows of people, ideas, goods, and capital that crossed this vast maritime space, this panel will demonstrate the fluidity of exchange between peoples and places across the Pacific over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This globally integrated approach to Sino-American relations will encourage deeper engagement among a wider pool of scholars with the centuries-long ties between the United States and the Asian-Pacific.

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