Yankees in the Indian Ocean World: American Commerce and Whaling, 1786–1860 , by Jane Hooper

In: Journal of Global Slavery
Özgül Özdemir Stanford University USA Stanford, CA

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Jane Hooper, Yankees in the Indian Ocean World: American Commerce and Whaling, 1786–1860 , Ohio University Press, 2022, 247pp., US$ 72 (hardcover), ISBN 978-08211447901.

Just as the porous border of the Indian Ocean world has intrigued many travelers, merchants, pilgrims, and empires for centuries, so too it has attracted the attention of academics for over a decade. The result is a fascinating discussion on the field of Indian Ocean studies. Most of these studies concentrate either on the interconnection between East Africa and Southeast Asia or the Portuguese, French, and British empires’ colonies in the region. Yankees in the Indian Ocean World, however, in the hands of talented historian Jane Hooper, opens a new window into equally fascinating yet lesser-known aspects of nineteenth-century southwestern Indian Ocean history. As American merchants and whalers arrived in the Indian Ocean in a glorious spectacle of fear and wonder, they wrote their observations in their journals and the ship logbooks that assisted Hooper in forming the backbone of this well-researched book. As such, Hooper contributes to the scholarship on the nineteenth-century Indian Ocean from the perspective of US writings.

In their search for profit, US merchants shuffled around the Indian Ocean—from the island of Île de France (Mauritius), through Zanzibar off East Africa, to Mahajanga in northwestern Madagascar—engaged in unconstrained whale hunting and illegal slaving, with disastrous environmental and social ramifications. Hooper highlights that New England merchant groups who identified themselves as anti-imperialist “Yankees” rather than the US State Department ventured into the region. For this reason, the term Yankees appears in the title rather than Americans or US merchants. Yet Hooper uses these terms interchangeably throughout the book. The lack of governmental support, together with the absence of military might in the face of European competitors, Hooper explains, caused the withdrawal of the Yankees from the region after the mid-nineteenth century. Their relatively early withdrawal and small numbers can give us the wrong impression that there is nothing to write about their history. In this book, however, Hooper challenges this claim, informing us that approximately 1.500 American merchants and whaling vessels took voyages into the waters of the Indian Ocean.

Hooper examines a hitherto overlooked trove of ship logbooks, private journals, trading ledgers, and newspapers. While Hooper acknowledges American perceptions and preoccupations inherent in these sources written by white American men, she highlights that US merchants’ collaboration with non-Western brokers offers invaluable information on regional and transregional commercial developments. Reading between the lines, Hooper also sheds light on African understandings of values and rituals. Hooper’s precise engagement with the pitfalls and strengths of her sources makes the book a helpful read for graduate students. Although it might be considered cliché to look at class dynamics, Hooper reminds us how the different backgrounds of captains, officers, and sailors shape their writings. While captains and officers practice self-censorship, sailors are less hesitant about their derogatory comments. Nonetheless, both groups employ stereotypes they use in their homelands about “others” when they encounter foreign people in the Indian Ocean, thus confirming established racial and religious biases globally. One example includes a murder incident in which an American merchant likened the murder of a sailor by the Malagasy islander to being “scalped”—an American Indian violence, not Malagasy. Other terminologies that are not found in European discussion of Malagasy but appear in the writings of Americans include “savages,” “Indians,” and “squaws,” further confirming this point. Hooper is also mindful of the gender biases of her sources. For instance, although women were active participants in the trade, Americans’ descriptions of island women were reduced to exotic and erotic characterizations with critiques of polygamy, infanticide, and immorality. She further stresses that while boasting white masculine power, Americans did not hesitate to criticize African masculinity.

The book comprises six compact chapters preceded by an introduction and concluded by a conclusion. Chapters are mostly arranged chronologically. The first chapter is dedicated to the early excursions (the 1790s) with a focus on two accounts of New England whaler vessels, the Asia and the Alliance. In this chapter, we learn how Americans acquired a knowledge of the region and contributed to this knowledge, why they collaborated more with France rather than Britain, how they committed abuses involving illegal trade, and how they played a part in unrest in East Africa. The following chapters move toward the nineteenth century, when American whalers demonstrate a greater presence in the Indian Ocean. While American cloths were mostly exchanged for hides, we also see exchanges of turtle shells, ivory, gum copal, “black ebony,” and red paper for tin, paper, and umbrellas. We are introduced to an essential trading partner to American merchants, Khalfan bin Ali, a Zanzibari merchant, highlighting the vitality of non-Western partners (Arab, Banian, or East African merchants) in American success in both Mahajanga and Zanzibar. When the queen of Madagascar barred her subjects from engaging in trade with all Westerners in 1846, American merchants began to move to Zanzibar or switched their base to southwestern Madagascar in Saint Augustin Bay. Chapter IV zooms in on what Hooper calls sailor tourism, in which many American captains and sailors chose to spend some time ashore. Hooper argues that US mariners, unlike many Americans who limit themselves to the Continental US, benefitted from shore leave to tour mountains, beaches, and parks. The next chapter examines how the cumulative impact of provisioning and extensive and uncontrolled hunting contributed to environmental degradation. The actors noted the environmental changes yet overlooked the impact of their activities by perceiving the area as replete with abundant sources available for plundering.

Slavery permeated all aspects of life in the Indian Ocean; therefore, the slave trade remained ineradicable despite abolitionist pressures in the mid-nineteenth century. The role of American merchants, as Hooper highlights, is rarely addressed in histories of American commerce. Chapter VI focuses on American merchants drawn to the illegal slave trade as they became desperate to find new sources of profit. The chapter is built around an episode that Hooper locates in the journal of captain John R. Congdon, who was keeping it for his wife. In his description of Qeulimane, a Portuguese-controlled port in Mozambique, Congdon mentions Portuguese trader Azevedo. Although Coghlan sought to purchase legal trading items, Azevedo offered Coghlan to carry enslaved Africans. Coghlan recalls: “[They] looked at our vessel all over inside and out … They say she will carry 600 slaves” (p. 122). Hooper describes the circumstances that made this offer possible: Portuguese agreement to let the British patrols search and seize suspected Portuguese slave ships in 1842, and the use of the US flag in the protection of slaving. This context also hints that the close relationship between local merchants, either Portuguese or Banyan, and American merchants, serves to obscure the thin line between legitimate and illegitimate trade, offering opportunities for merchants to circumvent British attempts at abolition and thus causing further difficulties for historians to locate sources related to the slave trade.

This is a well-written book based on Hooper’s careful readings of ship logbooks and journals and her impressive grasp of secondary literature on the Indian Ocean. Yankees in the Indian Ocean is a welcome read on the history of the Indian Ocean and East Africa, as well as American expansionism, and should be in the library of every scholar of the nineteenth-century Indian Ocean. I also would like to applaud Hooper as this book was written during the COVID-19 pandemic when stay-at-home academics like Hooper had to face the challenge of online teaching and virtual elementary classes, all while caring for children.

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