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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