Trying to Find the “Hindoos” in Salem

East India Marine Hall
East India Marine Hall, Built by the Salem East India Marine Society in 1825

So yesterday I spent all day working in the beautiful reading room of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum. If you are wondering what I was looking for you can find out here. So what did I find?

Not much.

Yet.

I spent yesterday going through the minutes of the East India Marine Society meetings from the founding in 1799 to about 1820. What stuck out to me initially was a few years in a row the society held a dinner and procession through the town to celebrate its anniversary. The first of these was referred to as “a festival.” But after a few years they stopped. From the minutes it looks as if the members just didn’t want to do them anymore. Once the processions stopped the dinners got fancier. Including music and invited guests from around the Salem and Boston area. These fancy anniversaries peaked with a dinner that  included William Emerson, Ralph Waldo’s father, and where the Justices of the Supreme Court, the Solicitor General and the Attorney General had been invited but declined.

But then the next year, no dinner. There were anniversary dinners in subsequent years but always much smaller and each year required a vote to determine if they’d have one or not. The votes became closer and closer but usually they ended up voting to leave it up to the President and Standing Committee to decide about the dinner and to arrange for it.

The dinner’s aren’t exactly my interest here, though. They reflect the rise and fall of the financial affairs of the merchants that make up the society. The processions are what I need to know more about. From what I can gather they included “costumes” from the museum’s collection, the use of a palanquin from Calcutta, and turbaned African Americans. What did these processions look like, how did they function in local Salem society? How was “the Oriental” deployed for local social ends? I suspect, and another researcher I ran into in the archives confirmed, this has something to do with class.

Today I’m thinking about going straight to the museum’s catalogs from 1820 and 1830 and just seeing what the heck they had in there. Then I think I’m going to take a look at a set of scrapbooks kept by the society and see what I can find in there.

I have been thinking that if I can’t find enough on the museum and its holdings and influence then I might expand the chapter and look at Boston area libraries (I could probably include Philadelphia, New York, and Charleston too but that might be a FTB (for the book). Then I could tie the ideas in English books about Indian culture in circulation to the artifacts in the museum. While they were decontextualized within the museum itself, the objects in the museum did fit into a larger context of American consumption of knowledge about India and its religions.

Ok, time to head to the library.

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