Selling the East in the American South; Bengali Muslim Peddlers in New Orleans and Beyond, 1880-1920

East Asian migration studies in America is centered on the West, mostly in California. The majority of the research is on Chinese and Japanese migrants working in the mines and building the railroads. Political factors, exclusion acts and later internment, played a huge role in the focus and migration of Asians to the United States. There were multiple waves of Asian migrations depending on who was allowed in at the time which also effected the public opinion on the migrants who were migrating during these times. This paved the way for South Asian migration on the West and East coasts. The focus in Vivek Bald’s “Selling the East in the American South: Bengali Muslim Peddlers in New Orleans and Beyond, 1880-1920” was on the Bengali Muslim peddlers on the east coast and in the South. Most South Asian migrant’s research is on the Punjabi migrants that show a history of settlement, activism and political work connected to the Ghadur Party. This research is focused primarily during the decades of 1904-1924 but prior to this time in the late 1880s, migration records show Bengali Muslim peddlers in New York. It is difficult to find information on these migrants, like others whose story is hidden because of the lack of primary or first person sources.

The primary sources Bald used include censes forms, ship records, draft cards, and newspaper advertisements. Through these sources he is able to show transnationalism and adaptation. Transnationalism is shown in the migration of what the peddlers were selling. For the upper and upper-middle class whites who would buy the ‘Oriental goods’, it was a status symbol to be able to own a piece of the ‘far East’ (Bald, 36-37). Though these white consumers did not go to these lands the demand for the products and the peddlers to supply them is a form of transnationalism economy. The money earned in the United States could then be sent back to the villages and wives of the peddlers or used for those who stayed in the States. The movements of the migrants, a similar pattern they all took also shows this. The Bengali peddlers were moving in same patterns as the vacationing consumers and then staying in the South later. The ability of the Bengali peddlers to adapt to the life in the United States is shown by where they lived. When they were either in the east coast or in cities like Charleston or New Orleans, they would stay in the African American communities there (Bald, 34). This is noteworthy because of the usual reluctance to be labeled as ‘other’. Reasons for this are speculated though because of the lack of personal accounts from the peddlers and their families.

The ways in which Bald writes about Bengali Muslim peddlers is a contribution to historical understanding. Its focus on the migration of South Asians to the south and how the political and social environment of the time can affect migration are the reason. By expanding the migration studies to Bengali peddlers includes transnationalism and Americanization during this time. In expanding the narrative to the peddlers it shows the multiple ways migrants lived and moved in America. His writing is also largely speculation because of the small amount of information on the Bengali in America so he has to look to other methods of research and primary sources to make connections. To compensate for this he uses other migrant history on the subject to fill in the rest of the holes left by insufficient sources. Bald focuses much of his writing on the travels of the Bengali peddlers in the United States, specifically in the south. This is important because, the Bengalis who stayed integrated into the African American communities. Being listed as ‘legally’ white allowed them greater movement in the United States, even if they did marry into African American communities (Bald, 40). Bald does not focus on this as much but does make sure to point it out.

The larger focus of Bald’s work is on the ways in which South Asian migrating on the East coast of the United States is ignored, as well as a focus in the American south. Much of the information in Bald’s article is hard to find because there is so little of it. The history of these migrants is hidden for some reason. Not only had the history of the Bengali peddlers but those connected to them also, like their wives and children. A reason for this is most likely because of the large available history of Asian migration on the west coast. Which is unfair to the migrants and those studying migration because the Bengali migrants expand the experience of Asian migrants in America. The larger focus also includes the methods in which history is obtained and written. The stories of the Bengali peddlers is different than most migrants and other Asian migrants to America because of the social and political time in which they traveled. Also the Bengali migrants did not write personal accounts that historians could use and look for to get a more authentic truth on the migrants.

Bald’s article contributes to the studies by expanding the knowledge and experience of South Asian migrants in America. The primary sources he used show the small amount of information on the Bengali peddlers and how difficult it can be to find information on Asian migrants that are not on the west coast. With so small and hidden histories it is even more important to tell these stories. The way in which Bald writes about the Bengali migrations uses the small amount of sources to try and piece together a bigger story of those who traveled and who stayed or left America. In doing so he leaves out the other stories of those who were connected to the peddlers though. His larger focus to not get focused on one narrative and location of immigration whether it be to the United States or not is important because it allows for the expansion of the field.


Bald, Vivek. “Selling the East in the American South: Bengali Muslim Peddlers in New Orleans and Beyond, 1880-1920.” In Asian American in Dixie: Race and Migration in the South edited by Khyati Y. Joshi and Jigna Desai, 33-53. University of Illinois Press, 2013.