“Far East meets South East”- HIST 297 secondary source paper

Ever since time immemorial, migration has always been a part of the makeup of animals. This is also true with humans, as evident with the mass movement of the first humans out of Africa over 70,000 years ago. It has always been in our DNA to look for better lands and opportunities, only for us to grow more and more as a species. One subset of human migration is immigration, which people do on a regular basis. Recently as of the last quarter millennia, there has always been historians that record movements of immigration.

One such immigration historian is Vivek Bald, an MIT professor whose studies focuses on immigration from Southern Asia, mostly immigration from the Bengal delta area. One of his works, Selling the East in the American South, is featured as a chapter in Asian Americans in Dixie, a book that focuses on Asian immigration to the American Southeast. Bald’s essay tells the story of the immigration of Bengali Muslim peddlers and their resettlement around the New Orleans area. Bald states that during the 1880s, the first Bengalis started to arrive in America via Ellis Island and through the Castle Gardens on Manhattan’s southern tip[1].  While other groups that had immigrated through Ellis Island at the time settled in the American Northeast, Asian immigrants choose to spread out more into the south. The Bengali Muslim peddlers were no different in that regard. As the tourism industry began to grow in southern port cities, however, the Bengali immigrants became attracted to the emerging industry. While the majority of Bengali immigrants stayed and worked in the American south, there were some that continued to move southward, reaching Mexico, the Caribbean, and even South America.

Bald states that this time, most Americans were starting to become interested in the people and culture of the Far East.  He clarifies that during the late 1800s, as events such as the Taiping Rebellion, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Opium Wars occurred, along with the Qing’s aggressiveness toward western merchants and traders, America’s view of Chinese immigrants started to sour and drift toward a xenophobic approach. Because of this, the United States government began to restrict immigration with several bills and laws, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  With the exclusion of Chinese immigrants, both the populous and the government became infatuated with the culture of the Indian subcontinent. In a way, the Jade Dragon was being replaced with the Bengal Tiger.

Another key point that Bald wanted to get across was the merging of the Bengali immigrants into the African-American community. He states that due to the current state of race in the southern states, Bengali immigrants were viewed in the same light as African-Americans. Despite this, the Bengali immigrants were still treated worse as African-Americans, mainly because of one sole reason: citizenship. Bald states that “At this time, only two categories of people were eligible to become U.S. citizens – ‘free white persons’ and ‘persons of African descent’”[2].

To conclude, Bald reiterates the main point of his essay.  He states that it is important to continue to record and research the immigration of not only the Bengali Muslims but all groups. He also states that it is necessary to expand the narrative of the Southeast Asian immigrant to include the Bengali Muslim, who has lived in worked in America since the 1880s. I believe that it is also important to include them in the narrative, as it gives us a better understanding when studying immigration history.

 

 

[1]Vivek Bald, “Selling the East in the American South: Bengali Muslim Peddlers in New Orleans and Beyond,” in Asian Americans in Dixie (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 33.

[2] Bald, “Selling the East in the American South”, 39.