Historiography Surrounding Bengali Muslim Peddlers as written by Vivek Bald

Historiography often leaves holes in the past but Vivek Bald uses his essay “Selling the East in the American South:  Bengali Muslim Peddlers in New Orleans and Beyond, 1880-1920” to fill one of these gaps. Vivek Bald’s essay lays out a historiographic look at an often over looked group of Asian American Migrants by looking at colleagues, what theses peddlers did, where they ended up, and the changes around them related to the rejection or embrace of the Orient.

The essay presents the information in a simple and logical organization beginning with the state of the field in Asian American immigrant history. This is first noted with what others focus on, he then brings out the group that Bald uses for his essay, and finally goes into the documents and organization his essay uses. Laying out this outlying group begins in what made this group different the movement of these peddlers and their selling of their culture. Establishing the lay of the field in this way shows why the topic of this paper is different with little in the way of major predecessors on the topic.

Laying out the important element of what these peddlers are selling is a major part of the process of understanding and this gets broken into the racial and more cosmopolitan meanings of the goods being sold. With the early identifier of exotic oriental goods being tied to class and status it also became an outlying use of identify whiteness as part of that class. Asian culture became a part of entertainment and leisure time from dances, poetry, and songs. The fascination related did not have limitations to practical goods and entertainment but also things for such as advertisements in newspapers for tobacco and male entertainment. Outside of catalogs and newspapers Bald looks to a Jhon Kuo Wei Techen to layout this consumer status development[1]. Techen’s work shows that even with the rise of Anti-Asian sentiments the Indian peddlers were required as people were fascinated and unwilling to relinquish the status and meaning the purchases conveyed. These meanings are talked about by another historian Kristin Hoganson within both genders ideals.

Bald then looks at the peddlers from arrival to their homes and travel patterns and in the end marriages. This section relies the most on documentation such as ship logs, census records, marriage or naturalization licenses, and army draft cards. These point to the regions these men come from as well as where they settled or stayed periodically. One reason this is notable is they either set up houses groups would reside in areas such as Black commercial district or other migrant working groups fallowing the tourism movements or in major port cities where some arrive come in every year[2]. The documentation fallows two groups and gives great detail but leaves out personal influence surrounding these decisions outside of marriage. It does make tracking history and making ties amongst groups easier to denote.

Looking specifically at New Orleans he analyzes social shifts among the elites and changes in the celebrations such oriental themes during Mardi Gras. The first element is looked at by other historians and they make arguments surrounding the establishment of Storybrooke and the expansion of male entertainments that resulted brought up by Alecia P. Long and Jasmine Mir[3]. Such visible changes are part of embracing and idea of mastery of orientalist knowledge, but without resources such as a memoir or autobiography it makes understanding this type of claim harder to understand. Personal accounts would show insight into power shifts and direct experience to how the celebrations were met by the public.

Vivek Bald’s essay successfully lays out the information surrounding these Bengali peddlers illuminating an often overlooked history. He successfully uses the sources available that document where and when of this group. The missing element of these histories such as autobiographies or oral histories do not obscure these peoples in the respective role of the groups he was examining.

[1] Vivek Bald, “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, ed.Khyati Y. Joshi and Jigna Desai, (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 35-36.

[2] Ibid.,38-41.

[3] Ibid., 43-45.



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. 2013. 35-36. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.