How Does History Connect Westborough and India?: Global Trade

Note: The following is the third in a series of eleven weekly posts that present my attempt to answer the question, “How does history connect Westborough and India?” See the Introduction for an overview of the series and to start reading it from the beginning.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian, Westborough Public Library

Global Trade

British intention to exploit the resources of North America in the early seventeenth century did not go as originally planned. Discovery of gold and silver never panned out, since there was little to find or take from the native population, and the natural resources available in New England turned out to be similar to those back in Britain.

The British lack of success in America was mirrored on the other side of the globe when their goods failed to generate much trade interest in India and other parts of Asia. The manufacturing skill of the British fell far below that of Eastern artisans, and the woolens and linens produced in England paled next to the luxurious cottons and silks made in India. Still, Britain’s advantageous geography off the western shore of continental Europe put them at the crossroads of major sea-going trade routes, and so the country was well positioned to serve as a geographic connector between the Old and New Worlds.

Once the British used their naval superiority to gain command of the seas, they turned their attention to becoming players in the booming global commodities trade. In the West, they took the raw materials they acquired in the Americas—such as tobacco from Virginia and sugar from the Caribbean—manufactured them into processed goods back in England, and then exported the goods to continental Europe and other countries around the world. In the East, the East India Company inserted itself into trade between India and China by acquiring cotton in the former and selling it to the latter for tea, which was then shipped to England and colonial America.

By the nineteenth century, British domination in world trade and shipping allowed more and more local manufacturers to tap into global markets. When the National Straw Hat Factory in Westborough became an international company by distributing its hats throughout the world beginning in the late nineteenth century, it could do so only because the British first created a global trade network that connected India with North America beginning in the seventeenth century.

Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings from the St. Petersburg Album,
by Bichitr (active between ca. 1615 – 1640)
(Wikimedia Commons,,_from_the_St._Petersburg_album_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg)

In this image of Jahangir, the Mughal Emperor, King James I sits below the emperor as third in the hierarchy, with both Shaikh Salim, an Islamic mystic, and the Ottoman Emperor above him. Bichitr, the artist of the work, sits at the bottom in a self-portrait.

National Straw Works, ca. 1880s
(Westborough Center for History and Culture, Westborough Public Library)

The National Straw Works (1871-1917) located on East Main Street in Westborough, MA, near where the Bay State Commons sits today, exported straw hats and other straw goods throughout the world. Such markets were first created by the British and other European powers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

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Read the next post in the series: Settlement and Colonization.

Westborough-India Series Bibliography

Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. New York: Vintage Books, 2014.

Bunker, Nick. An Empire on the Edge. New York: Vintage Books, 2014.

Collingham, Lizzie. Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

Darwin, John. Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2012.

Eacott, Jonathan. Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 2016.

Frankopan, Peter. Silk Roads: A New History of the World. New York: Vintage Books, 2015.

Freeman, Joshua B. Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.

Schama, Simon. Civilizations. PBS television series, 2018.

Vaver, Anthony. The Rebellion Begins: Westborough and the Start of the American Revolution. Westborough, MA: Pickpocket Publishing, 2017.

Wilson, Jon. The Chaos of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India. New York: Public Affairs, 2016.

Westborough Spotlight: Horace Abbott By Paul Bebchick

Editor’s Note: “Westborough Spotlight” is a series of profiles of Westborough residents, new and old. Have an idea for a “Westborough Spotlight”? Let us know by e-mailing

Horace Abbott, 1880

Did you know a Westborough resident played an important part in the American Civil War by building the iron clad war ship, the Monitor, for the U.S. Navy?

Horace Abbott (1806-1887) started his career in a small blacksmith shop on South Street in 1829. There he learned the trade of forging and before long took over the business. In 1834, Abbott was offered a position in Baltimore as foreman of a large iron forging plant that manufactured forgings for steamboats, locomotives, and car axles. By 1861 he owned the largest iron plate mill in the United States.

During the Civil War, the U.S. Government commissioned Capt. John Ericsson, a Swedish scientist, to draw up plans to build a war vessel with a revolving turret and armored construction. After Congress accepted Ericsson’s plans, a request went out for interested parties to offer bids to build the ship. The plans called for a vessel that was armored with five layers of one-inch iron plate, floated at the water line, and was powered by a steam engine driving screw. On her deck would be a single revolving turret with a canon. Abbott had the largest forging plant in the country at the time, and his company was the only one that could handle the forging and plating requirements within the designated timeframe of one year. In the end, this new design concept helped end the Civil War by preventing the South from destroying the comparatively helpless wooden ships of the North.

The Victorious Union Gunboat ‘Monitor’ (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

After the war, Abbott helped establish the First and Second National Bank of Baltimore. For the skill and energy he displayed in producing plating for the Monitor and many other ships, he received high commendations from the Navy Department.