Imagine being whacked on the head, and force fed opium. Made to cultivate it (instead of food) and made to take it . And by what an all-powerful drug dealer – a giant cartel, like in the movies, of trading and shipping companies, supported by the government of Great Britian.
Yes – all this really happened. It’s true. It’s the story of 1839 and the Opium Wars.
“What I tried to do was to let the material speak for itself”, says Amitav Ghosh, of the shocking stuff in his new novel –the Sea of Poppies .The book is the first of a trilogy. It tells of young mother Deeti, in a village on the Ganges. Married to an afeemkhor (an opium addict) Deeti , like the farmers around her, must grow only poppy and sell it to the Company for a pittance. Besides Deeti, there’s low caste Kalua, Jodu, the boy who will be sailor; Pauline, the French orphan girl and Raja Neel Rattan, the bankrupted landowner.All of these colorful characters and others , displaced by the Great Opium Trading Company, in one way or the other , come together to journey on a slaver ship – the white masted Ibis, that will make its way to the sugar cane plantations of Mareech (Mauritius)
But you have to read the book really- it’s all too gorgeously wide and rich to describe. The landscapes, from the poppy fields of Bihar, to the bustling port of Calcutta and the narrow estuary down to the Bay of Bengal (backwater) are amazingly cinematic. The language, which some critics have panned, is lovely – full of terms like daftar and tankwah and baorchee and whisky pawnee and lattee, all of which slip in easily and appropriately into the conversation of the time .
And the descriptions ! I ask Amitav Ghosh what inspired some of them – the opium factory , near Deeti’s village , for instance . All fact, it appears .” The principal source was a book called ‘Notes on an Opium Factory’, published in Calcutta in 1865,” says Ghosh ” It was written by a man called JWS MacArthur who had run the Ghazipur opium factory for many years and was very proud of it. He wrote the book in order to encourage British tourists to visit the factory. Many detailed illustrations of the factories were also published in the 19th century by visiting British lithographers. These illustrations are so good that I did not have to make anything up. It was like describing a set of excellent photographs.”
Slave labour and the Opium Wars – Ghosh has taken these two horrifying economic themes of the 19th century to recreate a stunningly rich (and tragic) world . Certainly it makes you think . “Many of these things”, Ghosh says “would be impossible to invent…The material is so astonishing”.
Is their a pattern in all of this ? In the novel, British merchant Ben Burnham says ‘Jesus Christ is free trade’ and gets away with selling opium to China and India . Is this not what all the weapons selling (or ethanol subsidizing/famine causing) governments today are doing?
Note from Shekhar
It is a fascinating book that I am reading myself, and I am recommending this personally. I have been looking at the Opium Wars from a China perspective too, and it is a rather shameful episode in the history of western captalization. In fact the Industrial Revolution in England was funded by the ‘opiumization’ of China.