The first two books of the Ibis trilogy, Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, will perhaps be remembered best for the dexterous way Amitav Ghosh has used English. What was spoken among Anglo-Indians in Calcutta was different from Parsees in Mumbai, the Chinese in Canton and the pidgin spoken by lascars or sailors in ships. Nobody has ever brought out this vividness in such detail as Ghosh. The point that readers may miss is that it is built around one of the bloodiest trade disputes of all time — opium.
For almost 50 years, opium filled the coffers of East India Company and its shareholders. It was grown in its dominions in Bengal (the area that now forms the state of Bihar) and Malwa, and was processed in its factory at Patna. The merchant ships, British as well as Indian, carried it to China. The intoxicant could not be legally traded; so the merchants brought the consignments surreptitiously to Canton, from where it was sent to mainland China by native smugglers. No non-Chinese could go beyond Canton. The riches they made were fabulous. Silver was what they accepted as payment for the opium. It was in Canton, at the peak of the opium trade, that the diversified conglomerate Jardine Matheson was born in 1832, founded by William Jardine and James Matheson.
The Qing dynasty that ruled over China did not look favourably upon the opium trade. It had drained the country of a lot of silver and an alarmingly high population was addicted to the drug. The Mandarins accused East India Company of selling in large measures what was illegal in England. The merchants, on their part, argued that the principles of free trade were supreme. The confrontation escalated in 1838; some Chinese smugglers were beheaded in Canton to drive home the message. After some resistance, the merchants gave up and their opium was confiscated by the Chinese. Retribution was inevitable. An expeditionary force was sent from India in 1839 which reduced the Chinese resistance in three years. At the end of it, East India Company was allowed to restart the opium trade, and Hong Kong was given away as a gift to Victoria, the British monarch.
One of the merchant houses to benefit was the Sassoons of Bombay. Baghdadi Jews driven out of Persia, they carried opium and yarn to China and then sailed their ships to England laden with Chinese products. The Second Opium War was fought between 1856 and 1860, which helped the merchants strengthen their presence in China. The results were disastrous for the Chinese. This was the beginning of what they call the century of humiliation. It is estimated that a third of the country’s population of around 370 million in the early 1880s was addicted to opium. Lin Zexu, the high-ranking Mandarin who took on the opium merchants, is seen as a national hero. He even wrote to Victoria about the impropriety of the opium trade. Evidently, that had no effect on the British.
Ghosh captures the buildup to the First Opium War quite well: the debates that raged at the time between the Mandarins and the merchants, the letters that went back and forth. There are several books available on the opium trade. What Ghosh’s books will do is rekindle interest in what is perhaps the worst trade of all times. The third book of the trilogy will hopefully add to the understanding of the opium trade and its disastrous consequences.