‘Smoke and Ashes’ by Amitav Ghosh: How opium imperialism shaped the modern world : The Tribune India

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‘Smoke and Ashes’ by Amitav Ghosh: How opium imperialism shaped the modern world

‘Smoke and Ashes’ by Amitav Ghosh: How opium imperialism shaped the modern world

Smoke and Ashes: A Writer’s Journey Through Opium’s Hidden Histories by Amitav Ghosh. HarperCollins. Pages 397. Rs 699

Book Title: Smoke and Ashes: A Writer’s Journey Through Opium’s Hidden Histories

Author: Amitav Ghosh

Salil Misra

AMITAV GHOSH is the most celebrated and easily the best writer of historical fiction in our times. He makes history come alive in a way standard history books do not. And he provides authentic and reliable information in a way historical fictions generally do not. While telling a historical story, he goes into the minute details without ever losing sight of the big picture. He has subjected many historical themes — colonialism, particularly its impact on the non-European societies; and the environment, particularly its larger-than-life impact on our lives — to his paint-and-brush approach. In the book under review, Ghosh has changed the format slightly without, however, changing the approach. After writing a three-volume historical fiction around the theme of opium (‘Sea of Poppies’, ‘River of Smoke’, and ‘Flood of Fire’, generally known as the ‘Ibis’ trilogy) and how it transformed individual lives, he has given a historical account of the place this highly intoxicating and debilitating drug occupies in the history of modern world, as one of its building blocks.

The historical accounts of modern world have imparted an axial place to certain key items — silver, textiles, railways, automobiles, etc. Amitav Ghosh has added two more items to this list: tea, and much more significantly, opium.

Tea was an exclusively Chinese plant which became global during the 16th-19th centuries. The British traded in Chinese tea but generally resented having to pay the Chinese with silver. Their reserves of silver, obtained from the new world, gradually began to deplete. This created a crisis for the British. The problem created by the tea trade was solved by the British by relying upon another plant, poppy, from which opium was extracted. Poppy began to be cultivated in India in a big way so that opium could be pumped into China, much against the wishes of the Chinese rulers. Two zones in India — eastern and western, with Calcutta and Bombay, respectively, as headquarters — began to produce opium for export to China. The Chinese sold tea and bought opium with it. In effect, they treated the world to tea and, in return, consumed large quantities of opium. The sale of opium to China brought some wealth to India, which was used to pay for the British textiles that entered India in a big way in the 19th century.

Thus, tea and opium created a trade chain that connected large parts of the world. But clearly the Europeans were the biggest beneficiaries of it. After the Americans became independent from British control in 1776, they began to trade independently with China for its tea in return for the opium produced in Turkey. Large parts of the non-European world thus got connected in the multi-stranded global trade. But not all countries benefitted by it. England and America were the biggest winners, China the greatest victim. It supplied tea and got opium in return!

This was not all. The pattern of opium production in India was such that it cast its dark shadows on times ahead. The production of opium in the Gangetic heartland (with opium factories in Patna and Ghazipur) happened under the East India Company’s monopoly. That in the western pockets happened without any centralised control, more along the lines of a market economy. The opium trade there was relatively free from the throttling control of the State till the British takeover in the 19th century. The long-term implications of this pattern can be discerned even today.

The opium trade also impacted the populations of the Hindi heartland. Poppy-growing areas suffered in general. The discontent produced in the Hindi-speaking areas may have fed into the Rebellion of 1857. The poppy-growing districts of UP and Bihar were also the headquarters of the Rebellion. And the Rebellion, in turn, affected these areas even more adversely. The British shifted the recruitment for the army and other developmental ventures from these areas to Punjab. The present-day contrast in the economic status between eastern and western India and that between the Hindi-speaking heartland and Punjab is too palpable to be incidental. Does it have something to do with the networks around opium trade that had developed around the 18th-19th centuries? Amitav Ghosh clearly thinks so: “The long-term effects of this system... continue to manifest themselves in the discord and lack of social trust that plagues much of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand to this day.”

History is not simply a story of what happened. It can also be told in a way that it connects the past with the present, by explaining some of the present through the past. As Ghosh writes: “The stamp of the past sometimes sinks so deep into the fabric of everyday life that its traces are difficult, if not impossible, to erase.”

This is an illuminating book that demonstrates, conclusively and convincingly, the multiple ways in which our lives and history are deeply connected with the tea and opium trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. Read the book to find out how.