Before the Opium Wars

Amitav Ghosh’s amazing historical novels—Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke—reclaim the era leading to the opium wars by relating their stories from a non-Western perspective: mostly Indian but also Chinese.  The first of these novels was published three years ago and brings together a disparate cast of characters who eventually find themselves on a converted slave ship, but this time the voyage is to take indentured workers from Calcutta to Mauritius.  There are also several felons who are being sent into exile to the same destination, including a Raja who has been accused of forgery under rather dubious circumstances and an American mulatto who has quickly risen up the ship’s hierarchy because of an earlier voyage which wiped out much of the Ibis’s senior crew.

Sea of Poppies’s mesmerizing narrative is compulsive reading because of Ghosh’s historic details about raising opium in India (a British monopoly at the center of the East India Company’s phenomenal success), the hazards of shipping (whether to transport opium, slaves, or indentured servants), a plethora of information about the environs of Calcutta in the early part of the nineteenth century and, of course, the lives of people associated with the opium trade.  Ghosh’s incredible array of characters and assure a winning novel in every way.

There’s a haunting scene in Sea of Poppies that is as memorable as anything I have ever read.  When Neel (the Raja who has been accused of forgery) is imprisoned, awaiting transport to Mauritius, he’s thrown into a cell that reeks with stench, so overwhelming that he wonders if he himself will survive.  Under one of the beds he detects a feral creature, covered in vomit and excrement, scabs and sores, huddled into a ball.   But this previously pampered Raj, who has never had to lift a finger in his life, never worked or associated with the lowly, washes the silent figure and in the process humanizes himself.  It takes days to clean up the creature, arrange to have his hair cut (The prison’s barber tells him, “In all my years of hair-cutting…I’ve never seen anything like this”), all the while talking to the man, who never responds.

“Neel looked over the barber’s shoulder at his cell-mate’s scalp: even as the razor was shaving it clean, the bared skin was sprouting a new growth—a film that moved and shimmered like mercury.  It was a swarming horde of lice, and as the matted hair tumbled off, the insects could be seen falling to the ground in showers.  Neel was kept busy, drawing and pouring bucketfuls of water, so as to drown the insects before they found others to infect.” Yuck.

But he doesn’t get a response, and what Neel finally understands is that the man—who appears to be part Chinese—is an opium addict, undergoing withdrawal.  Questions such as “What is your name?” lead to no reply.  Then one night in the darkness, Neel feels an arm around him, comforting him in the midst of a nightmare, and the man speaks, “My name Lei Leong Fatt….  People call Ah Fatt.  Ah Fatt your friend.” The relationship that grows between the two of them makes them is touching and will take them, eventually, not to Mauritius but to the environs of Canton, which is the setting for much of the second volume, River of Smoke.

After a terrible storm in the Indian Ocean, the Ibis is thrown off course, as is true of two other ships on their way to Canton: the Anahita, loaded with one of the largest consignments of opium ever headed for China; and the Redruth, a nursery ship, with a horticulturist who plans to acquire plants that have a medicinal value, swapping them for others from India and the United States.  All three ships—because of the storm—eventually end up in Canton’s area for foreigners, Fanqui-town, since China is closed, forbidden to outsiders.  The time is 1837-38, when the Chinese are beginning to clamp down on the importation of opium, the central conflict of River of Smoke.

The moral issue is clear.  England and India had already banned the sale of opium in their countries, but the East India Company (a Calcutta State Enterprise), and therefore Britain, had no qualms about selling opium to China: “The revenues of India, the opium branch included, have repeatedly received the sanction of Parliament.  The opium manufacture, and the trade inseparable from it, have received the highest sanction bestowable in one country, on an article proscribed in another.  The British merchant went out from the high places of legislation to attend the sales of the East India Company.  Authority, example, sympathy, were on his side; what cared he for the interdicts of the strange, despotic, repulsive government of China?” It’s a little like the United States, years ago, banning DDT and infants’ flammable pajamas, but then peddling them overseas—or the tobacco companies, knowingly selling an addictive substance to children.

Ghosh orchestrates the lives and activities of the figures from the three ships and their increasing hostility from the Chinese, who have seen the sale of opium as a trade violation that has been questioned for nearly forty years.  All of this comes to a head in the spring of 1838, when High Commissioner Lin, following the dictates of the Emperor, totally prohibits the sale of opium, with a decree that any ships that contain the substance will have their stocks destroyed.  When the Commissioner asks one of the Englishmen point blank if he does not regard the sale of opium as a monstrous activity, the Brit replies, “No, sir….  Because it is not my hand that passes sentence upon those who choose the indulgence of opium.  It is the work of another, invisible, omnipotent: it is the hand of freedom, of the market, of the spirit of liberty itself, which is none other than the breadth of God.” Sounds too much like the Republican presidential debates this fall, which is only to say that greed has always been with us.

I have dwelled on the moral ambiguity of Amitav Ghosh’s two novels, especially of River of Smoke, but this is only context and a disservice to the author. Both novels are rich in character and plotting and above all in historical detail.  I found them compulsive reading and I’m only frustrated that it may be several years before the final volume of Ghosh’s trilogy is published.  True, at times I thought that River of Smoke read a little like the middle of a narrative yet to be completed—which it is—but by the end of this second volume I had nothing but admiration for Ghosh’s humanity, his joy for life amidst all the horror of human greed and duplicity.

Amitav Ghosh: Sea of Poppies.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 515 pp., $26.00.  Paperback:  Picador, $15.00

River of Smoke.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 522 pp., $28.00.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature, at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email:  

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.