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The Opium Wars, Revisited

'Sea of Poppies' author Amitav Ghosh on narcotics, Bibles, global trade, and military might.

By Michael LaPointe 12 Nov 2008 |

Michael LaPointe is an editor of Tyee Books. Read his previous articles about authors and their work.

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Ghosh: Motor of the world was China's consumption of opium.
  • Sea of Poppies
  • Amitav Ghosh
  • John Murray (2008)

Amitav Ghosh has been one of India's most beloved authors for decades. But outside of India, he made his biggest splash with an act of dissent. In 2001, his acclaimed novel The Glass Palace was named the Eurasia regional winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and was shortlisted for the grand prize. But Ghosh, in a letter to the prize's administration, withdrew his book from the shortlist, claiming that he would be "betraying the spirit of my book if I were to allow it to be incorporated within that particular memorialization of Empire that passes under the rubric of 'the Commonwealth.'"

His withdrawal made headlines in the international press, and an apocryphal story circulated that Ghosh had publicly refused the grand prize. On the morning of his address to the Vancouver International Writer's Festival, Ghosh was quick to amend this rumour. "I probably wouldn't have won the prize in the first place," he says. "I felt I had to withdraw, so I did. It's something I would do again today."

Ghosh was in Vancouver to promote his latest novel, Sea of Poppies, which despite the Commonwealth prize ordeal, was shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize. Sea of Poppies is the first installment in the Ibis Trilogy, a novel cycle about the Opium Wars of the 19th century. This opening novel traces the many characters whose lives converge on the Ibis, a schooner sailing the Indian Ocean. The plot is nothing short of acrobatic, as Ghosh masterfully delivers his characters from their disparate backgrounds to a common destination. The typical flaw of such populous novels is that the reader easily loses sight of characters. But the players of Sea of Poppies stand vivid in the imagination, and their individual plotlines never get lost in the fray.

Ghosh's style is simple and elegant, placing the emphasis on the voices of his characters. A large portion of the novel is devoted to dialogue, for which Ghosh drew on the many peculiar dialects of English that roamed the Indian Ocean. This is a novel in which if you're "not to be diddled and taken for a flat, you have to learn to gubbrow the natives with a word or two of the zubben."

As the first installment of a trilogy, Ghosh's mandate for Sea of Poppies was to establish all of the characters on the Ibis. And although the novel's great theme is the Opium Wars, all of the action takes place prior to the conflict. Thus Sea of Poppies feels incomplete, without both a unifying plot and a satisfactory conclusion. But Ghosh leaves the reader with an urge to continue travelling with these characters, as the ocean draws them into the Opium Wars, and closer to each other.

I spoke with Amitav Ghosh at the Vancouver International Writer's Festival. Here are some of the thoughts he shared...

On the Opium Wars then, Iraq today:

"What's happening in the contemporary world lent urgency to the book. The Opium Wars are very significant for our times. They were the first wars launched in the name of free trade and the free market. There are some eerie parallels with, say, the Iraq War -- how it was launched, how it is fought. I feel that, at some point in history, people will look back and see that the Opium Wars and the Iraq War form a sort of book-ending, in between which is a whole period of wars for commercial expansion, dressed up in various masks."

On getting the Opium Wars 180 degrees wrong:

"Everything I wrote about the Opium Wars is known, it's not hidden. Any halfway decent history book will tell you all about it, the facts can't be disputed. But if you walked out into Vancouver and found 100 educated people, and asked them what they thought of the Opium Wars, their answer would be that the Opium Wars were fought by China to try and force opium on the West. That's what a lot of people think. It's one of those things in which people wish their own failings upon the other, and force it upon them. Because in fact the Opium Wars were fought by the West, in order to force opium on China, and China did everything within their power to resist. It's worth asking why not only have we chosen to forget, but to misrepresent and distort the reality of what happened."

On the piety of Opium War merchants:

"I have come to understand that you have to be very suspicious of people who mouth pieties all the time. The British opium traders were handing out opium on one side of the boat, and Bibles on the other. They were incredibly pious and Victorian. Wherever they went, they were setting up their churches, preaching to the locals. But it's astonishing: we actually have diaries in which someone's written, 'Please forgive me, God. I was too busy selling opium today and I forgot to pray.' What kind of split personality does that? There is no explanation for it."

On the Opium Wars as the founding act of the free market:

"One thing that is very clear is that the motor of the world's economy in the 18th and 19th centuries was China, and China's consumption of opium. It funded the British Empire, it financed enormous parts of the world's trade cycles. One of the reasons why this era was interesting to me was because it's the first generation in which Adam Smith's ideas were really absorbed into the public. This is the first time ordinary people started using the ideas of economics, in the same way Milton Friedman's ideas were being used in the '90s by ordinary people. These merchants were applying ideas of the free market completely un-self-consciously to commodities like opium.

"So free trade's founding act, in some sense, is the opium trade enforced on China. It's funny to wonder why all the modern proponents of free trade never talk about pricing heroin or cocaine according to the market. But why not? If the market is God, why should these commodities be excluded from it? It's always been a part of the economy as a whole."

On the history and collapse of the free market:

"Anyone who looks back on the history of free trade, in which the free market is seen to be the ultimate authority, can see how dangerous an idea it has proven to be. The hypocrisy is unimaginable. Proponents of free trade preach keeping the government out of the market, but when they need the government to make war on China, or make war on Iraq, they're the first ones to go to government. People who are into the free market still need governments to make war.

"It's interesting to me that we're speaking today about two weeks after these ideas have collapsed, and everyone can see their speciousness now. Even their most ardent proponents, like Alan Greenspan, are saying, 'Yes, I was wrong.' And of course he was wrong. What sort of crazy man thinks that when you set a lot of greedy people free to do whatever they like that they'll somehow self-regulate? What sort of madman thinks that? And it's so interesting to see the last-ditch free-traders out there saying, 'No, what was wrong was that the government was always involved in it. Free markets were ruined from the start.' It's exactly the sort of stuff communists were saying in the '90s. 'Communism never got a start because Stalin took it over.'"

On the death of the American Dream:

"We've now seen the point at which the American model of economy has really hit its limits. America's position is deeply compromised, and jeopardized. It will probably last for a good while yet, but not in the same form. The American model was based on some sort of false premise. The idea was that if the whole world can have the American Dream, then the world will leave in peace, and the world will have prosperity. But this idea is such nonsense. Consider a country like India. If every Indian family were to have two cars, the world would immediately asphyxiate. It's madness, it's just a kind of stupidity.

"Now all of American society will have to change. But there are things you can't seem to tell the American people. I think Obama is a great man, and I really admire him, but what I can't see when I look at America is someone who will stand up and tell Americans that they have to tighten their belts, and decrease their standard of living -- that they have to give up things. You can't say these things to a predator society. Yet no people who have existed historically upon a place behave in this way."

On how English changed in the 19th century:

"When you look at the way languages interacted in the 19th century, the Asian languages' influence on English is really quite striking. All kinds of dialects of English existed in Asia at that time. We know that when English-speaking people returned to England from Asia, nobody could understand what they said. People say that in this day of globalization, languages are much more international, but I don't think that's true. I think the 19th century had a much greater influence.

"So when it comes to writing the voices of characters, one can't really know whether the voices ring true. We don't have any recordings from that period. The author has an obligation to try and represent the past with due deference to what really happened, how things actually sounded, but the history is just the back-drop. It's the characters who carry the story, and their lives are not necessarily representative of anyone. You just have to proceed on the basis of what is credible or possible."

On what non-Indian readers expect of Indian authors:

"Indian writing is very broad and diverse, and there's so much writing coming out of India, that I don't know what non-Indian readers can really expect of us. But I know that women writers from India always tell me that they're expected to write books about arranged marriages, and so on. I mean, that's part of the reality of India, but it's just one part.

"The worst ordeal is always when it comes to making the covers for our books. Especially in America, they always want to put a sari on the cover -- some sort of sari, even if it has no connection to the book whatsoever. They want a sari border on the cover. So you always have to gear up for this inevitable fight with your editor when they want to put the sari border on your book. You have to say, 'No sari border.' It's like if every book from Canada had to have a maple leaf or a beaver on the cover."