An intoxicating history of opium

In Smoke and Ashes, Amitav Ghosh exposes colonialism’s true legacy and its echoes in today’s crises—all through the lens of the poppy.

Published : Feb 08, 2024 11:00 IST - 11 MINS READ

The East India Company’s steamer Nemesis destroying Chinese sailing ships at Anson’s Bay during the First Opium War in 1871. Original artwork by G.W. Terry and engraved by G. Greatbach.

The East India Company’s steamer Nemesis destroying Chinese sailing ships at Anson’s Bay during the First Opium War in 1871. Original artwork by G.W. Terry and engraved by G. Greatbach. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

There is this thing about “things”. They surround us, constitute our everyday, and shape practices, ideas, and world views, and yet they rarely receive serious attention. The anthropologist Daniel Miller reflected on this phenomenon by stating: “Objects are artful; they hide their power to determine the way you feel. Our job is to confront and expose this crafty life of things” (Miller, 2008:287).

Smoke and Ashes: A Writer’s Journey Through Opium’s Hidden Histories
By Amitav Ghosh
Fourth Estate
Pages: 408
Price: Rs.699

In Smoke and Ashes, Amitav Ghosh sets out on a similar undertaking. He not only intends to decentre humans from historical narratives, but in doing so, unveils the history of colonial capitalism and Anglo-European modernity by thinking through, and with, a non-human agent, a flowering plant—the opium poppy.

This book owes its existence to the historical fiction of Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy: Sea of Poppies (2008), River of Smoke (2011), and Flood of Fire (2015). The trilogy, centred around human protagonists, is situated against the backdrop of the Opium Wars in the 19th century. In Smoke and Ashes, Ghosh switches the protagonist. As the opium poppy takes centre stage, it reveals the exhaustive archival research that produced the intricate setting for the Ibis trilogy. Ghosh, much to his credit, keeps cross-referencing to the trilogy minimal, ensuring that the reader remains unburdened from being familiar with the historical saga.

Smoke and Ashes also follows another distinct trajectory of Ghosh’s recent work linking Western imperialism and colonialism to contemporary global ecological and geopolitical crises. In that, it emerges as an exposition to earlier arguments proposed in The Nutmeg’s Curse (2021), which vividly illustrated how genocidal violence was engendered in the colonial monopolisation of one spice—the nutmeg.

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Ghosh’s craft lies in making history intimate. Instead of rushing into a discussion of the opium poppy and its historical and civilisational entanglements, he patiently renders them explicit by reflecting through everyday objects, from cha/chai (tea), chrysanthemumchinemati (porcelain), cheeni (sugar), and chinebadam (peanuts) to goldfish and incense sticks, each showcasing how the presence of China has been sedimented in Indian lives.

This is where Ghosh highlights an important paradox. While the historical entanglement of India and China has been textually and discursively rendered invisible in India, it has always been materially omnipresent. An investigation into material cultures through inanimate articles offers a different reading of history. Viewed through acts of everyday consumption, such explorations also allow for a more intimate understanding of abstract concepts such as “Westernisation”, “modernity”, and “colonialism”.

A different reading of history

In Smoke and Ashes, the historical and civilisational entanglement of the East and West is explained through the exchange of botanical matter. As Ghosh proceeds to show in the initial chapters, the importance of the opium poppy in the 19th century needs to be understood in relation to the geopolitical implications of the tea trade in the same period.

Tea was both a source of revenue for the East India Company and the reason for the ballooning trade imbalance between China and Britain, especially as China demanded payment against exports in silver and had a scant need for European products. The solution emerged in the form of a narcotic—opium—which was illicitly “exported” to China to balance the deficit emerging from the import of tea.

The discussion on tea makes Ghosh reflect on how the production of it differed significantly in China compared to the British colonies. In Imperial China, tea was grown in small holdings with family labour, while in colonial India, growing tea involved racialised modes of production in large plantations, involving “tax concessions, free land, and indentured labour force”.

This is an important thread in Ghosh’s narrative that one needs to pay close attention to. When botanicals travel across geographies, the politics by which the translocation is effected makes them carriers and enablers of dominant world views. Opium, when illegally sold in China, embodies laissez-faire. When produced under extreme exploitation in India, it births a hyper-bureaucratised surveillance state. Similarly, when tea travels to India, it etches the concept of enclosures into terraformed plantations.

Genocide, biopiracy, land grab, enclosures, servitude, and enslavement were some of the key instruments that allowed botanical entities such as coffee, cocoa, rubber, and tea to become global commodities. Ghosh expands on this by arguing that the “botanical entity is both instrument and protagonist”, and its “agentive properties” animate and subvert the calculus of power and profit in unpredictable ways.

Ghosh illustrates this unpredictability by comparing the variance in outcomes of the opium trade in eastern and western India. In Purvanchal, that is, the Bhojpuri-speaking areas of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the cultivation of the opium poppy was a large-scale monopoly managed by a centralised bureaucracy where half a million acres of land was under cultivation involving one million peasant households. In the Malwa region of central and western India, the presence of powerful princely states coupled with a decentralised merchant network proved a difficult challenge for colonial capitalism to replicate the eastern Indian model.

While opium production in the east of India was reifying colonial control over people and nature and devastating the region in the process, in the west, it was being resisted and subverted as entrepreneurs sidestepped colonial regulation to export vast quantities of opium out of Bombay. By connecting the regional disparity in outcomes of the opium trade, Ghosh not only shows how it changed the socio-economic conditions of these two regions, but how it continues to shape uneven regional development in postcolonial India.

I recall two distinct historical developments that provide additional empirical evidence to Ghosh’s argument. The vulgar exploitation involved in producing another botanical—the indigo plant (Indigofera tinctoria)—also deepened the impoverishment of eastern India. Brutally forced into growing the indigo plant instead of food crops on their lands, farmers in Bengal and Bihar launched the Indigo Revolt of 1859, which jolted the colonial administration into partially reforming the industry, which by then had significantly impaired the region’s agrarian economy.

A similar desire to extract surplus revenue from the sale of an everyday necessity like salt had earlier led the British East India Company to construct the Inland Customs Line in 1823—a thorny hedgerow, 3,700 kilometres long, that extended from the Indus river to the Mahanadi and was patrolled by 12,000 guards. Roy Moxham’s underrated bookGreat Hedge of India: The Search for the Living Barrier That Divided a People(Basic Books, 2001) not only brought this to light but also showed that a rent-seeking surveillance state was already in the making in northern and eastern India.

“This book owes its existence to the historical fiction of the Ibis trilogy (2008-2015), set against the backdrop of the Opium Wars in the 19th century.”

By foregrounding opium as a “historical actor in its own right”, Ghosh also puts the cosmopolitan metropolis in its place, as he shows how Bombay, Boston, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Philadelphia, Shanghai, and Singapore, owe their prosperity and prominence to the opium trade. Not only did Calcutta and Bombay benefit immensely from the exploitation of agrarian Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, such historical processes were sedimented in models of postcolonial “development” where rural areas were legitimised as sacrifice zones.

Similarly, mercantile families in major US cities harvested affluence from trading in opium to build business empires, construct the US railway network, and fund prestigious universities, all of which, in turn, reinforced the Anglo-European monopolisation of modernity.

The fragility of modernity

The fragility of such modernity is made vivid in light of the opium trade. The duplicitousness to claims of “civilisation” and “modernity” lies exposed in the dehumanisation of the producers (Indians) and consumers (Chinese) of the substance, while suppliers and sellers (Anglo-Europeans) remain untainted. The narcotic trade is legitimised as a necessary evil to expand imperialism by bringing “progress” and “civilisation” to “corrupt” and “lazy” Asiatics. This contradiction did not go unnoticed in the West even in the 19th century. Karl Marx, in his column titled Free Trade and Monopoly, scathingly critiqued the opium trade in New-York Tribune on September 25, 1858:

“We cannot leave this part of the subject without singling out one flagrant self-contradiction of the Christianity-canting and civilization-mongering British Government. In its imperial capacity it affects to be a thorough stranger to the contraband opium trade, and even to enter into treaties proscribing it. Yet, in its Indian capacity, it forces the opium cultivation upon Bengal, to the great damage of the productive resources of that country; compels one part of the Indian ryots to engage in the poppy culture; entices another part into the same by dint of money advances; keeps the wholesale manufacture of the deleterious drug a close monopoly in its hands; watches by a whole army of official spies its growth, its delivery at appointed places, its inspissation and preparation for the taste of the Chinese consumers….”

Ghosh engages with such anti-imperialist debates while arguing that morality was decoupled from capitalism in the 19th century through the notion of “free trade” which was built on arguments that markets were inherently moral, operating by their own laws. Such abstractions licensed colonial capitalist violence on the non-West.

However, Ghosh does not seek to only unsettle modernity by highlighting its inherent contradictions and problematic foundations, but also showcases how Western “modernity” owes significantly to the non-West, especially through its encounter with China. Centralised civil services exams, often considered to be a key “contribution” of the British Empire to the colonies, was inspired by the Chinese Imperial examination.

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Ghosh argues that even the notion that a nation state had to be culturally and bureaucratically unified was a Chinese idea. The English garden, a cornerstone of British cultural identity in the 19th century, was heavily influenced by Chinese gardening styles. By tracing the multifaceted cultural influence emerging out of Canton (now Guangzhou) as a civilisational watersmeet, Ghosh sets the stage for a provocation, asking if “that process of acculturation that is called ‘Westernization’, should be termed, instead, Cantonization?”.

Such reorientation signifies that the position from which a historical event is viewed matters. Ghosh briefly reflects on this in Smoke and Ashes, comparing Rudyard Kipling’s untroubled commentary on the colonial opium trade in India to Rabindranath Tagore’s passionate critique of it.

I pick up a similar pattern in Lucy Inglis’ Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium (2019). In Inglis’ telling of the journey of opium through human history, the centrality afforded to opium in the narration tends to prioritise the effects of opium on societies while paying limited attention to the politics by which such effects were produced. Ghosh’s attention to opium, on the contrary, reveals how epidemics related to its consumption synchronise with moments in human history where capitalist greed intensifies. The affordance or acknowledgement of “intelligence” to botanical matter does not deflect from a critical reading of those historical moments.

At the heart of Smoke and Ashes lies Ghosh’s craft in joining the dots between the past and the present, and the agency afforded to opium plays an important role in showing how the Opium Wars of the 19th century and the current opioid crisis in the US are inextricably linked. Opium is compared to an “opportunistic pathogen” which waits for the right social environment to re-emerge through an epidemic.

By comparing a narcotic substance with a virus, Ghosh further unsettles the nature-society divide, arguing that the mutation of opium is as much mediated through power as it is self-attained. One must give credit to Ghosh that he makes this argument without diverting attention from the calculus of geopolitical power and capitalist profit that incubate opioid epidemics.

Near the end, Ghosh refers to the book Opium Talk by Zhang Changjia written around 1878, where Changjia compares the coal-powered Western steamship to the body of the opium addict, both coal and opium drawing energy from the fire produced by the burning of biological matter without which each were robbed of their vitality. It is a poignant reminder that the climate crisis, produced out of a planetary addiction to fossil fuels, is an existential shock to humanity, as much as the illicit opium trade was to Chinese society in the 19th century.

Instead of dwelling on this ominous connection as indicative of an inevitable and recurrent catastrophe, Ghosh chooses to distil hope from the successes of transnational anti-opium movements across two centuries to argue that a similar diverse coalition is needed today to work towards the biggest de-addiction movement in human history. 

Amitangshu Acharya is an Indian academic, researcher, and writer. His doctoral dissertation at the University of Edinburgh, titled “The Political Ecology of Small Things”, explored how everyday domestic technologies shape the technopolitical mediation of urban environments in South Asia. He is currently a Lecturer in Water Governance, at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, in the Netherlands.

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