Narcotics and empire

Print edition : June 02, 2006

The book tells the story of the origins of a dominant section of the Indian capitalist class and the rise of the city of Bombay.

THE economic history of colonial India does not seem to have attracted much scholarly attention in recent years. In such a context, the book under review not only offers fresh insights related to the "development" of colonial Bombay, but illustrates how economic history can continue to thrill readers. The author, who is a leading authority on the opium trade in early colonial India, integrates his skills to tell us the story of the origins of a dominant section of the Indian capitalist class and the rise of the city of Bombay (now Mumbai). The work is based on archival sources collected from various parts of India and the Jardine papers at the Cambridge University library. Farooqui's inter-disciplinary method - which draws upon complexities associated with urban, social and political history - makes the book interesting.

Farooqui mentions how Bombay had been a minor British outpost in western India since the middle of the 17th century. Nevertheless, its virtual metamorphosis over the first half of the 19th century was spectacular. He explores the phenomenon of Bombay's urbanisation and its links with the opium trade. What is brought to life are the diversities associated with the shifts and changes that a pre-industrial Victorian city went through, which included its cosmopolitan character and made it more of a colonial enclave and less of a Maharashtrian city.

The early interactions of Bombay - which was one of the nearly 25 islands off the Konkan coast - began with the Portuguese in the Vasco da Gama era, with formal authority of the European power being established in 1534. Bombay passed on to the British crown in 1655 and was, in turn, handed over to the East India Company for an annual rent of 10. Bombay was a virtual creation of the British and did not have a pre-colonial history.

Discussing early colonial Bombay, the author examines the features that implied its relative obscurity until the end of the 18th century. He delineates some of the specific features that made Bombay a safe port to both receive and send out ships. At the same time, he makes it clear that Bombay had problems of accessibility from western and central India, especially because of the Sahyadri mountains which acted as a barrier between the coast and the Deccan plateau. The author projects the relative isolation of Bombay from the business networks of 18th century western and central India. This was compounded by the presence of the Marathas in neighbouring Salsette until the 1770s and the fact that Bombay was not even properly integrated to the mainland. These features made Bombay dependent on sea-borne trade for getting even its basic necessities and contributed by making Bombay's economy "extrovertish" from the time of British occupation.

The competition provided by Surat was another factor that is cited by historians to explain the delayed rise of Bombay as a port. Nevertheless, this cannot be taken up as a major point since the decline of Surat did not, after all, see the sudden rise of Bombay. In fact, Surat's decline seems to have produced a sort of a vacuum for maritime trade in western India and converged with the emergence of the East India Company and Bengal. Interestingly, in the late 1780s, Lord Cornwallis went to the extent of suggesting that Bombay be downgraded to the rank of "just a small factory".

The author differs with established ideas about Bombay's subsequent rise, which is attributed to the export of raw cotton. Farooqui provides details of opium exports over the 1824-1833 period to quantify the boost, aptly calling it the "opium miracle". What is significant about the author's argument is the way in which he sees the imperfect logic of colonial hegemony as far as the opium exports were concerned, making it clear that there were actual struggles between the dominant classes in Britain and indigenous groups, including collaborations between both.

The position of the British in western India improved with the decline of Maratha power after the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761 and the subsequent takeover of Salsette in 1782. However, it was the Third Anglo-Maratha War of 1817-18 that destroyed Maratha power and saw the ascendancy of the British. Nevertheless, the process of colonial consolidation was prolonged since large tracts in western India continued to be indigenously ruled (namely, the princely States) As articulated by the author, Indian merchants took temporary advantage of the expanding trade in opium produced in western and central India and this had significant consequences for the "development" of Bombay.

While examining the specifics of Bombay and the trade in Malwa opium, Farooqui critiques "popular" works that reproduce nostalgic images of the city in a selective manner. In fact, along with playing cricket and thinking "more or less in the European manner" and being a centre of early entrepreneurship, it also drugged large sections of people in China. It is here that Farooqui's method distinguishes him from nationalist historians who focus on British colonialism while remaining silent about its junior partner - the indigenous capitalist.

The author's expertise in the field is clearly visible when he narrates the mechanism of the opium trade. Colonial expansion in northern India over the latter half of the 18th century saw shifts as far as the British were concerned. Starting with individuals, the opium trade was to get monopolised by the East India Company from 1773. This was extended to all the opium-producing regions in eastern India. It saw the evolution of Bengal opium as a major brand along with the existing Malwa opium. Most of the opium exported to China was sent from Calcutta (now Kolkata). The problem began soon after the Company realised that a large consignment of opium went to China from the west coast. This saw the beginnings of a trade rivalry that the Company wanted to stamp out. Efforts in this direction were to enforce a ban on exports from Bombay in 1805 and direct the Gujarat and western Indian States to prevent the movement of opium to the coast. However, the presence of the Portuguese and their old association with Indian traders who were willing to supply opium complicated the matter.

The Company got the opportunity to renew rigorously this attempt in the post-1818 phase. It decided on buying up the Malwa opium. But a large quantity of opium continued to be sold through Daman. t decided to exert political pressure on the princely States to supply specified quantities of opium to the Company at fixed prices and restrict the cultivation of poppy in their tracts. This policy continued until the end of the 1820s when the Company stop its involvement with the opium trade.

On the Indian side of the story, Farooqui provides empirical details to delineate how the opium trade was not just a "Parsi affair" and was, in fact, quite inclusive. He mentions details relating to Jamshetjee Jejeebhoy whose career began as an accounts clerk (mehta) and who had emerged as a major merchant of Bombay by the 1820s. The association with the opium trade linked Jamshetjee to a major network through which a significant amount of Malwa opium passed through Bombay and Daman to China. Simultaneously, he mentions the "big five" that included Jamshetjee, who combined to keep the small players out. The Indian traders exhibited great skill in inventing an alternative route to transport the Malwa opium to Daman on the west coast, avoiding British-controlled tracts.

Discussing the modus operandi of the opium transactions, Farooqui lists four dominant forms. Thus, it included the big purchasers who bought opium at the Bombay auctions and also bought some of it on their own. Then there were the petty traders at auctions who usually bought the opium for on-the-spot sale to actual exporters. There were also Bombay merchants - both big and small - at Daman who purchased the opium. Finally, there were Bombay merchants who made purchases at the Calcutta auctions. Consequently, it was opium that provided the Bombay bourgeoisie an important source of accumulation. However, the story would be incomplete unless we add to this the author's major point regarding the links between indigenous shipping and the opium trade in Bombay and the dynamics of smuggling that subverted the colonial order. It was this indigenous trade enterprise that formed the basis of Bombay's rise to be the focal point of economic activity in western India.

Farooqui discusses the urban development of Bombay, connecting it to the development of the port city. While focussing on the specificities of Bombay, he argues against the idea of locating colonial urbanisation in the abstract. Instead he emphasises the class aspect that determined its spatial pattern, including the colonial imprints that were visible. The author refers to the creation of virtually two Bombays - for the whites and the browns - and the demographic details related to the expansion of the city over the late 18th and 19th centuries. In a remarkable effort to harmonise diverse aspects of social history - including the social history of health - with political, administrative and economic history, the author brings to life a city and its complex identities with unparalleled clarity.

This is a work that explores the colonial development of Bombay. The real contribution of Amar Farooqui, who re-directs our attention to the diversities associated with the opium trade, is to demonstrate how its role has been understated. It makes the reader conscious of the links between the super profits generated by narcotics, which made the trade attractive to British imperialism.

In fact, reading this book one is bound to reflect on the continuing links between narcotics and imperialism, especially of the American variety, over the past six decades.

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