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Suppressed history: Smoke and Ashes

EducationWorld March 2024 | Books Magazine

Smoke and Ashes
Amitav Ghosh
harper collins
Pages 318

The unwritten history of how the British forcibly grew opium over vast swathes of the Gangetic plain and dumped it on a weak imperial China

Environment and climate warrior and author of the Ibis trilogy of novels centred around the history of the Indian diaspora in Mauritius, South-east Asia and China, Amitav Ghosh is one of the most celebrated writers in the English language. Although the Ibis trilogy which comprised Sea of Poppies (2008), River of Smoke (2011) and Flood of Fire (2015) were globally acclaimed, this reviewer believes that Ghosh’s deeply researched non-fiction works including Gun Island (2019) and Nutmeg’s Curse (2021) recounting the rise of European and British power in the subcontinent and their discovery and exploitation of herbs and spices — opium, nutmeg and tea — to fund the rise and spread of their empires, make infinitely better reading, more so because they are suppressed, unwritten histories.

In Nutmeg’s Curse, Ghosh focused on the ruthless efficiency with which the Dutch upended the lives and livelihoods of innocent islanders to establish a nutmegs monopoly. Native islanders were uprooted and exiled to neighbouring islands of Indonesia, to live lives of poverty and misery as Dutch adventurers established large nutmeg plantations. In Smoke and Ashes, Ghosh describes in gruesome detail, how thousands of acres of fertile multi-crop farmlands of Bihar were forcibly converted into opium poppy fields by the British East India Company (EIC) and opium was exported to China to pay for tea imported into Britain after the silver and bullion demanded by imperial China began to run out.

It’s not as though there was pre-existing demand for opium in imperial China. Steadily incremental quantities of this highly addictive drug were exported from Calcutta to Hong Kong for forcible distribution within mainland China. When the Chinese government objected to this deadly, habit-forming and debilitating narcotic being imposed — under the marketing principle that supply often generates demand — upon the Chinese populace, British gunboats sailed up the River Yangtze to bombard the imperial capital Beijing for infringing the rules of “free trade”.

The value of this wide-ranging history is that it covers previously untrodden ground. As the author writes in the very first chapter of Smoke and Ashes, although Bengal shares a border with China, information and knowledge about our neighbouring country never featured in his school and college curriculums. Yet the plain truth is that our two countries have had a long and troubled history connected with opium grown in the poppy fields of Bihar and forcibly dumped upon the Chinese people for over a century. As Ghosh recounts, EIC took over the fledgling opium industry of Bihar in 1772 and in 1799, established a dedicated Opium Department to stabilise production and maintain “an output of around 4,800 chests (3.5 million kg) per year, almost all of which was exported to the Dutch East Indies and China”.

The ruthless efficiency with which the Department selected farmers over a vast region starting from “Agra in the West to the borders of Bengal in the east” — a territory of approximately 500,000 acres — and imposed unequal contracts determining “how they could plant and how much they would be paid for them, the entirety of which was to be surrendered to the Opium Department for processing in its own facilities,” is vividly recounted in this revealing history. And given the vast difference in the price of the opium balls determined by EIC and the rock-bottom price paid to contracted farmers, a formidable network of spies and informers was maintained by the company to ensure that none of the output was pilfered to be sold in the open market. And to dress up this sordid enterprise they established modern factories in Patna and Benares to transform poppy seeds into the high narcotic.

The company’s monopoly of opium production in the north and Gangetic plain and the huge profits accruing prompted an entrepreneurial response from “canny traders” of the Jain, Marwari, Bohra and Ismaili communities in the Malwa region in Western and Central India. Despite opposition from EIC managers who feared over-supply to China and the Far East market might prompt a crash in prices, opium produced in this region exported to China by private traders grew by leaps and bounds. Interestingly, the learned author traces the rise of Bombay into modern India’s commercial capital and some of the biggest names of India Inc to their active involvement in running opium to China.

The merit of this refreshing and vigorous history of British exploitation of rural India — eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have never recovered and remain the most backward regions of India to this date — is that it not only describes the impact of forced production of the enduring poppy seed in 18th and 19th century India, but also its devastating impact on China, the nation on which this lethal narcotic was forcibly dumped. Ghosh cites scholars who estimate that far from official statistics which place the number of addicts in opium dens in Qing China at the end of the 19th century at 14-15 million, the total number of Chinese addicts may well have been 200 million.

Little wonder that in the 20th century, imperial China which less than 200 years earlier was the wealthiest nation worldwide, was massively debilitated and suffered crushing military defeats by Western powers and Japan in the years leading up to 1949, when the Communist Party of China united the country and its leader Mao Tse Tung famously announced that “China has stood up”.

In essence, this fascinating history hitherto ignored by historians unearths the story of opium discovered 6,000 years ago, and used as a painkiller and “pharmacologically indispensable” medication to this day. “Through most of human history, opium circulated in very small quantities and was used primarily as a medicine,” writes Ghosh. Yet with peculiar genius, the East India Co — the world’s first narco corporation — with official encouragement forcibly grew and marketed it without bothering about its crippling impact upon producers and consumers.

Now, says Ghosh, the wheel has turned full circle and the opiod crisis that stalks America and the West is history’s payback for the vast fortunes that some of the most prominent families of Britain and the American east coast made out of drug running to China and the Far East.

Ghosh’s historical canvas which reads like a novel, is as revealing as it is brilliant.

Dilip Thakore

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