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Opium and Empire

Amitav Ghosh, author of Sea of Poppies. (Bill Swersey/Asia Society)

Amitav Ghosh, author of Sea of Poppies. (Bill Swersey/Asia Society)

NEW YORK, December 15, 2008 - Great Britain's 19th-century opium trade, and its wide-ranging impact, became a central topic of conversation between novelist Amitav Ghosh and Princeton philosopher and cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah when the two sat down together at Asia Society to discuss Ghosh’s new novel, Sea of Poppies. Short-listed for the Booker Prize, and the first volume of a projected trilogy, the novel is a sweeping historical epic following the voyage of the Ibis, a ship transporting Indian coolies, criminals, and opium to Mauritius in 1838.

Appiah began the exchange by introducing some of the book's main characters, but the discussion quickly turned to the opium trade and its far-reaching influence. Ghosh repeatedly expressed his astonishment at how massively opium trade influenced British colonialism. "A fifth of British wealth in India came from opium," he explained. "From the 18th century onward the Indian economy was based almost entirely in opium .... The British would not have gotten involved in India without opium."

He went on to stress how the opium trade connected the US, India, China, and Africa. "India became in the 19th century what Africa was in the 18th century—a source of cheap, free labor," Ghosh explained. Opium enriched merchants not only in Bombay and Canton, but along the East Coast of the United States as well. In Sea of Poppies the Ibis itself is an old slave schooner turned opium carrier, a tangible symbol of these complex connections.

Another key element of the novel is its use of language, which makes use of everything from English to Bengali to Pidgin to Lascar—a composite of 19th century sea-speak. As Appiah noted, this rich linguistic mishmash gives the reader a vivid sense of the multilingual Indian and nautical worlds of the 19th century. "We see in Poppies an amazing mix of languages—French, English, Lascar," he said, adding, "It's amazing how much we can understand without actually knowing the language."

Questions from the audience turned the discussion back to the impact of the opium trade. Ghosh expressed his surprise at the lack of research on the subject: "There is no single comprehensive study of the history of opium. Information has been really suppressed... but human life is inconceivable without opium.” Ghosh ended the discussion by calling upon the intellectual community—including the Asia Society—to do more to bring to light this critical part of human history.

Co-sponsored by The Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, AAWW, NYU's A/P/A, and SAJA.

Reported by Terasa Younker

Excerpt: Amitav Ghosh on how the Lascari (sailors') language introduced Asian words into English, and European words into Indian languages (2 min., 4 sec.)

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Listen to the complete program (1 hr., 23 min.) 

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