From Bombay to Canton, Ghosh Documents How British Paved Way for Opium Route

HOUSTON, April 10, 2014 — India’s land mass and abundant labor were perfect ingredients for the British commercial production of tea. India’s role in tea production made it the second largest revenue source for the British behind land in the 19th century. Yearning to increase trade with China, Great Britain exploited another commodity: opium. And this is where Amitav Ghosh’s historical fictional works take root.

In a pre-talk tribute to Ghosh, writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni said that Ghosh is the kind of author who transports you through places and time. “He spans continents and you feel like he’s taken you through centuries of history in one sitting,” said Divakaruni. Ghosh came to Asia Society Texas Center in collaboration with the India Studies program at the University of Houston. The award-winning writer, born in Calcutta who grew up in India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, presented a masterful narrative of how an opium trade thrived in China before a packed house.

Ghosh uses the first two volumes of the Ibis trilogy, Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, to set the stage. The books share the experiences of a central character who is a Parsi, a member of a Zoroastrian community who came to India from Persia. Readers follow a journey that weaves the effect of British Imperialism on India and the introduction of tea. China then begins to figure more prominently as the prospect of trading opium with India’s prodigious neighbor increases. Trade routes lead directly to the seaport of Guangzhou, a prized port of entry. Ghosh writes how the cloak of darkness was used to offload chests of opium that then made it throughout China’s mainland.

The export value of opium grown in India was immense and smuggling it to China was big business. Ghosh said that British East India Company’s role in the trade was substantial. “Other than silver, the Chinese weren’t interested in trading anything else with them,” said Ghosh. “Opium was a peasant crop,” he said. “Peasants to this day process opium by stamping. The process hasn’t changed.” He noted that the largest legal producer of opium in the world is still in Ghazipur, whose factory was established by the British East India Company.

The British sought such a prosperous trade that they turned to maritime advances to ensure smooth sailing to China’s ports. The best transport was found in Baltimore with the fast sailing ships built on the mid-Atlantic seaboard. Ghosh showed a photo of a Baltimore clipper whose speed and windward ability made the schooners well suited for negotiating challenging seas to China.

“Even today, opium is one of the most important substances and we all use some form of it,” said Ghosh. “It’s found in everything like Imodium. Anyone who has had surgery has been anesthetized with some opium derivative.” The trade created by the British had benefitted India’s wealthy class too. Ghosh noted how most of India’s grandest palaces can trace its wealth back to the opium trade. However, to safeguard their revenues, the British controlled shipping, as evidenced by their suppression of an established Indian ship-building family.


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