Home Liberal Amitav Ghosh’s Reckoning With Opium (The New Republic)

Amitav Ghosh’s Reckoning With Opium (The New Republic)


Amitav Ghosh’s Reckoning With Opium – By Alexander Zaitchik (The New Republic) / March 1, 2024

His new book, Smoke and Ashes, traces the ravages of British opium on India from the eighteenth century to the present.

It takes some daring to choose opium as your historical protagonist. The milky sap of the poppy flower has taken so many forms across so many centuries that its allure feels like a trap, a chasing of the dragon as risky for the historian as the casual user. Like cannabis, its rival for the title of most venerable medicine and psychoactive, opium is indeterminate. A sedative with stimulant properties, it was cultivated, trafficked, and prized for millennia as a salve to suffering, aid to sleep, and courtly gateway to euphoric visionary states. This long opening act would appear one-dimensional following its modern reinvention as a commodity of empire, currency of covert ops, and ancestral shape-shifter behind an endlessly compounding addiction pandemic. When writing about the historical force of plants, any other flower will prove more cooperative, if duller, than Papaver somniferum.

The novelist Amitav Ghosh approaches his subject with the proper respect in Smoke and Ashes, a sensitive, ambitious, and layered work that occupies a middle ground between global plant history and academic case study. Generations of scholarship on the nineteenth-century opium trade have been marked by lopsided attention to the English and Chinese, in particular the two Opium Wars. Smoke and Ashes synthesizes and builds upon a revisionist wave of research focused on opium’s deep markings on Indian culture and development. Its subject is the industry around the white poppy flower that the East India Company cultivated for more than 150 years across India’s Gangetic plain, the base of a triangular trade that paid for much of the Raj’s administrative costs. Ghosh comes to the task with a parent’s pride, citing evidence that his Ibis Trilogy of historical novels helped inspire a wider corrective turn among scholars. “It is vanishingly rare,” he writes, “for the circular pathways between historical fiction and academic historiography to be publicly acknowledged.”

He begins his story in a porcelain cup. A century before the East India Company began flooding China with opium, China hooked the English on a hot caffeinated drink they called cha. It was on tea levies that the Company grew rich and funded its early expansion. Unfortunately for it and its London sponsors, demand for Chinese tea surged even as the output of New World silver mines began to wane. Since bullion was the only thing that interested the Chinese, the British found themselves on the edge of a balance-of-payments cliff. It was an engineer and shipbuilder named Colonel Watson who, at a 1767 meeting of the East India Company board in Calcutta, proposed countering the Chinese tea monopoly with an English opium monopoly. But not just any opium. At the center of the plan was a relatively new, highly concentrated, and more easily smoked form of opium called chandu.

CONTINUE > https://newrepublic.com/article/178156/amitav-ghoshs-reckoning-opium-smoke-ashes-book-review



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