A substantial part of Amitav Ghosh’s new work of non-fiction, Smoke And Ashes: A Writer’s Journey Through Opium’s Hidden Histories, is set in Guangzhou (formerly Canton), the site of a famously rebellious act by China’s then ruling Qing dynasty in 1839.
The seizing of thousands of crates of opium, mostly from India, from foreign merchants in Canton and their destruction on the banks of the Pearl river by Chinese diplomat Lin Zexu had an immense and far-reaching impact. It precipitated the First Opium War, a destructive series of battles fought by the British for no higher purpose than protecting their economic interests at the cost of enslaving an entire population using an aggressive addiction to opium, surely one of the most heinous of colonial crimes. “Within a few decades, exactly as intended, it solved the East India Company’s balance of payments problem: the drain of silver from England to China ended, and huge quantities of bullion began to flow in the other direction,” writes Ghosh.
The Canton incident and the First Opium War have been immortalised in art and in writing, including in Ghosh’s own celebrated trilogy of novels, Sea Of Poppies (2008), River Of Smoke (2011) and Flood Of Fire (2015). In this new book—part-collection of essays, part-travelogue—Ghosh revisits some of the famous sites associated with the opium trade, from Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh, to Guangzhou, China, and does more directly what his novels did using the more elliptical method of fictional narrative. He traces the history of opium in Asia, offers conclusive proof of the way the drug has shaped much of its history, and exposes the extent to which colonial administrations dehumanised entire populations, being celebrated for this in their home country.
A non-fiction work allows Ghosh to go deeper into territory that his novels have charted; depending upon your tastes, you may decide whether fiction or non-fiction serves this story better. The latter does allow Ghosh to look beyond the constraints of narrative and assess the wider impact of the opium trade on the modern world. For instance, he draws a direct connection between the biggest opium-growing region in India in the 19th century (encompassing parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand) and the fact that it continues to trail on many economic and social parameters today.
The British Empire had, through insidious ways, gained complete control over local governance and farming and employed oppressive measures to ensure farmers grew only poppy, making the local economy entirely dependent on the manufacture and trade of opium. “The long-term effects of this system of surveillance and criminalization continue to manifest themselves in the discord and lack of social trust that plague much of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand to this day,” writes Ghosh, quoting work by researchers such as Jonathan Lehne’s 2018 paper, An Opium Curse? The Long-run Economic Consequences Of Narcotics Cultivation In British India.
He also links American involvement in the opium trade and its current opioid crisis. Though less well-known than British involvement, money from the trade had a huge impact on American banking, finance and unilateral wealth creation. “The current crisis has forced a reckoning with the extraordinary powers of the opium poppy,” he writes. “The outrage against the manufacturers of prescription opioids has not led to a wider reckoning with the West’s role in the promotion of opiates.”
Ghosh calls substances like alcohol and opium “biopolitical weapons”—along with “guns, germs and steel”, a shorthand term formulated by American historian and writer Jared Diamond to explain how European colonialists established their extractive empires, these narcotic substances were used to subdue indigenous people. While the introduction of alcohol among Aboriginal Australians, previously unexposed to it in any form, by British settlers in the late 18th century created a crisis of alcoholism and alcohol-related deaths, opium had a similarly devastating effect on populations in India and China, writes Ghosh. In India, it was a dual curse—being forced to grow the crop at severe economic disadvantage and the addictions that came along with exposure to it.
Ghosh’s work has always examined the moral indefensibility of colonialism, critical at a time when we are seeing a resurgence of colonial apologia in the form of books like Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning (2021) by Oxford University theologian Nigel Biggar, influential articles such as In Defense Of Empire by political writer Robert D. Kaplan, published in 2014 in The Atlantic magazine, and the rhetoric of political demagogues like former British prime minister Boris Johnson.
Happily, we are also in the midst of a more critical global re-examination of colonialism’s specific ills—from William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise Of The East India Company (2019) to novelist R.F. Kuang’s immensely popular speculative fiction best-seller Babel, which incorporates the opium wars into its alternate historical narrative and, incidentally, has a long section fictionalising the events leading to the destruction of British opium in Canton.
Smoke And Ashes may look at colonialism and its aftermath through the lens of one plant, the opium poppy, but it offers irrefutable proof of the true devastation and exploitation perpetrated in the name of Empire.