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Book Review – Sea of Poppies Author Amitav Ghosh

“Sea of Poppies” – Author Amitav Ghosh

At the heart of this epic saga set just before the Opium Wars, is an old slaving-ship, The Ibis.  Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean, its crew a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts.  In a time of Colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a truly diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a bankrupt Raja to a widowed villager, from an evangelical English opium trader to a mulatto American freedman.  As their old family ties are washed away they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais or ship-brothers.  An unlikely dynasty is born, which will span continents, races and generations.  The vast sweep of this historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, and the exotic backstreets of China.  But it is the panorama of characters, whose diaspora encapsulates the vexed colonial history of the East itself, which makes Sea of Poppies so breathtakingly alive – a masterpiece from one of the world’s finest novelists.

– Farrar, Straus and Giroux –

“India in the 1830s is wonderfully evoked – the smells, rituals and squalor ….. Coarseness and violence, cruelty and fatalism, are relieved with flashes of emotion and kindness.  Sea of Poppies is no anti-colonial rant or didactic tableau but the story of men and women of all races and castes, cooped up on a voyage across the ‘Black Water’ (Indian Ocean) that strips them of dignity and ends in storm….it is profoundly moving.”  – Michael Binyon, The Times (London) 


The Opium Wars, 1839 – 1842 and 1856 – 1860:

Since trading began with China in the sixteenth century there was a high demand for tea, silk and porcelain in Britain. But due to the low demand for European commodities in the East, Britain had a large trade deficit with China and had to pay for its imported goods with silver. In 1773 the governor-general of India, Warren Hastings, decided to establish an East India Company opium monopoly in Bengal, encouraging Indian peasants to plant huge swathes of poppies and then illegally exporting the exceptionally high-quality opium to China to counter Britain’s deficit. The opium trade took off rapidly, and the flow of silver began to reverse. Despite several attempts by the Chinese authorities to curb the trade, by the 1820s China imported 900 tons of opium from Bengal annually, enough to supply 12.5 million smokers: Chinese society was crippled and the whole economy disrupted. Eventually what started as a trade dispute twice erupted in war. China’s defeat forced the government to tolerate the opium trade, opening up several ports to foreign commerce and yielding Hong Kong to Britain. This humiliation at the hand of foreign powers contributed to the downfall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, and it wasn’t until Mao’s ruthless Communist revolution in 1949 that China’s opium pandemic, estimated at some 20 million addicts, was finally brought under control.

Book Review – Judith Hobson

For readers who enjoy historical novels, “Sea of Poppies” is an enthralling adventure into the world of 1838 India, at the time of the Raj and the early reign of Queen Victoria.  The first of a trilogy by Amitav Ghosh, the reader is left waiting for the next book to follow the fortunes of the main characters: Deeti the widowed villager, Zachary the mulatto American freedman risen to second mate of The Ibis,  Neel Halder, former Raj  of the Raskhali zemindary reduced to convict transportee as a result of a false charge of forgery brought about by Benjamin Burnham the envangelical English opium trader who looked to acquiring the zemindary estates to grow opium.  And many others who reveal a wide section of Indian people in that time.  

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