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Michael Jansen: A revised history lesson
April 05, 2013
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History is in the eye of the reader as certainly as love is in the eye of the beholder. And history, like love, is subjective. But unlike stories of love, history is generally written by victors. The stories of the vanquished are often suppressed, ignored or forgotten, leaving entire peoples, nations, and their struggles unrepresented in the annals of history. 

This is why the first two minutely researched novels in Amitav Ghosh’s “Ibis Trilogy” about the opium trade between British India and China are a corrective. The first two books, Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke have been published and readers eagerly await the third.

Ghosh, born in 1956 in Calcutta, grew up in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka; studied in Delhi and Oxford and Alexandria. He is the author of a host of books and winner of many prizes for his work. 

What is different about the trilogy is that he has examined one of the most dark eras in British colonial history, the opium wars with China, and reveals an ugly story of conquest and compulsion. 

Ghosh begins in a tiny Indian village in Bihar where farmers are compelled to stop cultivating food crops that sustain them and forced to grow poppies for the trade with China. For the raw opium sap, the villagers are paid a pittance.

His heroine is a woman in a forced marriage whose husband is an addict involved in processing the opium for shipment. 

Ghosh describes the village, its superstitious inhabitants, and the local East India Company facility where the woman’s hopeless husband works. Gosh also exposes, once again, the evils of the caste system and “suttee,” the burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands – the latter cruelty permitted for decades by the British rulers of India.

Such harsh, exploitive treatment of villagers is not often mentioned in British histories of this period. Instead, historians dwell on positive aspects of British rule, including the eradication of “thugee,” the practice of ritual murder by organised gangs of assassins who slew travellers on India’s roads. The English word “thug” is derived from the “thugs” who engaged in this endeavour, killing an estimated one million people between 1740 and 1840. 

The victor in this story was William Henry Sleeman, a British officer, who is celebrated in another novel, Confessions of a Thug, written by William Meadows Taylor in 1839. Sleeman’s life was also the topic of a 1950s novel, The Deceivers, by John Masters which was made into a film starring Shashi Kapoor, Pierce Brosnan, and Saeed Jaffrey.

Ghosh spares no power or personage. One of his heroes is a US sailor born of a black slave and white landlord and another a wasteful Indian rajah-landowner who loses his vast holdings, is imprisoned by corrupt judges and officials, and escapes to become a superior servant to a Parsi opium trader.  The Parsi consorts with British, American, French and other European tradesmen confined to the tiny Canton enclave of the 13 “Factories,” or trading posts, where the Chinese emperor, arrogant and isolated in his palace in Beijing, confined merchants seeking to do business with China.

Ghosh’s characters and narratives bring alive and illuminate the linked-histories of British India and imperial China and help to reveal how events of past centuries determine contemporary relationships and attitudes.  

From the seventh to the 18th centuries, opium was used for medicinal purposes by Chinese, but in the 17th century the idea of smoking tobacco mixed with opium was introduced. In 1729, 200 chests of opium were imported annually into China; by 1800 the trade involved 4,500 chests and in 1858 the amount imported was 70,000 chests. 

The reason why China opened up to the trade in spite of resistance from the government was the application of diplomatic pressure and, eventually, force by Britain, the hyper-power of the day which enjoyed organisational and technological superiority over the ramshackle, technologically backward Chinese armed forces.

The story-line is contemporary. Opium was introduced to address trade imbalance involving British payments in silver for Chinese tea, which had grown very popular in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries. While the British reduced purchases of tea from China by planting tea in India, they added opium to their cash crop and pressed the Chinese to permit trade in this destructive substance until addiction was widespread and prompted the emperor to restrict imports and punish importers by burning chests of opium.  

The British responded by sending naval and land forces from India which laid waste the coast in a campaign known as the First Opium War (1838-42). This ended with the Treaty of Nanking which not only forced the Chinese to accept the opium trade but also to cede Hong Kong to Britain and to grant foreign merchants trading in China “extraterritorial rights” and Christian missionaries the right to seek converts in China. When the emperor refused to capitulate to this diktat, Britain waged the Second Opium War (1856-60). These treaties produced what the Chinese called a “Century of Humiliation” that continues to colour Chinese attitudes toward the Western powers.

The Chinese response to this treatment was the populist Boxer Rebellion of 1899-90, which was eventually quelled by an eight nation alliance including Britain, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, Italy, Japan, the US, and Germany which, again, imposed tough terms on China, including heavy reparations. 

Two thousand years of Chinese imperial rule ended in 1912 with the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China, ruled initially by the Nationalists and after 1948 by the Communists as the People’s Republic of China.          

Readers who shun standard history texts as being “dry as dust” can learn their history from Ghosh’s riveting narration of the stories of well drawn and compelling characters - both real and invented – caught up in events that determined contemporary connections between nations.

His particular contribution to British colonial history, as I have said, is to reveal what happened to victims rather than victors.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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