Smoke and Ashes by Amitav Ghosh

Reviewed by Richard Tutin

Many of us are familiar with the ‘Opium Wars’ that were waged in China by western Powers such as Britain and France between 1839 and 1860. What may be unfamiliar is the background to these skirmishes that ended with China having to allow the continued importation of opium and other goods by the West at the expense of its people and reputation.

Amitav Ghosh, via meticulous research, brings us into the world of trade and power that often got out of control between the 16th and 19th centuries. Ghosh’s key to writing such a book such as Smoke and Ashes is his perspective. He is not seeing events and history through the eyes of a western writer. Though he lives in the United States these days, he retains his links and roots with the Indian subcontinent where he was born and raised. He therefore relates to the issues that arose when entities such as the British East India Company made the fateful decision to create a monopoly on the growing, transport and sale of opium in order to obtain goods from China such as tea and silk without having to pay for it in silver as the Chinese Government had demanded for centuries.

Ghosh shows the meticulous effort that went into the production of export grade opium for the exclusive use of the Chinese market. The realisation of the complexity of the trade is revealed to Ghosh when he realises that members of his family worked as employees of the British East India Company in places where the opium crop was grown often at the expense of other crops that would have given the farmer a better return than the one forced on them by the monopolistic policies of the Company and subsequently the British Government. The British East India Company was not the only entity involved in the opium trade. Within India there were various local syndicates and coalitions who plied their trade from the western provinces while the British concentrated on the Eastern states while wishing that they could control the western market as well.

The central character of this book though is not China or the British or indeed the people of India. Opium is the star for several reasons for Ghosh. The first is greed that pushed the marketeers to sell opium in such vast quantities to the point where the number of addicts in China far outstripped opium addiction anywhere else in the world. There were fortunes to be made that set families and individuals up for life. This is especially true of some of the prominent east coast families of the United States.

Another reason is the ways in which opium, via its human servants, has found ways to circumvent obstacles such as international law to continue its subversive life as a source of addiction and misery down to the present day. This does not diminish the positive uses to which opium has been and continues to be put to relieve pain following medical procedures and life changing accidents in the wider world.

I did wonder if Ghosh was going a little too far in bringing so much detail on the topic in his narrative. What he reveals though makes interesting reading and allows many pieces of information that have been questioned over time to be fitted together to uncover the misery and hurt that have been inflicted on people because of the greed and self-righteous attitudes of those in power.

Amitav Ghosh is the author of the best-selling Ibis Trilogy and many works of non-fiction including The Great Derangement and The Nutmeg’s Curse. He lives in Brooklyn New York.

Smoke and Ashes: Opium’s Hidden Histories

by Amitav Ghosh


John Murray

ISBN 978 152934 925 2

$33.98; 399pp

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