Sea of Poppies (Amitav Ghosh)

Sea Of Poppies ISBN: 9780143175360
Publisher: PENGUIN GROUP (CANADA) 2009
Links: WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

Sea of Poppies, the first of the Ibis Trilogy is a colossal tale of epic proportions set in the 1830’s in British India. The novel covers several themes but the themes of British involvement in the opium trade and the shipment of indentured labour from India to various British Colonies occupies much of the novel. The sprawling narrative weaves a detailed and intriguing plot, filled with a cast of very diverse characters that span a wide range from British Sahibs and Rajahs to convicts and opium addicts. The author maintains the reader’s interest throughout the 500 plus pages as the plot cleverly unfolds.

The trade of opium financed much of the British Raj in India. Farmers in north-east India did grow modest amounts of poppies along with grain and vegetables before the British arrived. However after the British discovered the profits opium trade would add to their coffers, farmers were compelled to grow poppies in large quantities, opium was manufactured in factories nearby and exported mostly to China. Opium was known to the Chinese as well from as early as the 7th century but it was used mostly for medicinal purposes. The practice of using opium for smoking was introduced to China by Europeans. The British worked hard to create an appetite for opium in China. China passed edicts making it illegal to smoke opium but the British East India Company continued to export opium from India to China. When China wanted the British to stop exporting opium over concern for the addiction it was creating, the British went to war – the famous Opium Wars. The novel dramatizes British lack of concern for the damage the drug was causing to the Indian labourers engaged in its production as well as to the general population of China to whom they marketed the product. Both the Church and Crown turned a blind eye to the opium trade, the opium factories “were institutions steeped in Anglican piety” (pg 91) and the Ghazipur Opium Factory was “among the most precious jewels in Queen Victoria’s crown” (pg 92).

Under British colonial rule another “commodity” exported in large quantities was indentured labour. The demand for indentured labour increased dramatically after the abolition of slavery. Young able bodied Indians were willing to go to faraway lands as labour, to escape the poverty at home but they knew little of the lands they were going to or the conditions they would have to endure. The Ibis in the novel carries labourers to Mauritius under circumstances no better than slave ships carrying slaves from Africa to America.

The book does not portray the British in a positive light. Their colonization of most of the world being based on the belief that they were a chosen race upon whom the Almighty had imposed the divine mission to look after the welfare of people “as were still in the infancy of civilization”, “people incapable of the proper conduct of their own affairs” (pg 236). As Mr. Chillingworth says in the novel, “we are no different from the Pharoahs or Mongols; the difference is only that when we kill people we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. It is this pretense of virtue……that will never be forgiven in history”.

The author is a master story teller. The story has several sub plots and the craftsmanship of the author brings them together on the Ibis. Amitav Ghosh’s prose is flawless. I highly recommend the book to all lovers of historical fiction and love of language. The book is the first in a trilogy so the end of the book may not be satisfactory to some readers but on the other hand it makes the reader eager for the next novel in the series.

Geetha Kulkarni

Geetha Kulkarni

"Books have entertained me, kept me company, taught me, counselled me, introduced me to wonderful people... what else can one ask of a best friend?"

Geetha`s love of books began when she was a child. She later turned that love into formal education with a Masters in English Literature and then again into a career for a few years, teaching English at Ethiraj and Fergusson Colleges in India. Though her career took her into the computer industry, Geetha has continued to read both individually as well as part of a book club in Newmarket, Canada where she lives.
Geetha Kulkarni

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