At a recent meeting with Amitav Ghosh in one of Calcutta’s colonial era clubs, he asked me about my parents and I told him that my mother’s family has been living in Bihar for many generations. I knew that Bihar had been home to his father’s family too, for more than a century, and this connection, besides my engagement with climate change as a writer, spurred an interesting discussion. Now after reading Smoke and Ashes, which in its breadth of research, depth of argument and novelty of form is easily one of the most important works about the colonial opium trade and its long shadow, which extends from Bengal to Boston with China and Britain at its restless core, the memory of that conversation with the author came rushing back.

The long shadow of colonial opium trade

But let us switch back to Bihar because this state, along with parts of Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand (collectively Purvanchal), is a major setting for this account of the opium trade, which, combined with British policies, moulded entire cultures and economies – besides propagating ideas that have become the bane of the planet today. Through his careful reading of colonial history, woven together with narratives from his Ibis trilogy of novels and vignettes of personal experience, Ghosh has revealed how the opium poppy grown by the British in the central Gangetic plains came to impact local economies and social relations whose effects remain visible to this day.

The twin British policies of forced cultivation of opium and the shift in military recruitment from Purvanchal to Punjab following the 1857 mutiny sealed the fate of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, whose impact is still visible in the poor performance on social indicators of these so-called “bimaru” states. In this context, Ghosh writes, “The stamp of the past sometimes sinks so deep into the fabric of everyday life that its traces are difficult, if not impossible, to erase.”

This brings us to the other major destination in this centuries-long saga of the opium poppy – China. Right at the beginning of the book, Ghosh, echoing the thoughts of any average reader, mentions our problematic attitude towards China. China for the author and many of us has been a kind of blind spot of our consciousness, like a region on an old map where it’s marked “Here be dragons”. This outlook has been shaped by a variety of factors, including geographical barriers as well as the memories of the 1962 India-China war. But this blindness about our northern neighbour, as the book elucidates, is a problem because the story of China, opium and the subcontinent are inextricably linked.

Before delving into the long history of the smuggling of opium into China, which reached its zenith under the British, Ghosh opens a portal to that country through a personal experience. Recently back from Guangzhou and sitting in his Calcutta study having a cup of tea, it dawns upon him how the tea things on his desk – the porcelain (Chinémati or Chinese clay) cup, the sugar (cheeni), the lacquerware tea tray, and the tea (cha) itself are all linked to our centuries-old connection with our northern neighbour, and how tea itself is implicated in the opium story. By the end of the book the sheer breadth of these connections, and how the disgraceful past of colonial opium policies live on in different avatars and attitudes that are devastating the planet becomes quite apparent.

Using a wealth of material from a variety of sources, Ghosh begins the story of opium with the Portuguese and the Dutch, who between themselves had discovered that opium could be used as a gift and as a currency to facilitate trade flows. The British, who arrived later on the scene, got embroiled in a number of conflicts with the Dutch, but nevertheless learned many tricks of the trade from them. As the English developed a taste for Chinese tea, they were increasingly hard-pressed to fund this habit with bullion payments – and opium was found to be an easy replacement. Thus began one of the biggest drug-running operations in history, where poor Indian farmers of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were forced to cultivate the opium poppy, which, processed in the factories in Ghazipur and Patna, made its way to Guangzhou (earlier Canton) through the port of Calcutta.

These opium factories, where the raw opium from the fields of northern India were processed, constituted an important node of the story of opium. Ghosh describes how, during the writing of his trilogy, it was difficult for him to get a detailed idea about the production of opium in Bihar and the workings of the colonial opium industry. Consequent to the publication of those three books and possibly because of it, a great deal of new research has been undertaken, which has helped him narrate the workings of the all-powerful Opium Department and the associated bureaucracy dedicated to the production of this drug.

As would be obvious by now, Smoke and Ashes is not simple history but is more like a conversation, a kind of Burkean parlour where the author joins other experts from the past and the present, thus delving into a variety of sources to dig out the story of the colonial opium trade. In doing this, the work segues effortlessly from history and fictional narratives to an analysis of “Company art”, gardening, book review, travelogue and much more in between. This genre-bending interdisciplinary approach is one of the strengths of this book, as is its major thesis about the impact of colonial-era policies and attitudes on our strife-torn times.

Opium, a historical force

While the Bihari labourers toiled to produce this drug under the watchful eyes of British masters, opium was also being cultivated in west-central India in an area known as Malwa. The Malwa opium trade was however mostly controlled by Indian business communities, and diasporas of people like Baghdadi Jews and Parsis. Because of this difference, the profits from Malwa opium sent to China percolated much deeper among various sections of society, which was not the case for the eastern opium which mostly added to the revenues of the British.

Ghosh explains how the tough resistance put up by Maratha states against the armies of the East India Company prevented the British from penetrating the Malwa opium trade for many decades. This, besides the favourable location of Bombay, guarded by hills and plateaus, enabled local and diaspora businesses to foster in this region in parallel to the impoverishment and social stratification of Puravanchal.

That Bombay prospered and became more cosmopolitan while Calcutta still retains the markings of a colonial capital with its economic hierarchies and old-fashioned clubs, frequented by businessmen and corporate executives, like the one where I met the author, can be traced back to this divergent history of Bengal and Malwa opium. There are many interesting strands that the author picks up from this divergence, including the rise of radicalism in the East.

Only in the early 19th century did the British gain military superiority over the Marathas, but the entrenched networks of opium production and trade from the Malwa region were too deep for them to penetrate successfully. Realising this, the colonial power instead charged a transit tax on the opium that was being shipped from Bombay. It is interesting to note how Bombay’s expenses were met by this massive trade of Malwa opium. Ghosh, quoting various sources, writes:

At that time Bombay’s expenses so far exceeded its revenues that it had to be heavily subsidised by Calcutta and Madras. It was Malwa opium that solved Bombay’s revenue problem…In effect the islands of Bombay were kept afloat by Malwa’s growing reservoirs of opium.

And it was not only Bombay. Ghosh shows with meticulous research how the growth of cities like Singapore was rooted in the opium trade, much of it grown by impoverished Indian labourers in the fields of Purvanchal and shipped through Calcutta.

But as the British went on sending thousands of chests of this potent drug through Guangzhou into China with the help of Chinese smuggling networks, the Qing rulers took note. Chinese efforts to stop the drugging of its citizens solidified around the figure of Governor General Lin Zexu, finally led to the two opium wars. In both these wars, the Chinese military lost to the superior forces of the colonial powers, resulting in the foisting of unequal treaties on that country and the cession of Hong Kong to the United Kingdom.

In all of this, the humble opium poppy played a significant role. It is by now obvious, as the author reminds us repeatedly, that this plant stands out as an agent of history. It is almost like a “higher intelligence” magnifying the worst traits of humans.

Ghosh writes:

It is because opium is a historical force in its own right that it must be approached with due attention to the ways in which it has interacted with humans over time. If these interactions are difficult to conceptualise it is largely because they are very strongly inflected by class and power differentials. But those difficulties are further compounded by the fact that the necessary vocabulary does not yet exist for thinking about history in a way that allows for the agency of non-human entities.

While the increasing repressiveness of contemporary China has come up for much legitimate criticism in our times, Ghosh, through his careful reading of the history of the opium trade has shown how China had been at the receiving end of self-serving colonial policies that drugged and impoverished its citizens. And as a counterpoint to this, it is worth noting from this book the ways in which the China opium trade left a rich cultural impact on countries like India, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

Major Parsi figures (like Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy), Baghdadi Jews, Gujarati and Marwari Hindus, Muslims from Bohra and Memon sects, and Armenian traders, besides the British, were involved in the China opium trade, an involvement which seeded a variety of partnerships and cultural flows in an area spanning banking to art. Thus three Parsis and a representative of a Baghdadi-Jewish business were on the founding committee of one of the world’s largest banks, the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. Then again, the China trade’s cultural influence is still visible in items as varied as tanchoi (benarasi) silks, tchotchkes, garden flowers, dressing tables, and works of art created in the studios of Guangzhou.

The Americans were also drawn to the lucrative opium trade. American businessmen who joined the opium racket, euphemistically called “Canton graduates”, were similarly influenced by Chinese aesthetics, architectural styles and craft, which they carried back home, besides accumulating huge amounts of capital that they invested in American industries like railways, textile, iron manufacturing, hoteliering, and investment brokering.

But the smoke of opium blows across the centuries, always leaving ashes and cancerous growth in its wake. Navigating the contours of America’s growing opioid crisis, Ghosh reveals the peculiar ability of opium to “insert itself into human affairs” in ways that “echoes and rhymes between past and present”. Focussing on the role played by the Sackler family which made billions from Oxy-Contin and other prescription opioids, he shows how the purveyors of these prescription drugs talked about “miraculous relief”, unmet demand and rarity of addiction, thus shifting the blame and responsibility on the addict’s temperament and away from their all-out promotion of these drugs. The colonial purveyors of opium too harboured and professed similar views.

Just as colonial opium smugglers exploited the weakness of the system in Qing China, similarly corruption, manipulation, and regulatory capture paved the road for America’s opioid epidemic. In another of many such echoes, opiates were promoted among people doing hard labour both in 19th-century Asia and 21st-century America.

As the author demolishes a variety of prejudices and justifications, from racial peculiarities of the Chinese to the imperatives of free trade, which allowed the continued smuggling of this harmful drug to China, he uncovers the greed and self-serving interests at the heart of the logic of free trade which is current to this day. One pervading logic employed by the British opium trade was the free-market slogan of supply and demand. The British argued that they were just meeting the growing demand for a product with their supply of opium – as though the addiction, impoverishment and other disastrous effects didn’t count. Ghosh writes,

Most 19th-century Western commentators tended to assume that the increase in imports was driven by the growth in demand. This was in keeping with free-market theories, which held that supply and demand were brought into equilibrium by the “invisible hand” of the market. These ideas, which emerged in the late 18th century, when the British opium-pushing programme was in its infancy, would soon become completely hegemonic among the elites of the Anglosphere. They took it for granted that the laws of supply and demand functioned much like the laws of nature (or like the inscrutable will of the Protestant God.

One of the central messages of this book is that this free-market mantra holds sway over the globalised world today, where the insatiable thirst for energy and material has been ruining the planet and affecting all living beings. This is not very different from the way opium-sickened and impoverished China affected India while enriching colonial powers and small sections of society. A striking parallel between the two is drawn by the author with a quote from Zhang Changjia’s Opium Talk (1878) which is probably the first insightful acknowledgement of a connection between opium and a new era powered by energy from fossil fuels.

Zhang Changjia, in comparing the nature of Western steamships which feed on coal and the conduct of opium smokers makes this uncanny connection when he writes:

When Western steamships are sufficiently fired up, they are keen and invincible and can sail a thousand miles in one journey. But when the fire is extinguished, the ship rests in complete silence, all night long, surrendering its ability to move… It is the same with opium smokers. When their craving comes on, their bodies feel shrivelled and listless, their joints all stiff. They must rely on opium to fire themselves up. At the beginning of firing up, they wriggle like worms. A little more fired up and they begin to flow like a great river. Fired up for a good while, they brim and burst with energy, and quickened in every limb they steam forth with indomitable heat.

It is hard to miss the fact that the same disingenuous logic of free market economies driving the addiction for fossil-fuelled growth and mindless consumerism in our times also powered the colonial opium-smuggling racket, creating a nation of addicts and harming large sections of society. Today when America continues to deal with the opioid crisis or when development indicators and social discord consistently point to the problems of Bihar or Uttar Pradesh, we know that there is no easy escape from opium’s long shadow. In these times of worsening climate strife, Amitav Ghosh’s compelling work leaves no room for doubt that the historical agency of opium, and of other non-human actors should be accepted with humility, and can only be ignored at our peril.

Rajat Chaudhuri is a writer and climate activist. His new novel Spellcasters will be published in August 2023. He tweets at @rajatchaudhuri.

Smoke and Ashes: A Writer’s Journey through Opium’s Hidden Histories, Amitav Ghosh, HarperCollins India.