Amitav Ghosh: ‘Poppies were the most important cash crop’

Indian-born writer Amitav Ghosh is not going for Asian exoticism in his novels. Rather, the novels of Ghosh – every inch a gentleman – are packed with historical details to highlight his observations of the world. He concludes: “If you separate trade from any sense of morality and responsibility, you get a completely deranged system.”

  • Ulf Andersen Ghosh has white hair now, but still looks a bit boyish and has a certain aristocratic flair. Ulf Andersen

Ghosh writes novels because literature allows him to delve into the essence of humanity: the relationships between people and the way in which these connections are embedded in culture, society, history and the natural environment. ‘In a novel, there is room for passion, love and desire; betrayal, fear and hatred. But also for ecology, zoology and history,’ says Amitav Ghosh during an interview in Brussels.

The fact that we know the poor’s average annual income, life expectancy and calorie consumption, but rarely hear anything at all about their dreams or sexuality, according to Ghosh, has everything to do with ‘the lack of a language or platform to express themselves in their own words with their own images.’ ‘The poor are often ‘objectified’, which leads to all sorts of generalizations. They are romanticized or criminalized, making an abstraction of their diversity and individual characters.’

This quote from 2005 serves as an introduction to this interview, which took place in December 2012 in Amsterdam. Ghosh has white hair now, but still looks a bit boyish and has a certain aristocratic flair. The attention he devotes to the ‘invisible’ people seems to have grown over the years. In Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, he writes a monumental history of Asian colonial times from the perspective of the Indian, Chinese and Antillean traders and characters. The British, regarding themselves as the rulers of the earth and kings of the sea, only play a secondary role in his novels.

‘If you write a story situated in eighteenth-century Europe, all you have to do is mention that your character is dancing, and the reader will automatically picture the burning candles and lace skirts, with a soundtrack of adapted music playing. Writing about Chinese or Indian stories from that time is different. Nobody can picture this period, as there are practically no images or stories from that perspective. To write about the lives of Indians and Chinese in colonial times, I have to add historical details. In these novels, I must recreate a lost world myself,’ Ghosh says.

Opium breaks the empire

In both novels of his trilogy to date – the third part is yet to be written – the opium trade between British India and China plays an important role. A short introduction to the emergence of this trade reveals why knowing history is essential to understanding the current situation. Ghosh notes: ‘Despite of the attention always awarded to the industrial revolution, tea was an extremely important cash crop in the 18th and most of the 19th centuries. One tenth of all British State income was generated through taxes on the tea trade. However, as of 1770, tea had to be paid in silver, which represented a huge loss for the British public purse. Much like nowadays, the Chinese exported tea, porcelain and silk to Europe, but hardly imported anything produced in Europe. At a certain moment, the East India Company just did not have enough silver to finance their tea purchases, so they were in search of another material or product to sell to China or to use as an exchange. Cotton was only a part of the solution. As of 1782, the captains of industry decided to extend the local marginal opium trade, even though opium was prohibited in China. As a consequence, the number of hectares on which poppies were grown in India multiplied by 100 in thirty years. The British realized all too well that the opium trade was undermining the Chinese community, not only because of addiction, but also because of the size of the smuggling economy, damaging the administrative capacity of the Chinese government. For the Chinese rulers, the latter was a much bigger problem than the individual additions of their subjects, regardless of how widespread these addictions were.’

Many of the most important opium traders were Americans and the impact of the opium trade was perhaps larger for the United States than it was for the United Kingdom. Ghosh: ‘The family of Franklin Delano Roosevelt –the American president between 1933 and 1945– is generally assumed to have acquired its wealth in the sugar trade, going back to the Dutch Van ‘t Rosevelt family. But in fact, the Delano-part of the family brought in the lion’s share of the fortune, which originated from the opium trade in China. In fact, many of the reputed universities and colleges are founded by slave or opium traders.’

‘For the British, free trade had the same status as Jesus Christ.’

In southern China, one can find museums on the opium trade and its related wars everywhere, says Ghosh. ‘China reserved a central chapter in history to the story of the perfidious opium trade and linked it to the national decay at the end of the 19th century. In India, however, opium trade is completely wiped from the collective memory. Nevertheless, opium in those days represented half of the income of the British government in India. Poppies were the most important trade crop. Nearly all of the important trade houses operating from Mumbai at present, including the ones who are purchasing European companies today, began their ascent with trading opium.’

The zealots are hypocrites

According to Ghosh, the period of opium trade, the opium wars and coolie trade (organized and often forced migration of low income workers from Asia to the New World) determined today’s world trade relations. The ideology of free trade and its military foundations originated from his period. ‘Free trade was considered by the traders and their military defenders as something which happened beyond morality, as a reality with its own untouchable rules. In negotiations, the Chinese often emphasized that trade is a people’s job and should serve the community. The British on the other hand, stressed repeatedly that the rules of international free trade were so powerful that the Chinese powers could not change or control them. For the British, free trade had the same status as Jesus Christ. They defended the blessings of the free market with the same religious fervor as can be witnessed even today in the Anglo-Saxon world. Although free market zealots are also the first to renounce it once trade patterns are no longer working in their favor.’

Ghosh is not a big fan of absolute free trade; not in its colonial form and not in its current neoliberal manifestation. Not that he is opposed to trade: ‘People have always traded and as such, it is a wonderful mechanism of human communication. But if you separate trade from any sense of morality and responsibility, you get a completely deranged system.’ His own country illustrates this distortion more than he likes. Two decades of increasing liberalization in India has led to an ever-richer minority, but threatened the development of the majority and dismantled public services, according to Ghosh. ‘The centre of power has moved from Delhi to Mumbai. The spokesman of business magnate Ambani, once said that the parliament was their production unit.’ China, where the state was not dismantled to let capitalism flourish, does not represent an appealing alternative to Ghosh either. ‘The Chinese model is not only a very repressive one, but it has also proven to be devastating for the environment. Indians should rather look at Europe than at China or the US. The European example shows that you can combine economic success with a strongly regulated environment, and that industrial growth can go hand in hand with the growth of social welfare.’

The Titanic’s orchestra

Amitav Ghosh does not understand why humanity is rushing to its own ruination so cheerfully. As a Bengali, he understands all too well the implications of climate change. In West Bengali and Bangladesh, more than half of the land is situated less than 5 meters above sea level. But it is not only the inhabitants of low-lying countries who should be worried, he thinks. The whole world and human civilization are at stake. ‘But in the meantime, the orchestra continues to play and we laugh ourselves to the edge of the cliff. Newspapers in India are filled with Bollywood and cricket articles and when they report about politics, the articles resemble a gossip and society-section. Similarly in the United States, the presidential election focused on every little detail of the two candidates, while the worst drought in human history hardly received any media coverage. Even when it was covered, the link with climate change was not made because nobody dares to use this toxic terminology.’

Does he not think that writing novels is also part of the orchestra that keeps playing? To what extent is it relevant to depict human motives and relationships when the planet needs to be saved? ‘There are plenty of historians and scientists who are much more capable of revealing the facts than I am. The crisis we are going through is deeper than inequality or climate change, regardless of how dramatic it appears. In the end, it comes down to a lack of imagination. Humanity is absorbed by the promise of a prosperous life, which will never be delivered by the current system. Hence the need to tell stories in order to appeal to people’s other sensitivities.’

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