Sea of Poppies is a historical novel written by Amitav Ghosh, and is an intriguing study into opium trade, and how it affected the Indians who were involved. It also focuses on indentured servitude of Indians away from the subcontinent and towards islands such as Mauritius, Fiji, Trinidad. The book is labelled under the Ibis Trilogy, named after the ship that transported groups of people away from the Indian subcontinent, and focuses on the East India Company and their cultivation of opium in India in order to profit from trade with China. In my study on the East India Company for my extended project, which will be looking at how the British utilised foreign relationships to benefit their association with India, this book seemed to crop up in numerous sources and I thought that it would be interesting to consider in a blog post.

“Opium Financed British Rule in India”, says Amitav Ghosh in an eyeopening interview with the BBC.

The book, crucial in our study of Indian history during the East India Company, is inherently transnational in nature. The Ibis, which is the ship that these many cultural groups meet to travel to Mauritius, becomes a transnational space that seems to cloud the definitive boundaries amongst the varied groups of people. The people who board the ship include an Indian female villager (who escaped from ‘sati’), A French woman, an African-American freedman, an Indian landowner and a half-Chinese convict. Paulette, the French woman, refuses her European heritage to embrace life as an outsider, a foreigner. She therefore disguises herself as a Brahmin, and establishes a connection with the other women on board. This demonstrates the fact that nations and borders did not necessarily play a significant role in the forging of alliances.

Ghosh, it is argued, uses untold stories: “The coolies who inspired ‘Sea of Poppies” didn’t have that power [to inscribe]… they didn’t leave diaries behind; after all, they couldn’t even write. So where does that leave those who would tell their stories? Ghosh is forced to imagine them, based on the limited sources available, but he does so with the instincts of an anthropologist more than a novelist…Ghosh obviously wants to make the novel a literary excavation, digging up the stories of people lost to history, but in the process his characters themselves often seem like artefacts.” While it is widely considered a novel, not a microhistory, it can be argued that this book is rather historically accurate in its approach to understanding the atmosphere around the major fictional characters. Ghosh, for example, “read the description of the great Sudder opium factory at Ghazipur…by the factory superintendent, JWS MacArthur,” and therefore “creates an encyclopaedia of early 19th century Indian food, servants, furniture, religious worship, etc.” 

Amitav Ghosh, author of Sea of Poppies

Photograph: Amitav Ghosh, author of Sea of Poppies

In our readings a couple of weeks ago, we discussed Fernand Braudel’s comment on how an imagination is a historian’s most valuable tool. However, Ghosh is not a historian. To what extent can we treat his book like a microhistory? Can we treat this representation of coolies in rural India, and peasant workers who worked on opium farms as an accurate representation of the Company’s influence in the country? Personally, I find that this book is vital to my study of the East India Company, and approaches a rather dark subject within Indian history in an engaging and intriguing manner.

An Indian Villager, An American Sailor, A Frenchwoman, an Opium Trader and an African American On A Ship

One thought on “An Indian Villager, An American Sailor, A Frenchwoman, an Opium Trader and an African American On A Ship

  • March 8, 2018 at 9:28 am

    I have not read “Sea of Poppies” myself (only two other of his novels), so I cannot comment on this as a micro-history. But evoking Braudel and imagination brings to mind Hayden White and his 1973 Metahistory (White sadly passed away this week) and his analysis of history and narrative, historical writing and plot writing. So Ghosh (from what I have read) just sits on the other side of this fine line between novel and historical writing. Yes, many classic novels from Thomas Mann or Leo Tolstoi to Dicken’s London can serve as an entry point to history: the produce fiction, yet they are social, ethnographic, historical observers of their time or past.
    Your ship brings to mind Michel Foucault and his idea of “heterotopia”, the ship as a fleeting space on the ocean.

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