Gosh! Golly! Ghosh! one might say on reading River of Smoke, the second part of the Opium Trilogy, which began with Sea of Poppies. Having left the Indian subcontinent, the characters we had been following are embarked on a series of boats – the Ibis, the Anahita and the Redruth and each of them is caught up in a huge tornado which flings them off course and here, astonishingly Sea of Poppies ends. In River of Smoke we re-join our characters, though spread abroad at the beginning of the book, all of whom are gradually making their way to Canton.
We begin with Deeti and her painted cave. Neel is given a brush and asked to add his story in paint, to the other paintings made by Deeti, and it is through him that we arrive at the rest of the story. Seth Bahram on Anahita, with his huge cargo of contraband opium; the 5 characters who escaped on the long boat of the Ibis – whom Deeti saw when she was whirled up into the eye of the storm and Paulette and Fitcher, the plantsman.
These threads are the continuing story, much of which is profoundly based in a factual account of the opium trade, but also of the trade in tea, porcelain, lacquer and other goods and above all plants from China to Britain. It is a horrid tale and one with many resonances now with the on-going war in Afghanistan and the many failed attempts at controlling the opium poppy and its trade.
The Emperor of China tried everything in his power to prevent the spread of opium through China, while Britain and America did everything that they could to circumvent these rules. Canton was the centre – Fanqui-town as it was called – peopled with ruthless traders whose names ring down through history, from East India Company merchants – Jardine Matheson, Dent and Slade and the few independents like Charles King – who alone opposed the trade. Captain Elliott has arrived with a commission to protect the foreigners, but not their trade. Elliot believed Britain could achieve its desired aims – the cession of Hong Kong, the resumption of trade (including opium) through diplomacy. But it was not to be, what followed in 1840 and ended with the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 was one of the most discreditable episodes of British history.
Amitav Ghosh has skilfully and exquisitely woven an elaborate tale of love, trade, humanity and death which enthrals and excites, while at the same time exposing the tremendous hypocrisy of the opium trade which so distorted relations with China, affecting generations and trading relationships for decades.
I, for one, was eagerly awaiting this volume – and there is more to come. For we leave this tale just as Commissioner Lin Tse-Hsu has confiscated and destroyed the entire opium stocks from the foreigners and thereby, according to them, given Britain a casus belli and already requests have been sent to the Mother Country and help is on its way.
Anyone who knows even the smallest degree of history knows that the Opium Wars which took place were unremittingly bloody, inhumane and disastrous. This was not least because in many cases the people of China took their own lives, and killed their women and children rather than fall into the hands of the enemy, and the mandarins kept the Emperor in ignorance of the fact that Britain and America were winning.
Furthermore although the wars were begun because of the lucrative trade in opium it was about substantially more than this one product. For it was cultural, diplomatic and trade differences (especially Free Trade) between Britain and China that mattered. China had behind it many centuries of isolation from the West. It had no need of western goods or services while the West had acquired taste for spices, silk and tea. To achieve a balance of payments, opium from India, then a part of the British empire was key, for it was stronger and of a higher quality than the local product, and soon became popular amongst China’s massive population, a people willing to pay well in silver currency.