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Book Review: ‘Smoke and Ashes,’ by Amitav Ghosh

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SMOKE AND ASHES: Opium’s Hidden Histories, by Amitav Ghosh

Biographies of humble things that their authors claimed had “changed the world” — chronometers, salt, potatoes and even the color mauve — were a turn-of-the-21st-century publishing phenomenon. Looking back, they seem fixated on European heroes and their achievements. As Amitav Ghosh observes at the beginning of his bracing new history of the global opium trade, it’s hard to see past a Western conception of the world that “looms so large that it obscures everything else.”

“Smoke and Ashes” arose from the research Ghosh undertook for his best-selling Ibis trilogy of historical novels. But it takes its place more urgently as what might be called the third volume of a nonfiction “Anthropocene” trilogy. Like “The Great Derangement” and “The Nutmeg’s Curse,” historical-philosophical parables about climate change and the East Indies spice trade, “Smoke and Ashes” steers the “object biography” on a corrected course away from the West. It finds the seeds of today’s global opium crisis in colonial strategy — and free trade — in the East.

Ghosh begins his investigation with tea. By the 18th century, England had come to regard the thousand-year-old Chinese beverage as its unofficial national drink, to the extent that an act of Parliament required the monopoly-holding East India Company to keep a year’s supply in stock. Customs duties on tea — of up to 125 percent — amounted to nearly a tenth of Britain’s revenue, bankrolling its wars. Yet China required little from Britain apart from payment in silver, which the nation found increasingly inconvenient to source. Britain realized it could solve this “balance of trade problem” by increasing its Indian colonies’ “small but brisk” opium trade.

The “Opium Department” took control of the details of the business, especially in the East, forcing more than a million peasant households to plant a white opium poppy monoculture. At one end of this continuum of stable production and supply was a sophisticated bureaucracy of informants and strict quotas; on the other were fortresslike factories.

Although China had partially enforced a ban on opium importation since 1729, heavily guarded ships took the product from the Ghazipur and Patna factories to Calcutta, where it was auctioned to “private traders,” transported on their ships to the Pearl River and sold to Chinese smugglers. After the two Opium Wars that ultimately demolished Chinese resistance, foreign merchants would appropriate an island in Canton (what European traders called Guangzhou) as their center of operations, from which Chinese people and Chinese rule of law were excluded.

One measure of the trade’s sheer scale is the number of famous authors who pop up in Ghosh’s pages. There is Orwell (born in Bihar, where his father was a sub-deputy opium agent), Kipling (spotted touring a factory), Dickens (pro-opium trade) and Tagore (against). Ghosh’s own ancestors probably settled in Chapra to work with opium accounts written in Bengali. Many notable American fortunes were also built on opium. Men with the right family connections could amass astonishing sums in China within a few years. Back home, these “Canton graduates” would whitewash their avarice in genteel silence and condemn the “depravity” of Chinese appetites.

Ghosh’s tentacular history also embraces opium’s entanglement with furniture, architecture, gardens and its role in modern wars. His forensic analysis of opium-factory paintings is particularly fascinating.

But it’s Ghosh’s big-picture thinking that has made his nonfiction so influential. The West didn’t invent the opium trade, he writes. Instead — as with the Atlantic coast traffic in human beings — it took a pre-existing practice and expanded it exponentially
to perfect “the model of the colonial narco-state.”

These structural inequalities continue today. Eastern India is poorer than the west, which held out for longer against complete British control. Hierarchies of caste and ethnicity still organize much of India’s tea industry. Companies that marketed opioids aggressively dust off the colonial “template” of “depravity,” blaming addicts as “weak-natured and naturally disposed to vice.”

It won’t surprise readers of Ghosh’s earlier nonfiction that he gives the opium poppy star billing as a “historical force in its own right” here. Papaver somniferum is a “sort of independent biological imperial agent,” he writes, that uses humans to “spin off new and more potent versions of itself.”

This isn’t anthropomorphism. By refusing to treat opium (or the planet, or nutmeg) as inert matter, Ghosh is resisting the mechanistic mind-set, dating from the violence of colonial conquest, which reduces our complex world to resources for human use.

In “The Great Derangement,” Ghosh’s invocation of a “vitally, even dangerously alive” planet was galvanizing. In “Smoke and Ashes,” his endowment of opium with agency — even synthetic forms like fentanyl — feels less developed. Yet it’s a small glitch in the context of the huge achievement of his greater project, which is to expose the long history of “racial capitalism” that has brought us to the fix we’re in.

SMOKE AND ASHES: Opium’s Hidden Histories | By Amitav Ghosh | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | 319 pp. | $32

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