Monday, July 13, 2015

Opium Wars

Reading Amitav Ghosh's novel, "Flood of Fire", the concluding volume of the trilogy that began with "Sea of Poppies" and "River of Smoke"

In "Flood of Fire" the British are bringing an armada to bear on China. Their religion — the great English truth, to which they want to awaken the resistant Chinese — is "Free Trade", as in opium trade. It's 1839, and the Chinese have belatedly tried to close Canton to the ruinous import of opium. 

It's not just the English who want to keep China open, it's also Indian poppy growers who have become rich off this absurdly and obscenely profitable business.

Through spies in Singapore, the Chinese know now the English armada is amassing, though it remains dizzying to them that such a fleet would set sail from across the world to make war, to sell drugs, to keep a port open. Nor are or can they be prepared for the assault to come, though they've witnessed, in a preliminary engagement, how easily the English ships demolish their own vessels.

What makes this novel hard to put down is Ghosh's ability to bring Englishmen, Chinese, opium traders (Indian and English), rich and poor, warriors and farmers, to life in a book that encompasses Calcutta, Singapore and Canton, and will, shortly I think, depict the initial seizure and settlement of Hong Kong. I should mention, too, that women are among the most prominent characters in this trilogy. There is even the odd American, a pale enough fellow from Baltimore who hopes the fact that he has Negro forebears will not be divulged as he now sails into Canton, with some chests of opium he's bought accruing value every stop along the way.

Ghosh's sympathies are manifestly not with the imperial mantra of Free (opium) Trade. They remain with his manifold characters —their languages, customs, loyalties, ambitions, and limits, all now converging on what history calls the Opium Wars.

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