Sea of Poppies: A Postcolonial Critique of the Past

Amitav Ghosh mentioned in his interview with a BBC correspondent that he had started Sea of Poppies as the story of indentured immigrants from Bihar. As the story grew in volume and scope, history entered it. The indentured immigration had started in the 1830’s, at the end of the decade came the opium war with China and the firm establishment of the opium based trade of the Raj. It was no coincidence, points out Ghosh in the same interview, that they had to leave merely twenty years after the opium trade stopped. Thus ended the cycle that had started with Warren Hastings’ coming up with the idea of balancing the trade deficit of the East India Company with China. The “trafficking in opium tilted the balance of global trade to benefit the west”( Brook 3). It went on for some time but then the Chinese emperor tried to stop it all. The edicts of the Chinese government against opium were proven powerless
because of the “deadly combination of expanding Chinese demand and skyrocketing
British supply… Lin Zexu was appointed imperial maritime commissioner in 1838 to
stop the opium trade” (Brook 6). His tough measures culminated into the opium war
(1839-42), that ended with a shameful defeat for the Chinese. It was this defeat,
some historians claim, that opened China to the western influence and resulted
into its modernization. Just like some claim that India benefited largely through
its colonization by the British because they gave it the foundation of modern
nationalism and all the basic institutions required to run a state effectively. As
if India was a wilderness, sans any system, before 1757 and it would never have
modernized itself had it not been shamefully and deleteriously exploited by its
colonizers. The other side of the same coin of exploitation was the havoc wreaked on the Indian farmers. This devastation of the economy of two prosperous Asian nations was whitewashed by the White and even some native historians is shocking. Ghosh had critiqued the colonial exploitation – past and present – in his essays too. The Ibis trilogy is possibly his most vehement indictment of the scourge of imperialism and colonialism. Ghosh had pointed out in “Imperial Temptation” that “[c]ontrary to popular belief, empire is by no means a strictly conservative project: Historically it as always held just as much appeal to liberals”.

Ibis of the novel was a ship built to transport slaves. After the formal abolition of slavery it was acquired by Burnham Bros. to carry opium from India to China. It gave a new
identity, consciousness, nay life, to all the main characters of the novel. There are several intertwining strands of lives that are shown being lived in Ghosh’s universe: Sea of Poppies. Zachary’s conversion into a gentleman is very ironical in itself. The irony is compounded by
the fact that the biggest force behind his conversion is Serang Ali – the man with
a shady past. It is an atavistic revisiting of Pip’s great expectations coming
through a convict – his fairy godfather – whom he finds so revolting that he plans
to deny himself the very advantages that he had accrued because of his benefactor.
Although, Pip starts liking Magwitch by the end, the patterning of emotions and
events has been reversed in this novel, as Zachary likes his benefactor in the
beginning, only to renounce him at the end. The person who was a pirate in the past appears to be a saint in comparison to Mr. Burnham, the real pirate and a prototypical colonial, in fact, its stereotype in the novel.

Economics drives history. It’s very clearly brought out in this novel. Zachary realized
it in his very first trip to Mauritius. Slavery being abolished, farms needed
coolies fromIndia now to be kept profitably running. Chillingworth, the Captain of Ibis, very perceptively pointed it out that the kind of trade they called free was only for the benefit of the white man, and in no way was it going to help the Chinaman. His final pronouncement on his race is very apt:

The truth is, sir, that men do what their power permits them to do. We are no different from the Pharaohs or the Mongols: the difference is only that when we kill people we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. It is this pretence of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history.’ (388-89)


The whole power structure was the creation of the English sahibs. The subaltern was structurally written out of the discourse and had no say in taking decisions that altered his
life for good. Exploitation had reached to such an extent that the farmer barely
survived and started floating toward marginality and landlessness. One would expect that an enlightened member of the white race would be just in his dealings with the colonized peoples. This did not happen to be the case with the Captain. He very strongly opposed Kalua’s running away with Deeti, as he clearly told Zachary. The reasons he gave for it were quite stereotypically British and he is very proud of following and justifying his country’s way of dealing with the unjust systems prevalent among the native populations. There was an unwritten and unspoken pact between the rulers and the ruled: “that in matters of marriage and procreation, like must be with like, and each must keep to their own. The day the natives lose faith in us, as the guarantors of the order of castes – that will be the day, gentlemen, that will doom our rule. This is the inviolable principle on which our authority is based”(718).

The exploitation of the colonized peoples and the total devastation of the
agricultural timetable, economy and sustainable cycle of their life have been very
clearly highlighted in this novel. Deeti reminisces about the good old days when
the fields “would be heavy with wheat in the winter… now, with the sahibs forcing
everyone to grow poppy, no one had thatch to spare… poppy had been luxury then,
grown in small clusters between the fields that bore the main winter crop”(42). The
imposition of an alien crop and crop cycle in just the span of one generation
converted the whole landscape and ruined the lives of the poor farmers of the
gangetic belt. The area under opium cultivation increased exponentially it soon engulfed all the land that was arable. Yet the Englishman pushed the native farmer even harder for cultivating even more opium. The same Englishman pushed the Chinese towards hell too, giving altruistic justifications all the time: “Indeed, humanity demands it. We need only think of the poor Indian peasant – what will become of him if his opium can’t be sold in China? Bloody hurremzads can hardly eat now: they’ll perish by the crore” (385). Opium, the powerful economic force, was a very potent drug too. It controlled human brains and lead to addiction. Those who controlled the production and supply of opium also controlled its slaves. “Opium’s addictiveness has proved irresistible to buyers, profitable to producers
and dealers, alluring to states…so much power vested in one simple substance”(
Brook 1). As Bahram very shrewdly explained in River of Smoke to his father-in-law: “Opium is…completely useless unless you’re sick, but still people want it. And it is such a thing that once people start using it they can’t stop; the market just gets larger and larger”(90).It is this nature of opium that made it appealing to both the controllers and the controlled. Through it the British enslaved many a Chinese, and thus Deeti had rendered her mother-in-law helpless and harmless. Its effect went a long way in creating the long lasting and vivid images of the “affemkhor”, both Indian and Chinese, in the novel and in history. It fit snugly into the set of traits attributed to the orient, viz. effeteness, excess, effeminacy etc., as Young points out:

Colonial and imperial rule was legitimated by anthropological theories which
increasingly portrayed the peoples of the colonized world as inferior, childlike,
or feminine, incapable of looking after themselves… and requiring the paternal
rule of the west for their own interests(today they are deemed to require
‘development’) (2).


The orient was sustained by Mr Doughty’s of the empire. Its idea was such that
appeared very natural and unobjectionable to the oriental subject himself and thus
was he interpellated – unconsciously, strongly and deeply. The white man did not
accept the native who tried to break free of the stereotype. Raja Neel Rattan
Haldar had received a liberal anglicized education and had become a gentleman in
his own fashion. The comments he got confirm the way the stereotyping worked: “one
thing I can’t abide it’s a bookish native” and “Wait till you hear the barnshoot
bucking in English – like a bunder reading from The Times”(30). Mr. Doughty’s views
also extend to the area of maintenance of white man’s distance. He advises Mr
Reid: “Mind your Oordoo and Hindee doesn’t sound too good: don’t want the world to
think you’ve gone native”(73).

Curiously but predictably enough, the native population in the novel expects a certain set
of external and inernal attributes from the white men and women, their masters.
That’s why Paulette has to wear saree very secretly and then change into European clothes so that the servants of the house do not see her wearing one. Stereotypes play a very important role in sustaining systems and erason, the two edged sword is used effectively by both the exploiters and the exploiters in the novel.  As a copybook example of propagating stereotypes, a white man educates a novice: “In the good old days people used to say there were only two things to be exported
fromCalcutta: thugs and drugs or opium and coolies as some would have it”(113). Another white man has already benefited from both. Benjamin Burnham planned to make money out of transporting coolies and use the capital thus generated to supply opium toChina. He is irked at the resistance of the Chinese authorities and sure that they can be “made to understand the benefits of Free Trade”(117). Ibis is to be used as a slaver despite the British law’s being against it. Mr. Burnham sees it as halting the “march of human freedom” and explains it to a racially mixed Zachary that freedom meant “mastery of the white man” (117). It is ironical because Zachary had left theUSA because the whites there would not allow the black and mulatto workers survive: as an injured Freddy Douglass had told him. Then Mr. Burnham praises theUnited States of America as the “last bastion of liberty …[as] slavery’ll be safe inAmerica for a while yet ”(118). “When the doors of freedom were close to the African, the Lord opened them to tribe that was yet more needful of it – the Asiatick”(118). The real extent of the Asiatic’s exploitation in the hands of the Imperialist powers can be glimpsed in mere data given as: “the contents of those few sheds[of Ghazeepore Carcana] …were worth several million pound sterling and could buy a good part of the city ofLondon”(134). The working conditions in these factories made hell appear soft. Life was a walking and half waking, yet interminable nightmare.


The exploiter-exploited relation in the novel is not limited just between the two races. Class and Caste are very prominent factors in the novel. Neel finds the names of the foreigners confusing because they don’t reveal their social origins and status to him, unlike his own countrymen, whose names reveal their religion, caste and village. Yet, he is not aware of the kind of caste system prevalent in the white man’s land – the social segregation and discrimination based on colour. Its internalization by the disadvantaged races is clearly and ironically revealed in Zachary’s comment: “I’m not a mulatto, Mr Crowle. My mother was a quadroon and my father white. That makes me a metif” (753).


The colonial’s view of the native’s freedom have been strangely the same, be it Australia, the USAor in Asiaof the novel: “It is the unanimous opinion of all of us who do business there that the mandarins cannot be allowed to have their way”(166). To Neil’s apparently naïve question: “But surely we can offer Chinasomething more useful than opium?”(166), comes the reply: “there is nothing they want from us…but we…can’t do without their tea and their silks. If not for opium, the drains of silver from Britainto her colonies would be too great to sustain”(167). Once more, how one’s view of time in history is constructed is clearly reflected in Neel’s question: “But China’s hunger for opium dates back to antiquity, does it not?” and the answer dispels all myths – “It’s happened almost within living memory – for which we owe a sincere vote of thanks to the likes of Mr Burnham”(167).  It was the Europeans who, like they had done in Africa and Americas, had corrupted the natives with intoxicants that would enslave them. “Recreational consumption of opium in Chinawas initiated by the Dutch
and English who laced tobacco with opium… to trick Chinese out of their money” (
Brook 6). “But Mr Burnham! Are you saying the British Empire will go to war to force opium onChina?” asks Neel in dismay and the enlightening reply that he gets in response is ideology in live action(171). Mr. Burnham now falls back on the abstract principle of freedom of trade and of the people ofChina, and there should be free trade in opium as in any other commodity.

The white man takes his burden very seriously and as a responsibility that God Himself has put on his shoulders. This idea drives him and it needs a screen of ideology for legitimation. Freedom of all as a birth right was invented as an ideology because mere monetary concerns driving man make him appear mercenary. It is Mr. Burnham who later reveals the real reason behind the imposition of the consumption of opium on China: the sustenance of the British rule in Indiarested on opium, so much so, that the Company’s annual gains from opium equaled the revenue of the US. But then, the demagogue inside him pushes the merchant aside to present the case differently by supporting the motto: “Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ” (173). It was not uncommon to that age, as laissez faire was the favoured liberal mode of economic system and they had full faith in the power of the invisible hand that finally removed all iniquity and irrationality despite the capriciousness of individuals.

Religion makes a heady concoction with the greed of the powerful. Such has been the case since the time of the Pharaohs. It is religion that is again called in to buttress the arguments that were hitherto chiefly rational: “If it’s God’s will that opium be used as an instrument to open China to his teachings, then so be it ”(173). Moreover, opium also happens to be a gift of benevolence that the Englishman must bestow upon his Chinese brethren, even if it has to be done against the wishes of the Manchu tyrant. The reason behind it being that opium gives morphine, codeine and narcotics along with laudanum and “it is opium that has made the age of progress and industry possible”(174). Moreover, the wholesale corruption of the Chinese way of life is blamed upon the morally and physically weak Chinese, and the “antidote for addiction lies not in bans enacted by Parliaments and emperors, but in the individual conscience”(174). Naked lust for wealth is justified by shifting blames: “It is tyranny alone that is to blame for Chinese degeneracy, Sir. Merchants like myself are but the servants of Free Trade, which is as immutable as God’s commandments”(175). The lust for material advantage being rationally justified ex post facto is nothing new. History lives on and resurfaces, exposing the real human nature in instances like the American invasion ofIraq in the recent times.

The Orient was first created and then perpetuated through a process of incubation that was long and insidiously subtle. The person in the subject position was interpellated with success and became a willing party to the spread of the same ideology that was the crux of his own exploitation. Paulette’s hiding her sari that she wore while sleeping was because the servants of Bethel“held strong views on what was appropriate for Europeans”(184). They would not accept any aberration from the stereotypes propagated by the ruling race, because they had internalized them as natural order of the things. Mr. Burnham’s gomasta Baboo Nobokrishna Panda preferred communicating in English when with the white people; he had even an anglicized name for them to use. All these natives did was to please their masters and to survive. When it was difficult for the white man to dominate the natives, as was the case in the imperial China, he used opium to “intoxicate, impoverish and demoralize” them ( Brook 2). Marx called opium trade “free trade in poison”( Brook 2).
How opium rendered a human being into something sub-human is seen in case of
Hukum Singh and his mother, or into an animal like state, is exemplified in Lei
Leong Fatt or Ah Fatt who is known as “Afat i.e. calamity” in the novel. In fact he is, in a way, representative of his countrymen whose life was permanently altered due to opium. “Without opium, Chinese history… would have been far different”(Brook 1) and the same is true about the farmers of India. The vicious cycle of debt that the farmers of the opium belt entered, made any idea of escape impossible. The grain crops and vegetables were not grown. There was only a sea of poppies in all the fields. To feed their families they took more debt and thus they became more confirmed in their state. Opium broke the very
fabric of the society, as was the case when Deeti and Kalua came across the
impoverished transients in Chhapra, “driven from their villages by the flood of
flowers that had washed over the countryside”(Ghosh 298). Hunger pressed them so
much that they were ready to forget all bindings of caste, religion and concern
for life and it safety. They only had one thing in their minds: survival. That’s
why they signed agreements to work on the farms in some unknown lands, even
hazarding to cross “black waters”.

The white man’s arrogance is reflected unconsciously in the smallest of things. During Neel’s trial, the judge declared that India had been “opened to the benefits of civilization… [the Englishmen were] chosen to burden with the welfare of such races as were still in the infancy of civilization”(349).  By the time Neel’s trial ended, it was very clear to him “that in this system of justice it was the English themselves – Mr Burnham and his ilk – who were exempt from the law as it applied to others: it was they who had become the world’s new Brahmins”(353). In a postcolonial twist to the stereotypical perspectives, this Sea of Poppies gives precedence to the perspective of the colonized over that of the colonizer. It’s not because of any bias in the narrative voice but because of the predominance of subject voices that are heard in the polyphony of positions
centred on characters portrayed in the form of individual subject consciousnesses. Now, Serang Ali ironically becomes the controller and partial writer of a white (supposedly) man’s destiny. He, in a way, becomes his sartorial and deportmentorial mentor. In a smaller way, but still substantially, Paulette’s dress and behaviour are determined even by the native servants at Mr. Burnham’s. Moreover, her being brought up by Jodu’s mother molded her behaviourally as a person somewhere between white and brown in race. She is more at ease with her “brother” Jodu, or, even with her “jahajbhais and jahajbehans” than with
the Burnhams and their circle of acquaintances. Ironically, the only white person she relates to and likes, after her father, turns out to be “racially impure”. Moreover her comfort level and trust increase when she comes to know about Zachary’s “blackness” through Baboo Nobo Kissin.

The imperial mission did not end with the independence of the colonies.
Neocolonialism came to the fore. System of colonialism changed in the twentieth century
but “the same (ex-) imperial countries continue to dominate those countries that
they formerly ruled as colonies” (Young 3) The difference was, that the empire was
now informal and hidden. What was opium or cotton or sugarcane to the past
empires is now oil to the USA. History and its narration in Sea of Poppies merge
with the story of the present international relations. The way in which the past
imperial power exploited their subject peoples finds parllel in the way US dealt
with Iraq. The idea of empire has undergone a transformation but its core has
remained the same. It is this core that has been narrated in the novel, Sea of Poppies. There is a continuum of racial subject positions in the novel, ranging from the pure white exploiter(Mr. Burnham), to mixed blood sympathizer(Zachary), to brown or yellow in close touch with white(Neel, Jodu and the lascars), to finally, brown and totally native exploited characters(Deeti and Kalua) . Their destinies intersect on the centre called Ibis.

Ibis trilogy, of which Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke are parts, is a postcolonial critique of the imperial exploitation of the peoples of Asia. History is revisited and judgement is passed over the power misused to exploit the imperial subjects in the past. The term postcolonial has nothing to do with the specific geographical location or the point of origin of a specific thought. It is more a term related to the nature and orientation of a thought or an idea. It is a paradigm shift, comparable to the post quantum theory shift in the paradigm of the hitherto Newtonian Physics. From a west centric approach to world history, the spread of democracy resulted into a more diffused and decentralized approach to history. Thus dominant discourses were challenged effectively and even replaced by strategically developed mini or local narratives in the postcolonial and postmodern era. The first two novels of the Ibis trilogy do take a fresh look at that part of the history of Asia that had been whitewashed by the dominant discourses very effectively and conclusively. The subject’s entity is culturally embedded in a culturally structured world. They are complicit in their own domination. Internalization of the dominant discourse and its subsequent active propagation happen so imperceptibly as to appear natural. Resistance and putting forth of one’s own system don’t seem to be even remotely possible. Ideological apparatus of modern states make any challenge to them nearly impossible.
The imperial mission did not end with the independence of the colonies.
Neocolonialism came to the fore. System of colonialism changed in the twentieth century
but “the same (ex-) imperial countries continue to dominate those countries that
they formerly ruled as colonies” (Young 3) The difference was, that the empire was
now informal and hidden. What was opium or cotton or sugarcane to the past
empires is now oil to the USA. History and its narration in Sea of Poppies merge
with the story of the present international relations. The way in which the past
imperial power exploited their subject peoples finds parllel in the way US dealt
with Iraq. The idea of empire has undergone a transformation but its core has
remained the same. It is this core that has been narrated in the novel, Sea of Poppies. There is a continuum of racial subject positions in the novel, ranging from the pure white exploiter(Mr. Burnham), to mixed blood sympathizer(Zachary), to brown or yellow in close touch with white(Neel, Jodu and the lascars), to finally, brown and totally native exploited characters(Deeti and Kalua) . Their destinies intersect on the centre called Ibis.


Works Cited

Brook, Timothy and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi. “Opium’s History in China”. Opium Regimes: China, Britain and Japan, 1839-1952. ed. Timothy Brook and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi.Univ. ofCalifornia Press:Los Angeles, 2000. Print.

Ghosh, Amitav. “Imperial Temptation”. Web. 2 December 2011.

–. “Opium financed British rule inIndia”. BBC News. 23 June 2008. Web. 27 November 2011.

–. River of Smoke. 2011. PDF. 27 November 2011.

–. Sea of Poppies. 2008. PDF. 27 November 2011.

Young, Robert J. C. Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction.Oxford: OUP, 2003. Print.


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