History, Race and Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies

In The Wretched of the Earth Fanon very forcibly expresses his opinion regarding the history of the world. It was the 1960’s when he was thus writing and it was revolutionary then to think of the past in that manner. Only a couple of decades back most of the mainstream historians would have shied away from a stream of thought that dared to assert: “For centuries Europe has brought the progress of other men to a halt and enslaved them for its own purposes and glory; for centuries it has stifled virtually the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called ‘spiritual adventure’” (Fanon 235). A couple of decades later, it became very natural. The hegemony of the imperial powers of the world were severely challenged, and successfully too. The postcolonial revisiting and revision of history started since the time when the colonized subject, silenced and marginalized, started asserting his own identity instead of one that was purely constructed by his colonial masters, during the process of decolonization or at the end of the socio-political decolonization when, intellectually, their nation was still in the clutches of the intellectual and cultural hegemony of their erstwhile rulers. The postcolonial writers of fiction wove their narratives intricately, patterned with the themes that appealed to or were infused into them. Their work took roots in the land that had been liberated recently from the pernicious foreign control. They reacted against exploitation of the powerless- theirs and, in general, anybody’s. Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies is a narrative woven with the warp of individual stories and woof of general history. Great historical events are shown being shaped by individual agents, and vice-versa.

Histories… take the form of narratives, and the ways in which the events described are portrayed, linked and made sense of are themselves susceptible to critical interrogation… historical events do not mean things in themselves but, rather, their meanings are generated by the ways in which they are described and linked together to form a historical narrative (Malpas 98).

The industrial revolution in many European countries was facilitated, expedited, made possible with the capital accumulated due to the exploitation of the so called backward races. The advanced races imposed their will and culture on those who had no say in the process. Then they presented their mission of all pervading and shameless exploitation as one of cultural and religious salvation of the barbarians and pagans. They had the power. The power to speak, write, reason and prove: all were theirs. So, they created the narrative of a history from their perspective and objectivised the objectification of the natives. As the postmodern historiography points out, “historical inquiry is born less of the necessity to establish that certain events occurred than of the desire to determine what certain events might mean for a given group, society, or culture’s conception of its present tasks and further prospects” (Malpas 98). The history of the Empire was meant for the consumption at two levels: by the white man and by the black/brown/yellow one too. Therefore, it had to be convincing. It turned out to be so convincing that the anti and postcolonial discourses had to use all their powers to dispel the myths created by the colonial histories. The process of de-mythization has not been completed till now, and the postcolonial discourse continues to perform its task even today. Such being the case, Sea of Poppies can be seen as an attempt to narrate a specific history from a particular perspective. The narrative is of interlinked lives of various brown and white characters, and the narrative perspective is the critical one. The “anti colonial freedom movements had fought for political self-determination, the ‘post-colonialists’ inspired by Said fought for the intellectual and spiritual self-determination of the people who had been subjected to colonial rule” (Rothemund 31) unmistakably postcolonial. Ghosh revisits the past with a very critical eye. His fiction curiously, strongly and predictably enough, abounds in postcolonial themes “of cultural translation, of braided temporality, of marginality itself” (Boehmer and Chaudhuri 3). He has his own version of it – that arises out of the consensus among the postcolonial intelligentsia – and he makes the narration of his fiction his tool to propound his thesis. Of course, like all previous histories, his story that is intermeshed with history, can be critically interrogated. Yet, the fact remains that the “desire” to determine what the colonial rule meant to those colonized cannot be denied to the hitherto voiceless and marginalized subject, written out of the discourse structurally. It is this very desire that is behind the creation of Ibis trilogy. Amitav Ghosh mentioned in his interview with a BBC correspondent, “Opium financed British rule in India”, that he had started Sea of Poppies as the story of indentured immigrants from Bihar. With the growth of the volume of the story history entered it. The indentured immigration from India, which had started in the 1830’s, is shown curiously merging with the Anglo-China opium war and the consolidation of the Raj’s position in Asia. Opium became the medium of strengthening and expanding the Empire, as it was behind the generation of huge revenues that went into the Empire building. In the beginning of their interactions with china, the west was totally at a loss because the Chinese wanted none of their products, whereas, they needed a lot from there. Thus originated a kind of trade that was in favour of the Chinese. It was totally according to the diktats of Free Trade, yet it was unprofitable. So it had to change. Opium became the medium of change when it was insidiously inserted into the Chinese market, legally, and later, against the law of the land. The “trafficking in opium tilted the balance of global trade to benefit the west”(Brook 3). The edicts of the Chinese emperor against opium were proven to be 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 people and even some native historians is shocking.
The gap between the resources of the colonized and the colonizer is not just of economic power and dependence. It spreads into the superstructure and creates two separate spheres of existence. Those who have power “do what their power permits them to do [and] … pretend that it is for some higher cause” (Ghosh 388-89). Maintaining the status quo is in favour of the powerful. They tolerate the socio-political structure of the colonized nations because it benefits them. They actively uphold the native’s rights when it benefits them and at the very next moment show their real selfish motive that lies hidden behind the façade of a civilized system of governance. As Captain Chillingworth clearly points out:
“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.” (Ghosh 718)

The pseudoscientific racial theory of the colonizers had been carefully propounded and propagated in order to make the subjection and subjugation appear natural and according to the “binary typology of advanced and backward(subject) races” (Said 206). The legitimation of exploitation was facilitated “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’)” (Young 2). The inferior/superior dyad, with its putting the white man in an advantageous position, made it imperative to maintain the purity of the difference. The very danger of a white man’s “‘going native’ … [that] encompass[es] lapses from European behaviour, the participation in ‘native’ ceremonies, or the adoption and even enjoyment of local customs in terms of dress, food, recreation and entertainment” that is most feared by the colonizers(Ashcroft 115). As Mr. Doughty tells Zachary, “Mind your Oordoo and Hindee doesn’t sound too good: don’t want the world to think you’ve gone native” (Ghosh 73). There is a curious version of this fear in the native’s mind too. It is best exemplified in the pressure built upon the Europeans regarding the behaviour and dress code they were expected to observe without any margin for deviation. The white man had to shoulder his sacred burden. It was a sacrifice that he had to make. He had to colonize, control, exploit, tyrannize and even kill the black/brown/yellow peoples of the world, in order to civilize them. 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”(Ghosh 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”(Ghosh 353). The clear cut bipolar division of the world into advanced/backward races went a long way towards convincing the ruler and the ruled races alike. Sea of Poppies treats the theme of postcoloniality with frankness and indicts the ills of the colonial era without mincing any words.

Systemic and systematic exploitation of the inferior “races”, as the white man looked down upon the “Asiatick” and the “African”, originated in the racialist doctrine that Todorov very pithily summarizes in his statement of its five basic propositions. The first proposition is the simplest. It obviously consists in affirming that there are such things as races. The next one posits that there is continuity between physical type and character; but races are not simply groups of individuals who look alike (if this had been the case, the stakes would have been trivial). The racialist postulates, in the second place, that physical and moral characteristics are interdependent; in other words, the segmentation of the world along racial lines has as its corollary an equally definitive segmentation along cultural lines. To be sure, a single race may possess more than one culture; but as soon as there is racial variation there is cultural change. The solidarity between race and culture is evoked to explain why the races tend to go to war with one another. In the third postulate same determinist principle comes into play in another sense: the behavior of the individual depends, to a very large extent, on the racio-cultural (or “ethnic”) group to which he or she belongs. This leads to a unique hierarchy of values as the racialist is not content to assert that races differ; he also believes that some are superior to others, which implies that he possesses a unitary hierarchy of values, an evaluative framework with respect to which he can make universal judgments. The final point is the conclusion arrived at:

There is a need to embark upon a political course that brings the world into harmony with the description provided. Having established the “facts,” the racialist draws from them a moral judgment and a political ideal. Thus, the subordination of inferior races or even their elimination can be justified by accumulated knowledge on the subject of race. Here is where racialism rejoins racism: the theory is put into practice (Todorov 66).
Ghosh is clearly critiquing the racialist doctrine through his work. Coming from a person whose people were colonized and exploited for centuries, it does not seem totally disproportionate or unnatural. This fact notwithstanding, the critique itself can be critiqued for a certain degree of either honest oversimplification or purposeful collusion that results into overlooking certain important facts. The driving force behind the Empire was lussion and for the accumulation of wealth. The lust for wealth was not at all limited to the upper ranks of the racial hierarchy. It was present in the colonizer and in the colonized as well, although the extent to which it could be satisfied depended on the power of the person or of the people in question. The colonial rulers were powerful, hence they exploited the colonized, but they could never have succeeded in doing so without an active, voluntary and complete collaboration of the colonized e.g. Baboo Nob Kissin, Raja Neel Rattan’s father and he himself.
These collaborators were used by the colonialists but also made use of their rulers to serve their own interests. The advocates of the excentric view hold that the periphery did not accept passively what the centre imposed on it but shaped the imperial impact to a large extent. Ronald Robinson, the pioneer of ‘excentrism’, even claims that this theory can explain the rise and fall of colonialism through the reversal of a single model… Colonialism thrives on recruiting collaborators and when it can no longer do so, decolonization becomes inevitable. (Rothermund 23)
The Chinese opium trade, which the world history reports with the exploitation of the Chinese at the foreground and that of the Indian peasant’s at the background, has been inverted in the narration of Sea of Poppies. The colonial and native historians’ whitewashing of the exploitation is encountered with and then countered here. The postcolonial perspective “discovered” it in a way, and tried to undo the wrong done by the majority of the past historians. As Malpas asserts in The Postmodern, it was the result of: “‘historical pluralism’ … in which different groups’ or cultures’ accounts of a historical event cannot simply be ruled true or false on the basis of their relationship to a grand narrative, but rather require different sorts of analysis that explore their philosophical, political and literary underpinnings” (99). The postcolonial history is a site where the creation of a narrative to counter the colonial narrative takes place. Its aim is a continuous questioning of the grand narrative of progress and civilization being handed over to the inferior races.

…postcolonialism’s struggle against the grand narratives that underpin imperialist thought is not based simply on a strategy of ‘changing’ their ‘direction’ to include under the heading ‘Man’ people from non-European or North American cultures, but that it is also seeking to transform the idea of progress and universality by thinking about the discontinuities generated by the violence of colonialism. On the basis of this, a key aim of Bhabha’s criticism is to produce counter-narratives that make explicit the legacies and effects of the carnage and brutality of colonial rule that modern histories have tended to downplay.( Malpas 99-100)

Malpas makes it clear in his, Jean-Francois Lyotard that history is the narration of the story of a nation or people. It intends to explain the existence of a human entity in terms of its being shaped in continuation with the past, and the cycle leading to future. The tale is “presented according to the rules of the narrative genre and, like literary narrative, can take a number of different forms” (Malpas 74). Ghosh shiftS the point of focus of his history-as-story very uncomfortably for the prototypically constituted western eyes, to the filth the West had created and its mechanism of generating it. Opium and coolies were exported from India. As is pointed out in Sea of Poppies: “In the good old days people used to say there were only two things to be exported from Calcutta: thugs and drugs or opium and coolies as some would have it” (113). It generated profit that sustained the Empire. In fact, “trafficking in opium tilted the balance of global trade to benefit the west”( Brook 3). The extent of exploitation in the country that produced the human and material produce was limitless. Opium ruined lives. It ruined the lives of the poor Indian farmers whose very lifestyle. Sea of Poppies very clearly and poignantly brings forth one of the main and recurring motifs of the commonwealth fiction: the mechanism of exploitation, in its full detail. It shows how the farmer was exploited and how the agricultural timetable of a nation and the sustainable lifestyle of its people were altered with devastating effects on the economy. Deeti remembers 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”(Ghosh 42). 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”. If money was the main motive behind the exploitation of the Indian farmer, the same was true in the case of the Chinaman too. He was drowned in the river of smoke, while the white suppliers of opium glibly produced 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 in China? Bloody hurremzads can hardly eat now: they’ll perish by the crore” (Ghosh 385). The very idealistic Mr. Burnham, the devotee of Free Trade, surprisingly happens to be a very forceful supporter of the English merchant’s right to supply opium to china, even if the Chinese are against it. He sees the Chinese emperor’s edict against opium as halting the “march of human freedom” and, ironically, explains it to a racially mixed Zachary that freedom meant “mastery of the white man” (Ghosh 117). He very happily and confidently expresses his joy at America’s being the last bastion of liberty: because slavery is legal there!
Sea of Poppies is a tale of the effects of racialization and rationalization of history on the subject races: colonized, tormented and exploited.

“Postcolonialism is in effect a metamorphosed version of postmodernism in relation to the anti-colonialist and decolonizing practice in Oriental and Third World countries” (Ning 233). Sea of Poppies is a typically postcolonial response to the collective past of Asia. It is a rational attempt to present human condition, the postmodern stage of it, at the level of individual emotions and destinies, and at the level of nations as players in the international arena. It challenges the grand narrative of capitalism: capital accumulation through free trade, leading to overall well being through the trickle down effect, and the whole nation’s developing due to the way in which the invisible hand directs the market. These grand narratives of the colonial era are challenged effectively in this novel that offers an alternative point of view very strongly and convincingly.

Works Cited
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies. Routledge: London, 1998. Print.
Boehmer, Elleke and Rosinka Chaudhuri. “Introduction”. The Indian Postcolonial: A Critical Reader. Ed. Elleke Boehmer and Rosinka Chaudhuri. Routledge: New York, 2011. Print.
Brook, Timothy and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi. “Opium’s History in China”. Opium Regimes: China, Britain and Jap-n, 1839-1952. ed. Timothy Brook and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi. Univ. of California Press: Los Angeles, 2000. Print.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched Of The Earth. Tr. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2004. Print.
Ghosh, Amitav. “Opium financed British rule in India”. BBC News. 23 June 2008. Web. 27 November 2011.
–. Sea of Poppies. 2008. PDF. 27 November 2011.
Ning, Wang. “Postcolonial Theory and the ‘Decolonization’ of Chinese Culture”. Linked Histories: Postcolonial Studies in a Gobalized World. Ed Pamela McCallum & Wendy Faith. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2005. Print.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.
Young, Robert J. C. Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP, 2003. Print.


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