Opium, History and Narration in River of Smoke

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, and the resonances produced by that narrative depend on the recognition by its audience of the familiar story-telling devices it employs (Malpas 98).


River of Smoke is woven on the warps of history with woofs of individual lives. It is the tale of a city – the city that is called Canton – in the years that led to the first opium war that shocked China and caused its awakening. It became one of the main causal factors behind China’s getting exposed to the western ideas and practices and to its modernization. The imperial mission of civilizing the natives in the colonies, teaching them the gospel – of Jesus and of the free trade, and of making the world a better place (for themselves) was the central factor that shaped the world from sixteenth century onwards. It is seen at work in Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke.

The imperial colonizing power had created its allies in their colonies but they had also created powerful and persistent antagonists. In River of Smoke Seth Bahram can be seen as an ally and Commissioner Lin as an antagonist of the imperial powers. Bahram, a very convincingly Janus like character can tell Napoleon very honestly and philosophically: “Opium is like the wind or the tides: it is outside my power to affect its course. A man is neither good nor evil because he sails his ship upon the wind. It is his conduct towards those around him – his friends, his family, his servants – by which he must be judged. This is the creed I live by”(River of Smoke, 105). Thus he tries to cover a clear trail of greed with a thick layer of specious rationalization. He is a colonial subject whose profit was allied with that of his masters, so he allied himself with them. It is the same trait that the postcolonial theory sees as the main reason behind the success of the imperial powers in colonizing and exploiting a large part of the world for a long time.

The Indian merchant was not duped into trading opium, nor was he coerced in any way. He chose his path with the sole motive of profit with the independence to take action. He wasn’t naïve or innocent. He was fully aware of what he was doing. The tenets of his religion, which he had explained to Napoleon, very clearly showed how the forces of light (Ahura Mazda or the Creator) and the forces of darkness (Ahirman or the Devil) are in an eternal struggle. Like any other Zoroastrian whose aim was to “embrace the good and to banish evil”, his path was clearly chalked out (102). Yet all he did was to embrace evil and to carry it to millions of Chinese every year, year after year, in the form of opium.

His power and part he played in the drama of evil on the stage of china was negligible when compared to that of the East India Company, the white merchants and the Government of Britain. They deserved most of the blame. Their role inChina’s enfeeblement is very clearly brought forth in Commissioner Lin’s public dispatch to QueenVictoria. The facts mentioned and claims made in it are both historically verifiable and morally just. He blamed the foreign merchants of seducing the people ofChinainto using opium for their profit and then flooding the country with illegally brought opium. It was the Dutch who had introduced non-medicinal use of opium toChina. In the beginning, the menace was primarily for the leisured upper classes and the masses ofChinawere comparatively free of any danger. When the Englishmen adopted opium as a commercial enterprise, they converted it into the hand of death and destruction. The foreign trade deficitEnglandwas facing because it needed the Chinese products, especially tea, butChinadid not need anything from them. Thus was created an immense foreign trade imbalance. It prompted them to “invent” opium’s addiction for the common man ofChina.

Opium, the powerful economic force, was a very potent drug. It controlled human brains and lead to addiction. Those who controlled the production and supply of opium also controlled its slaves. As Bahram very shrewdly explained to his sasarji: “Opium is just like that. It 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”(River of Smoke 90). 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 Indiabenefited 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 course of Chinese history was changed in the brief span of less than three generations and they did it so effectively, efficiently and insidiously that the world started to believe that China had always been a heavy consumer of opium since time immemorial. The long lasting image of the Chinese opium dens and addicts spread throughout the world and stuck with those of Chinese origin well up to mid-twentieth century. This wholesale whitewashing of history and silencing of all parallel versions prompted Ghosh to begin his Ibis trilogy of which River of Smoke is the second part.

Ghosh had stated in an interview with BBC that he had started the Ibis trilogy with its first part, Sea of Poppies, as the story of indentured immigrants from Bihar. The indentured immigration had started in the 1830’s, at the end of the decade came the opium war withChina and the firm establishment of the opium based trade of the Raj. It was no coincidence, pointed 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 withChina. The other side of the same coin of exploitation was the havoc wreaked on the Indian farmers. That this devastation of the economy of two prosperous Asian nations was whitewashed by the White and even some native historians was shocking to him. His being a postcolonial thinker-writer made his position strong when he decided to create a series of novels on the imperial exploitation of a large part of his mother continent, i.e.Asia. The narrator and the characters with whom his sympathy lies at any point of time, have a voice that is strong and exposes incisively the exploitative nature and the double facedness of the concept of free trade and those who used it for their sole benefit – the biggest imperial power of all the times – England.

Free trade was the excuse that the English merchants gave to explain away their unforgivable
conduct. In fact, there was nothing “free” about their trade practices for others. Theirs was
the side that had all the freedom. They had the license to exploit under the banner of free
trade. It was not only the conservatives who favoured this legalized and systemic exploitation of the millions. Even the liberals were on its side. The British Parliament and queen were in league with the merchants whose actions brought the much needed revenues and many other things from all over the world. Mr. Charles King, the only honest man amongst all the merchants who had never tried to exploit the Chinese or trade in opium, and whose uprightness and goodwill were recognized by a personage as great as the Commissioner Lin himself, was universally disliked amongst white merchants. His refusal to deal in opium had resulted into his being thrown out of the clique of the merchants whose profit came from it.

The institutionalized and vicious cycle of the exploitation of the non-white peoples was because of the Empire over which the sun never set. The Chinese wanted no English products. Therefore, they were seduced to use opium. To adequately supply the demand thus created, they forced another of their colonies –India– to produce more and more of it by bringing a vast area of land under its cultivation belt. The Indian farmer was forced to stop growing other crops and to cultivate opium only. The sea of poppies inundated large areas ofIndiaand broke the age-old crop cycles and also damaged irreparably and irreversibly the sustainable way of land use and life. Patnaand Malwa opium were the varieties that were exported.Englandhad monopoly over opium trade in most parts ofIndia. Even if a native entrepreneur like Seth Bahram had not entered the trade, it would have gone on unhampered and unaltered.

It was because of the champions of free trade that opium became the foundation of the whole economic system of the Empire. It financed the Empire and the surplus that was generated went into the expansion of the Empire. The whole opium centric economy was, as Bahram told his father-in-law, very strange in nature. Opium was totally useless for an average healthy man. It became Important and useful only for its addicts. It was this fact that finally got the Englishmen success in opening deep inroads intoChina. The English merchants used all means, from rhetoric to brute force, in order to convince those who opposed their line of thinking. They perpetuated their ideology in various garbs. Religion, politics, economics, ethics all ingredients went into the making of the pot-pourri used to convince all races all over the world. Burnham, Jardine, Dent etc. are few of the most prominent voices that philosophy of a white exploiter. They are the forces of darkness to which Bahram sells his soul. He is betrayed at the end and regrets it later. Zadig Bey summed it all up very neatly when he warned his friend that the Chamber would fain yield him up to the Chinese just to save Dent, as there was no gunboat behind him.

Bahramji’s probable treatment in the hands of the English merchants would not at all be shocking, as it would be keeping with their treatment of his country and his fellow countrymen. The apostles of free trade increased the volume of trade with Indiain the seventeenth century, but when at the end of that century “great quantities of cheap and graceful Indian calicos, muslin and chintzes were imported in England, and they found such favour that the woolen and silk manufacturers were seriously alarmed… [they forced passing of Acts of] the Parliament … prohibiting… the use of any printed or dyed goods of which cotton formed any part” (Lecky qtd. in Raychoudhary 63). Later they flooded the Indian market with cheap factory made cloth and damaged the system of production completely. The East India Company converted India from the workshop of the world to the producer of raw materials for English factories and the consumer of their products, and “about £ 100 million was drained in Britain from India between 1757 and 1815” (Raychoudhary 68). When India’s manufacturing industries tried to survive even after this exploitation, laissez faire, or free competition among the unequals played the role of dealing the fatal and final coup de grace. “Political domination was the basic factor in bringing Industrial Revolution inBritain” (Raychoudhary 83). They same modus operandi was used onChina.

“In 1830, the auditor-general of the East India Company declared that every year at least £
4,000,000 had to be carried back fromIndia toEngland” (Fairbank 173). The Cambridge History further explains that this money was used to buy opium that was exported toChina, to be sold inCanton and the sale yielded another £ 3,300,000. Thus, west had finally found a way to address the huge deficit it was facing in its trade withChina. By 1830’s it had finally found something that it could supply toChina in return of many valuable things. Yet, no foreigners were allowed inside the walls of the city ofCanton itself. They were not allowed to sell their goods anywhere else either. Opium, that was the mainstay of their trade equation, was soon to be removed from it through an imperial edict that banned its trade all overChina. This edict was the final deciding factor that made the western merchants’ need to get unrestricted access to the Chinese market clear and pressing. What they wanted was possible only when all the Chinese restrictions on trade and movement of the westerners were lifted.

Whig liberalist policies found their compatible partner in the form of the Manchester lobby. Together, they adopted and modified fromChinaitself the government’s policy of non- intervention in trade policies and practices of the Chinese merchants. Ironically, guilds and a controlled market were the European way of trade and the exposure to new culture and system had brought in the novel idea of laissez faire toEurope. Laissez faire, a French word that literally means “to leave (somebody) to do (something)” took the form of the slogan of Free Trade and it was used against the colonies to exploit them. It was the same ploy used against the Chinese too but there they found resistance to their looting. Commissioner Lin stood against their plan, and he seemed to be succeeding.

In response to the Captain’s steps, the Commissioner blockaded the factories and ordered all
the Chinese people working there out of the enclave. The enclave was effectively sealed from all the sides. Even its riverfront was blockaded. The Chinese servants who were removed in the morning returned as a corps of militia and were posted in the Maidan. Their whole manner had changed with the change in their role. They had left their old clothes and manners behind and had donned new uniform and pride that was previously never thought of. Captain Elliott’s letter to the Commissioner that demanded travel permits for all, elicited a reply that underscored the true nature of opium trade. The letter stated that the white barbarian had

brought opium – that pervading poison – to this land, thus profiting themselves to the injury of others. As High Commissioner I issued an edict promising not to delve into the past but only requiring that the opium already here should be entirely delivered up and that further shipments should be effectually stopped from coming. Three days were prescribed within which to give a reply but none was received. As High Commissioner I had ascertained that the opium brought by Dent was comparatively in large quantity and summoned him to be examined. He too procrastinated for three days and the order was not obeyed. In consequence a temporary embargo was placed on the trade and the issuing of permits to go to Macauwas stayed. In reading the letter of the English Superintendent I see no recognition of these circumstances, but only a demand for permits. I would ask: While my commands remain unanswered and my summonses unattended, how can permits be granted? Elliott has come into the territory of the Celestial Courtas the English Superintendent. But his country, while itself interdicting the use of opium, has yet permitted the seduction and enticement of the Chinese people.  (River of Smoke 304)

The Comissioner demanded the surrender of the whole lot of opium and of all the foreigners signing a bond of obedience to his orders. They could then carry on with their trade, if it was legitimate. He knew that they could not seize the cargoes on the British ships as their naval forces were far superior. So, he took hostage all that were in the enclave. By his ploy he made them surrender all the opium. The merchants called it robbery and complained of bing forced to betray their investors. They were totally at loss in understanding how “subjects of the world’s moist powerful nation” were made to do so against their wish (River of Smoke 306). Mr. Slade offered them another perspective: that it’d give Lord Palmerstone a casus belli and it would then be possible to declare war. He presented his case with force and clarity and with precedents.

There was a heated debate in the British Parliament. Thomas Babbington Macaulay, the eloquent Whig parliamentarian, roared that the Englishmen belonged to a country unaccustomed to defeat, to submission or to shame; to a country which
had exacted such reparation for the wrongs to her children as had made the ears of all who
heard it to tingle … to a country which had not degenerated since the great Protector vowed
that he would make the name of Englishman as much respected as ever had been the name of Roman citizen. (qtd. in Fairbank 195). To this eloquent appeal to public emotions the Tory Gladstone responded with an appeal to reason and to the sense of justice and honour of the Englishmen. He declared the proposed war unjust and disgraceful. He openly condemned the act of his countrymen and also spoke against Captain Elliott’s protecting a dealer in contraband goods. He called the war unjust and was in support of the anti-war resolution. He had mentioned the British flag hoisted inCanton to support and protect drug trafficking. Lord Palmerstone convinced the Parliament that the issue at hand was not opium trade, but all future trade betweenChina andEngland. He reminded them that they had been insulted and war was the only reply. Both Elliott and Lin were removed disgracefully from their positions. Elliott’s replacement, Sir Henry Pottinger, had explicit instructions from Palmerstone to get hege sums of compensation, “opening of 4 new ports, retention of Hong Kong and the cession of more islands where goods could be landed free of duty” (Fairbank 201).

It wasn’t about the specific instance of the East India Company or opium trade. It was all about imperialism as an exploitative system. Lenin was to call it the most corrupt form of exploitation later. In his famous essay “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, Lenin pronounced: “The enormous growth of industry and the remarkably rapid process of concentration of production in ever-larger enterprises are one of the most characteristic features of capitalism”. Capitalism had its own tendencies and forces that grew in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries into their most shameless and exploitative form – imperialism. Laissez faire demanded for a barrier free market for the home country on one hand. On the other hand, it gave rise to monopoly and its variations. “England became a capitalist country before any other, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, having adopted free trade, claimed to be the ‘workshop of the world’”(Lenin).

India was the workshop of the world in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was slowly converted into a producer of raw materials through a planned process that was to be replicated in all the colonies and even inChina. The mechanism of converting a workshop into a producer of raw materials and consumer of finished English products was perfected inIndia. The gradual and definite destruction of all native production and manufacturing industries, the molding of the nature of native economy and crop production cycles and the closing and opening game of domestic markets was something in which the English merchants and Parliament were adept at. They had ruined Indian industries and the capital looted from there and through the continued revenue generated from there, they sponsored industrial revolution and the expansion of the Empire. Their next cycle of capitalist expansion was to be funded by using the hitherto gained capital in cycles like that based on opium inChina. They wanted tea and gave opium in exchange. They had a surplus which was endangered. They reacted to that with barbaric and decisive force. The Chinese had always looked upon the British merchants as barbarians and time proved them right. The British and French gunships bombardedCantonand left only the factories unharmed. As Neel would tell Deeti, the angry mob set fire to the factories and they were never rebuilt. Later on, there was:

a typical ‘White Town’ of the kind the British made everywhere they went – it was cut off from the rest of the city, and very few Chinese were allowed inside, only servants. The streets were clean and leafy, and the buildings were as staid and dull as the people inside them. But behind that façade of bland respectability the foreigners were importing more opium than ever from India– after winning the war the British had quickly put an end to Chinese efforts to prohibit the drug. (River of Smoke 329)

Things had changed as the foreigners had forced the Chinese to open up so that they could bring more opium than they did before. Neel hated the enclave of Shamian and looked at it with disgust as “the new enclave was like a monument built by the forces of evil to celebrate their triumphal march through history”(River of Smoke 324).

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.

Fairbank, John K. ed. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 10. Late Ch’ing, 1800-1911, Part 1. CambridgeUniversity Press:Cambridge, 1978. Print.

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

–. River of Smoke. 2011. n.d. Web. PDF. 27 November 2011.

Lenin, Vladimir Illyich. “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”. Fordham.edu. n.d. Web. 24 December 2011.

Malpas, Simon. The Postmodern.New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Raychoudhary, S.C.Social, Cultural and economic History of India. Surjeet:Delhi, 1998. Print.


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