“Without opium, Chinese history… would have been far different” (Brook 1).
Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke is a tale of people whose lives were linked to the history of opium trade. It has people of various nationalities that meet in Canton, where most of the novel is set. The action is set just before the first opium war, in a time when the edicts of the Chinese Emperor against opium were proving to be powerless because of the “deadly combination of expanding Chinese demand and skyrocketing British supply…[when] 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 colonized and exploited. At the end of the novel there’s Lin’s letter to Queen Victoria. It was published in Canton register and is presented in the novel very faithfully. It is a parallel presentation of the narrator’s point of view and sympathies. This statement is borne out by various instances and ways that are used in the novel to expose their true colour that is black.
Commissioner Lin was a scholar officer who appeared to have risen from the legends of ancient China– the incorruptible poet-philosopher and administrator of the Chinese civil services came to life in him. His actions consistently gave positive messages to the people of Chinawho had lost all hopes in mandarins. In opposition to the morally black merchants, his colour is white. Between the two extremes of morally white and black lie various other characters of the novel. The only white character in the novel that could be called honest is Charles King. He stood against his own race and had only his conviction in the call of his conscience on his side. Just like Commissioner Lin, he had made enemies amongst his own people, because opium was the font of wealth for many Chinese and foreigners alike and “in a world where corruption and greed are the rule, they are both incorruptible – and it is not surprising that this should be hateful in the eyes of their peers” (River of Smoke 317).
There was a foreshadowing of the future in Mr. King’s thoughts at the end. Several battleships had been mobilized. He knew that the ensuing war would change the scale of balance entirely. He had written a letter to Elliott in which he had petitioned for justice, in vain:
Justice forbids that the steps taken by the Chinese, to arrest a system of wrongs practised on them, under the mask of friendship, be made pretence for still deeper injuries. Interest condemns the sacrifice of the lawful and useful trade with China, on the altar of illicit traffic. Still more loudly does it warn against the assumption of arms in an unjust quarrel, against – not the Chinese government only – but the Chinese people. Strong as Great Britainis she cannot war with success, or even safety, upon the consciences – the moral sense – of these three or four hundred million people. (River of Smoke 320)
In the same letter he asserted that the white man’s trade in opium had dishonoured the name of Christian God among those they saw as the heathen races. It was given several disturbingly negative epithets in Chinese language and the Chinese people hated it and those who traded in it. Opium and its introducers to China were rightly and equally hated by the common Chinese men. It had not only ruined just China, but also another Asian country: India. There were huge land areas of “Malwa, Bihar, and Benares” where opium was mainly cultivated. The whole pernicious system was put into action by the powerful Empire over which the sun never set. The white man had come to civilize the brown and yellow races and had turned them into animals instead.
Mr. King saw the true nature of opium trade through the screen of ideology. He saw how the East India Company was behind opium trade that had full support of the British Parliament. The British opium merchants had full support of their society, whereas, every Chinese who used opium felt guilty and ashamed and hated it and disapproved of it. In addition to the white merchants and the Chinese people, there are Indians who play important role in the novel. The leader of all the Canton Indian merchants is Seth Bahramji.
Seth Bahram is a character who wants to side with the forces of light through being morally correct, i.e. white. He tries to do the same yet his actions yield results that make his intentions immaterial and push him into an endless chasm of blackness. He participates very actively in supplying opium to the Chinese people but then he was only a small part in the overall machinery. At more individual level of mismatch of intentions and actions, his cumshaw to Allow, as he had promised to do too Chi-Mei, actually pushed the boy into opium smuggling and finally led him to his death. His own son was nearly ruined because of his failure as a father. Yet he inspired loyalty in his employees in a way that is possible only when a man is good. Neel’s loyalty was won in the same way too. Bahramji is a very complex character who acts as the living battleground for the forces of darkness and light. It is within him that Ahur-Majda and Ahirman fight. There is no final victory until the very end of his life. He was destiny’s victim. He would have been an innovator; a hero, had he been born in some other country or time. He was a product of the forces of history and their tool too. He did not choose opium because he wanted to inflict damage on the Chinese people. His choice was dictated by the gospel of his age, the rule set by his masters, the religion of his making – free trade. Shireenbai had urged Bahram not to go toChinain his voyage that proved to be his last. She had insisted that she had confirmed reports of an impending war. Bahram had allayed her fears by telling her that he had met the Rear-Admiral Maitland himself and was assured that war was not a possibility.
Maitland had succeeded in cowing the Chinese officers with his two warships and had returned satisfied of his success to India. The things were to change with the turn of the year 1838. On December 31, 1838, the emperor formally named Lin his Commissioner to Canton. The commissioner reached Cantonsixty days after he had left the capital and “moved into the YiienhuaAcademy, and turned directly to local scholar-officials for help” (Fairbank 186). He did not meet the mandarins or address the people, as was customary. The first thing he did was taking stock of the situation in hand. He knew that his method was far from perfect. Those he favoured took advantage of their position too. Yet he used them for practical reason, as the official machinery could not be trusted. Lin came to believe, through his deliberations with his officers, that Lancelot Dent was the main culprit behind the opium trade and the biggest enemy of China. The list of names of the enemies of Chinathat Compton had shown Neel in River of Smoke is indicative of the Commissioner’s deliberations.
By the orders issued on 22 March, Dent was to be taken in custody. Two Chinese merchants were taken hostage. If Dent didn’t come for an interrogation, he was told, they had to be decapitated. The novel portrays very poignantly how they were betrayed by their white friends. They had worked in tandem for a very long period of time. Yet, when time came, the Englishmen didn’t think twice before delivering them to their sure death. They sensed a ploy in the arrest of the Chinese merchants until the end and when they did finally believe it to be true, they showed most open and shameless greed. They tried to wring out the price of the 1056 chests of opium that they had agreed upon to yield in order to save the merchants. Comptonhad also told Neel that the leader of the Canton Acchas was to be arrested with Dent because as all opium came from Hindustan. It was to send warning signals to those who traded in opium and those who supplied it to them. Neel proved it very rightly that the British controlled the opium trade completely; that cultivating it was their monopoly in Bengal. As they did not control the entire Bombay Presidency, they couldn’t monopolize its cultivation there. The money that Indian traders like Bahramji made accounted for only a miniscule proportion of the total profit. Most of the profit generated out of this smoke of death went to Europe and America. Even if all the Hindustanis stopped trading in opium, it’d still be grown and traded in. it’d become a British monopoly and would be supplied in the same manner to China. Moreover, the Englishmen would give up the Indian just to save Dent. He proved it by citing their behavior in case of their sacrificing, at least in their intent, their two Chinese friends Howqua and Mowqua. Neel very perceptively saw and proved how Seth Bahramji was not like Dent or Burnham, because he was a victim of his circumstances. Otherwise, “he would have been a pioneer, a genius even. It is his misfortune that he comes from a land where it is impossible even for the very best men to be true to themselves” (River of Smoke 288).
Captain Elliott had promised the opium merchants that Lord Palmerston’s government would pay the cost of opium that they surrendered. “20,283 chests valued at $ 9 million” was surrendered (Fairbank 188). The Canton blockade was lifted. It was to haunt the collective memory of Englishmen as another Black hole of Calcutta. It was to be used in a similar manner. The Commissioner was happy and confident about his success in subduing the white barbarians, as he had envisaged before starting his journey to Canton. He had demanded that all the foreigners sign a bond. As Cambridge History puts it, the “bonds would bring the barbarians under acknowledged Chinese jurisdiction” (168). They did not sign and Elliott demanded sanctuary fromMacau. He shifted there with all the merchants who were allowed to move out. The action inRiver ofSmoke ends at nearly this juncture of time. Neel reports later that he had returned more than a decade later to find the factories razed to the ground. The foreign merchants who returned after the Chinese were forced to give them all they had demanded built their new establishment quite far from it.
Burnham and his ilk offered legalisms to save Dent. They said that the commissioner had no
jurisdiction over them as they were the Queen’s subjects. The mandarin Weijuen exposed the
fallacy of their argument by mentioning that England did not exempt the foreigners from
observing the law of the land. Neither would China. This caused Mr. Dent to ask for the
intervention of Captain Elliott. Ironically, Dent and his Free Trade lobby insisted on total
non-involvement of the government in all their matters. When it came to his own life, he
welcomed government intervention very much. Mr. Charles King rightly remarked: “But Mr Dent! It is you and Mr Slade who have always wanted to keep Captain Elliott at a distance from Canton. Am I wrong to think that it was you who said that the involvement of a government representative would be a perversion of the laws of Free Trade?” (293).
The British representative Elliott came to rescue Dent from Macau. This exposed the real nature of the free traders. As Robin’s letter made it very clear that they were devoid of any sense of justice and the only thing they honestly sided with was their profit. Captain Elliott saved Dent and gave shelter to a criminal under the British flag. It was that action of his that
Gladstone later criticized severely in the Parliament. Elliott demanded travel permits For all
the foreigners. If denied, he intended to consider it as an act of war. Robin likened it to “a
dacoit leader marching into a courtroom and demanding the immediate and unconditional release of his gang” (River of Smoke 297).
The Committee had met to discuss their course of action. Commissioner Lin’s action was declared to be unique as it was the biggest instance of robbery that too on the basis of mere morality. To all the palaver produced there Mr. King only had to say:
You have neglected to mention a crucial difference between these precedents and the case at hand – which is that the property in question here consists of smuggled goods. The prohibitions of Chinese law against opium are of nearly forty years standing and their existence, and steadily increasing severity, is well known to all. Need I remind you, by way of comparison, that British law states that any person found harbouring prohibited goods shall forfeit treble their value? Need I add further that British law also states that any person who is found guilty of the offence of smuggling shall suffer death as a felon?’ (River of Smoke 306-07)
To Mr. King’s strong argument, Mr. Slade responded with one full of fallacies. He called names and invoked stereotypes and talked about the despotism and misrule of the Chinese Emperor. They rejoiced that years of failed negotiations would be made up with a “few gunboats and a small expeditionary force” (River of Smoke 307). The real importance of the British trade withChina was emphasized in the discussion as volume of their revenue fromChina was £5,000,000 and it was linked to that ofIndia too.
Bahramji was the only person present in the meeting who objected to the proposal all else agreed upon. Eventually he had to yield and was heart-broken, not because he had lost money, but because he had given his soul to the powers of darkness in return of nothing. His pain and anguish remind one of Dr. Faustus’ selling his soul to the Devil and finding out finally that it was for nothing. There was a cost for purgation and Bahramji had to pay it too, but the sympathy of the reader lies with the sinner at the end. As Neel had toldCompton, Bahramji had a largeness and generosity that his English counterparts hadn’t. The English merchants did not lose anything in the last count. It was Bahramji with his large heart who turned out to be the biggest loser of all. The victim of his time and place of birth, the genius, the innovator – Bahramji – worried about his name and how it would be viewed in future. He asked Zadig Bey:
When they make their future, do you think they will remember us… Do you think they will remember what we went through? Will they remember that it was the money we made here, the lessons we learnt and the things we saw that made it all possible? Will they remember that their future was bought at the price of millions of Chinese lives? …And what was it all for, Zadig Bey? Was it just for this: so that these fellows could speak English, and wear hats and trowsers, and play cricket? …Perhaps that is what Ahriman’s kingdom is, isn’t it, Zadig Bey? An unending tamasha in a desert of forgetting and emptiness. (River of Smoke 313-14)
The forgetting and emptiness that Sethji was afraid of could not engulf him. He was remembered: in the tears of Neel and those who mourned him. Their loyalty was proof enough that he was not wrong on the personal front. Thus ends the novel one of whose central concerns is the concepts of right and wrong. It attempts to explore the various characters up to their core. Their moral nature is shown to be of the utmost importance in the novel. Although the most immoral and exploitative set of characters, the British merchants, emerge victorious in the end, the narrator’s sympathy is with the Chinese people. Commissioner Lin has been portrayed as the voice of reason and justice. Bahramji’s character has a complex richness and attraction to it, despite being morally wrong. It is an exact and balanced portrayal of the forces of history affecting human decisions and lives in a free play of determinism and free will.
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.
Fairbank, John K. ed. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 10. Late Ch’ing, 1800-1911, Part 1. CambridgeUniversity Press:Cambridge, 1978.
Ghosh, Amitav. River of Smoke. Web. 27 November 2011. PDF.