Friday, September 9, 2011

The Ashes of history

Bahram Modi, a Parsi trader from Bombay, laments that he sold his soul to Ahriman, the devil-figure in the Zoroastrian faith, "and it was all for nothing." The year is 1839 and Modi is horrified when his fellow opium merchants create a pretext for war between China and Britain. He's otherwise a man of god, and though he's voluntarily skirted on the edges of morality before to make profits off drugging Chinese, he wants nothing to do with the evil of war.

But opium has a way of devouring all associated with it. That's Amitav Ghosh's constant message in his ambitious "Ibis" trilogy on the Opium Wars. In the first novel Sea of Poppies (2008), the India-born author told the tales of Indians hurt by the opium the British grow in their chief colony. Directly or indirectly because of the drug, villager Deeti's marriage is doomed, landowner Neel lands in prison, and runaway Ah Fatt's life and mind are ravaged. The last we see them, they're bound together as indentured laborers aboard the opium clipper Ibis, and some of them are about to jump ship in the middle of a storm.

This second volume of the trilogy takes us from the whirlwind of that storm off India to the quieter mist of the Pearl River in south China. Ah Fatt and Neel make their way to Canton, where Neel discovers how the river functions as an artery pumping pollution into the Middle Kingdom.

Foreign merchants come to the city to buy and sell many items, but the most lucrative one by far is opium. Mr. Ghosh introduces us to historical figures like William Jardine, the doyen of the opium trade, and the lesser-known Lancelot Dent. These are men who have made millions off Chinese cravings and don't intend to stop. Dent especially believes the invisible hand of "Free Trade" can't be halted; he's only supplying what his customers want.

Full report here WSJ

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