Opium Financed British Occupation in India
Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh’s one of the acclaimed Indian writers latest book is is set during a time when opium trade out of India was flourishing during British rule. Amitav Ghosh is a trained anthropologist and historian with a doctorate from Oxford University.
According to Amitav’s interview on BBC’s website, he did not intend to have his seventh novel revolve around Opium, he was more interested in the lives of the Indian workers who were bound by contract, especially the ones who left India from the Bihar region. But as he started researching into it all the roads led back to opium.
We will touch a couple of topics that was the situation with regards to Opium now and then, what kind of an impact Colonialism had on India and some more insights of what you can expect from the “Sea of Poppies,” by the author himself.
Under the British Raj, an enormous amount of opium was being exported out of India until the 1920s. The indentured emigration really started in the 1830s and that was around the peak time of opium traffic.
Also all the indentured workers at that time came from all the opium growing regions in the Benares and Ghazipur areas. Like most Indians, I had very little idea about opium. I had no idea that India was the largest opium exporter for centuries. So there was such an overlap there was no escaping opium.
Nor did I know that opium was essentially the commodity which financed the British Raj in India. Opium steadily accounted for about 17-20% of Indian revenues. If you think in those terms, one single commodity accounted for such an enormous part of your economy is unbelievable, extraordinary.
Some reformers were trying to stop the opium trade and we know from their petitions and letters that there was fair amount of resistance. There seem to have been a lot of difficulties for peasants – they were switching to an agricultural mono culture, and that was causing problems.
One of the curious things I was not aware of was that there are many different ways of consuming opium. One of the ways was to eat it in a bowl. This was somehow the commonest way of taking opium in India – either eating it or dissolving it in water. East of India and eastwards through China there was a different way of consuming it which was by smoking it. That was very much more addictive.
It was not traditionally the case that people smoked opium in India. Opium also was a part of social life – it was offered during certain ceremonies. So it was a very complex picture. If there was any direct damage to India, it lay in the disruption of the agricultural timetable. But the damage that was done to China was incalculable.
On the British Occupation:
Before the British came, India was one of the world’s great economies. For 200 years India dwindled and dwindled into almost nothing . Fifty years after they left we have finally begun to reclaim our place in the world.
All the empirical facts show you that British rule was a disaster for India. Before the British came 25% of the world trade originated in India. By the time they left it was less than 1%. Lot of Indians believe that the British built institutions, the police, bureaucracy.
Was there no police force in India before the British came? Of course there was. There were darogas (policemen), there were chowkis (police stations). In fact the British took the word chowki and put it into English.
The Sea of Poppies, covers all the ingredients for a film set in 19th century India, from runaway lovers, to a bankrupt Raja, the anti-British sentiment, a white woman masquerading as an Indian peasant and a huge ship sailing down the Ganges.
But the interview also left us to ponder on few things, at the moment Afghanistan is the second largest current producer of Opium in the world and coincidentally its also being occupied by powers of the world. That’s a good point to ponder on for a while, if its Iraq for oil then was it Afghanistan for the Opium?
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