Amitav Ghosh: Sea of Poppies
The focus of this novel is the old slaving ship Ibis. Though one of the main characters sees it in her imagination at the beginning and we follow it, off and on, throughout the book, its main voyage does not start till three-quarters of the way through the book. Much of the story is about some of the key characters who will be on the Ibis. The ship had been used for slaving but is now being used for the nearest equivalent, sending indentured servants to Mauritius from India. The time is the late 1830s. As well as the selling and transport of indentured servants, the other main business of the English colonists, as the title tells us, is opium. However, things are not going well for the British, as the Chinese are trying to crack down on the import of opium and Mr. Bellamy, owner of the Ibis, is very worried, hence the alternative source of revenue.
Ghosh’s story is about many of the people who will sail on the Ibis – officers, crew, indentured servants, guards, passengers and prisoners. We start of with Deeti, who is the one who sees the image of the Ibis before her, though she is four hundred miles from the coast and has never seen the sea. Her husband had been injured fighting for the British and manages to control his pain by taking opium. He introduces her to opium on their wedding night though, as we learn, there is an ulterior motive. He has a good job in the opium factory but he is not in good physical shape. At the start of the story, they have a young daughter. Deeti suffers all sorts of problems, leading to her arrival on the Ibis and it is she who is the leader of the few women on the ship.
Paulette Lambert is the daughter of a French botanist, who is not well-off. When he dies, she has to go and live with the Bellamys which she does not enjoy. She had grown up with an Indian, called Jodu and, for her, he was a brother though, naturally, the other whites did not see it that way. His mother had also recently died and their getting back in touch is another part of the story. Zachary Reid was with the crew of the Ibis when it sailed over from the United States. He was born free but is part black. He started as a carpenter and, because of deaths, ended up as second mate. He will be second mate on the Ibis. Even the supercargo, an Indian who worships an Indian woman, a relative, now dead, but for religious, not sexual reasons, has a key role to play. Much of the background is the exploitation of the Indians (and, to a lesser extent, the Chinese) of the opium trade. It is because of this trade and how the farmers are exploited, that leads to many of them having to become indentured servants. But it is not only the poor who suffer. Rajah Neel owns large lands, inherited from his father. But his father has wasted the money. However, the Rajah, an English-speaking intellectual, is not interested in finance. When various deals are made with Mr. Bellamy, he is unaware of the risk and he, too, suffers.
The journey itself is fairly predictable, with hot, becalmed weather, storms, the threat of pirates, the threat of mutiny, a captain who is not fully aware of what is going on and our heroes – Ghosh is understandably very partisan – overcoming adversity to… Well, what happens is left open. It is all done against the background of British rule of India, about which Ghosh is scathing. The hypocrisy of the British (Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ, says Bellamy) is mocked but the ineffectual Indian rajah also comes in for criticism. It is all a bit too neat but still a well-told story and a fascinating account of an interesting period of history.
First published in 2008 by John Murray