The Indian Ocean, with its ancient patterns of trade and empire, has buoyed Amitav Ghosh’s writing for twenty years. The Shadow Lines (1988), his second novel, examines the partition of Bengal, while his anthropological travelogue In an Antique Land (1992) probes age-old ties between India and Egypt. The best-selling novel The Glass Palace (2000) is set between Burma and India circa the Second World War, and The Hungry Tide (2004) explores the mangrove forests and marginal peoples of the Sundarbans tidal plain. His sixth novel, the first in a projected trilogy, traces the global effects of a gargantuan drug-trafficking enterprise. While the slave trade in the Atlantic triangle between England, Africa, and the Americas has long been a rich source of epic fiction, Sea of Poppies casts light on a less well-charted triangular trade.
From the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth, British India led the world as an opium supplier, an export business imposed and monopolized by the East India Company expressly to balance the colonial power’s trade with China. Though Britons thirsted for tea, silk, and porcelain, China’s relative imperviousness to British manufactured goods meant that, without the addictive lure of opium, that demand would have drained the empire’s coffers. The novel unfolds on the eve of the Anglo-Chinese opium wars of 183943 and 1846–60, just as China’s mandarins are cracking down on the illegal import—having failed, as one bellicose British merchant sees it, to “understand the benefits of Free Trade.” As traffickers in Macao are publicly beheaded, and Lord Palmerston threatens to send a fleet to reopen Chinese markets by force, the price of opium plummets, sending a jolt up the supply chain, from British seamen to factory hands and poppy farmers in Bengal and Bihar.