Famed author Ghosh discusses 19th-century opium trade

Noted author Amitav Ghosh visited Vassar on Oct. 25 to deliver the annual Mahatma Gandhi lecture. Ghosh talked about the opium trade, which plays a role in some of his books. / Courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Prolific author and thinker Amitav Ghosh visited Vassar on Wednesday, Oct. 25, to give a lecture titled “Chasing the Dragon: Traveling the Opium Route to Qing China.” Ghosh’s lecture was the annual Mahatma Gandhi lecture, held by the Asian Studies Department every year in October, the month of Gandhi’s birth.

Students and professors crowded into the Villard Room to hear Ghosh speak, filling the space to capacity. Several of Ghosh’s books were on sale at the event, as well.

Ghosh is the author of nine novels, including his popular Ibis trilogy. He focused Wednesday’s lecture on the setting of this trilogy—pre-Opium War India and China—as well as the geo-political details of Britain’s opium export out of India during this time. Ghosh’s lecture was accompanied by a presentation of historical photographs and paintings regarding opium export and trade during the early to mid-19th century.

Jemison Tipler ’20, who hadn’t heard of Ghosh before, attended the lecture with a friend and found it very illuminating. “I originally knew almost nothing about opium in China. I’m glad I’m more aware of such a prevalent issue in society,” she commented.

Ghosh was introduced by Associate Professor of Anthropology Candace Lowe Swift. “Having Amitav Ghosh here is a dream come true,” said Lowe Swift, who teaches Ghosh’s books in her classes. “He is one of my favorite authors of all time,” she added, noting that Ghosh’s work is often anthropologic in nature. Ghosh himself began his career as an anthropologist, earning a Ph.D. in social anthropology from Oxford University. “His writing asks us about who we are in relation to others,” Lowe Swift said.

Professor and Chair of Political Science Himadeep Muppidi also teaches Amitav Ghosh’s work at Vassar. He introduced Ghosh alongside Lowe Swift Wednesday. “Ghosh’s novels reconfigure space and time,” Muppidi reflected. “They help us think about violence as a pillar of everyday, global life—they teach us to look and see human responses to such violence and show us how humanity survives and thrives in horrifying violence.”

Following praise and introductions from Lowe and Muppidi, Amitav Ghosh took to the podium to begin his lecture. Ghosh started by contextualizing one of the major elements of his Ibis trilogy—the British opium trade in China. The trilogy’s main character is an Indian merchant selling opium in Canton. Ghosh explained that opium was a principle export for the British Empire. Opium was illegal in China, and the British essentially monopolized the import of opium into the country during the early 19th century.

Ghosh’s lecture traced the path of the opium trade from India, where it was grown, to China, where it was ultimately sold and consumed. Ghosh focused on the people of the opium trade route: those who worked in Indian opium factories, the merchants who transported and sold the opium and the capitalists who invented in and organized the opium operations.

Ghosh also highlighted the different opium operations that developed as demand for opium in China grew. While the British aggressively marketed opium in China, independent opium operations arose in Western India, free from British control. Many Parsi merchant families established extremely profitable opium trades, competing with the British market for opium in China.

These historical details were accompanied during the lecture by enlightening paintings, photographs and illustrations. Many of these images were of the Indian opium factories themselves, as well as the poor Indian laborers who operated them. The images emphasized the sheer volume of the opium plants in India; giant palatial buildings generated wealth primarily for colonialists in Great Britain, yet were run almost exclusively on the labor of poor Indian natives and relied on the addiction of Chinese citizens.

Regarding this, Ghosh addressed the complicated history of drug use. “Humanity has always had a relationship to drugs,” Ghosh said. He drew connections between the tide of opium addiction in 19th-century China—fueled by the aggressive British marketing campaign—and the current opioid crisis in the United States. “America is going through its own opioid epidemic,” Ghosh reflected. “Opium had become a profoundly corrupting factor in China,” he said, adding that perhaps by drawing from China’s ability to overcome its own addiction problem, the United States may be able to overcome its own.

Ghosh also addressed the proliferation of opium money in current American economic structures. “Opium money is built into the fabric of American society,” Ghosh said, pointing out that influential families such as the Delano and Forbes families were heavily invested in the British opium export. “The only people who don’t seem to realize this [fact] are Americans.”

As Ghosh’s time waned, he took the chance to reflect on his own career. “History has always interested me,” he said, “But I couldn’t be an anthropologist … What interests me is stories.” Ghosh explained the particularly historical qualities of many of his works. “Narratives, by definition, progress through time. It’s mainly a literary exploration.” He directly addressed what he considers a false notion of history, noting that, “When you’re taught history, you’re automatically presented with an ideological view. But history is not going anywhere—not anywhere good in any case.” He concluded, “History is a labyrinth.”

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