Sunday, September 11, 2011

Opium Wars & The River of Smoke

In the history of International Relations, the Treaty of Nanjing (1842) marks a watershed in world history. Signed at the end of the First Opium War (1839–42) between representatives of Britain and the Qing Dynasty of China, it was the first of what came to be known as the unequal treaties

 A Chinese professor at Tsukuba-U often pointed out that Western academicians often suffer a blind spot, a certain unexplained reluctance when it comes to research on the socio-economic events and circumstances that led up to the Opium Wars.

Now we have an acclaimed writer, Amitav Ghosh, turning his attention on this touchy subject and bringing it to life in  the "The River of Smoke", a book which is also the second part of his Ibis Trilogy.

The book is set in Canton (now Guandong) of the 1830's, a decade when the Qing rulers decided to take firm action against Western traders (and their Parsi cat's paws), to try and prevent them from smuggling in opium and turning China into a country of drug addicts (and draining its coffers), in the name of "Free Trade".  Here are some snippets which illustrate the condescending mindset which brought matters to a head:
M. Slade (a British Trader) thundered...'After two centuries of commerce, it is impossible that we should abandon our factories and retreat from Canton. It is here that we must make our stand; we must show that if they attempt to curtail foreign trade they will find their boasted power shaken to pieces. Is it not time to ask what may be the consequences to this empire of the ignorance and obstinacy of its rulers? Ignorance of everything beyond China, obstinate adherence to their own dogmas of government? The answers are clear: we must remain here, if for no other reason than to protect the Chinese from themselves (!!). I do not doubt that it will soon become necessary for the British government to intervene here as it has elsewhere, merely in order to quell civil commotion.'

....Burnham sank back into his chair...and said calmly. 'An open threat has been issued against us: our lives, our property, our liberty are in jeopardy. Yet the only offense cited against us is that we have obeyed the laws of Free Trade - and it is no more possible for us to be heedless of these laws than to disregard the forces of nature, or disobey God's commandments.'

'Oh come now, Mr. Burnham,' said Charles King. 'God has scarcely asked you to send vast shipments of opium into this country, against the declared wishes of its government and in contravention of its laws?'

'Oh please, Mr. King,' snapped Mr. Slade, 'need I remind you that the force of law obtains only between civilized nations?' And the (Chinese) Commissioner's actions of today prove, if proof were needed, that this country cannot be included in that number?'

'Are you of the opinion then,' said King, 'that no civilized country would seek to ban opium? That is contrary to fact, sir, as we know from the practices of our own governments.'
The River of Smoke is great piece of work. Its the sort of book that makes wonder about the life and times of  people in distant lands who had a role to play in just about everything that you take for granted -  everything ranging from the flowers that decorate your garden and in the lopsided laws that govern international commerce (think WTO & TRIPS) today.

It had taken Ghosh almost three years to publish this book. If the next book is going to dwell deeper into the Opium Wars, I wouldn't mind waiting another three years for the concluding Part-III of the Ibis Trilogy!  :-)

The 13 Hongs (Pics: Wikipedia Commons)

  • Amitav Ghosh Website -
  • Pearl River Delta on Wikimapia:


midamawika said...

Hey Duny,
Great blog ya! I too was waiting for the second book in the trilogy. Have ordered it and it is supposed to arrive next month. You got a copy and read it already?
Have you read The Glass Palace? I particularly like how he integrates history into a fictional tale.

Dinakarr said...

Yes, G, its a good book.
I loved the the Glass Palace too - for exactly the same reasons! :)