"The Sea Is History": Opium, Colonialism, and Migration in Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies

Article excerpt

A light-skinned African American freedman passing for white, an Indian female farmer who has been rescued from sati (widow immolation), a French woman disguised as an Indian labourer, a British opium merchant, a half-Parsi and half-Chinese convict--these are some of the "mongrel" characters with complex histories that populate Amitav Ghosh's most recent novel, Sea of Poppies. Published in 2008, this novel is the first installment in a trilogy, which takes on the task of imagining the ways in which the histories of slavery, Opium trade, British Empire, and migration are interwoven. The story is set in 1838 against the backdrop of the opium trade and the beginnings of migration of indentured Indian labour to the Caribbean. The range of characters on the ship Ibis, an American ex-slaver now transporting Indian labourers to Mauritius, offers a broad canvas for Ghosh's historical novel of transnational connectivity. Through the interweaving of the characters' stories and through deploying elements from a variety of genres (historical novel, nautical novel, travel and adventure fiction), the novel offers a narrative of and about movement, border-crossings, and heterogeneous encounters.

While Ghosh alludes to the link between land and sea through the title and the tripartite structure (land, river, sea) of the novel, most of the novel takes place on the Ibis, and even Part One of the novel (which is titled "land") is full of references to sailors, bodies of water, boats and ships. (2) Almost all the characters feel the effects of the ocean on their lives in one way or another. Thus, one can read Sea of Poppies as a narrative of place where the ocean is central but where the dynamics on land intimately create and affect the world of the ocean. The novel illustrates the intimate relation between "history, politics, and bodies of water" (Verges 247) through its attention to the Indian Ocean. (3) This focus emphasizes how the British Empire was situated within global networks and highlights the textured realities of Empire--"a complex web consisting of horizontal filaments that run among various colonies" rather than a strictly vertical relationship between the center and individual colonies (qtd. in Metcalf 7). Through oceanic networks, ideas, commodities, and people flow from India to a variety of spaces--China, Mauritius, England, the United States. Thus, the Indian Ocean is a palimpsest for Ghosh, and in his evocative mapping of this place and time, it becomes a rich archive where he reads layers upon layers of stories of power and violence, exchange, resistance, and survival. The body of the ship itself--deck, timbers, and hold--carries inscriptions of different histories (of non-Western sailors, the slave trade, indentured labour). Cross-cultural, caste, class, gender, and national collaborations blur all sorts of boundaries and enable the formation of new alliances (both oppressive and liberating) and emergence of reconstituted families within contexts of domination and resistance. The crisscrossing oceanic trading routes offer up an affective map of the world of unlikely kinships and intimacies formed on the fluid world of the ocean as a consequence of the machinations and practices of Empire.

Its broad canvas with intersecting plot-lines situates Sea of Poppies within the context of recent interest in studies of the Indian Ocean, transatlanticism, opium and Empire, and of older well-known studies of the Atlantic Ocean. The work of historians such as Clare Anderson (Convicts in the Indian Ocean), Sugata Bose, and Thomas R. Metcalf in the last decade has demanded a critical reflection on the Indian Ocean and the histories found there as a significant site for studying global relationships. Through studying the movement of peoples, practices, ideas, and goods in this place, these scholars shed light on the palimpsestic nature of the Indian Ocean world where multiple histories exist. Recent studies on the significance of opium trade to the global imperial economy have also contributed to the interest in the Indian Ocean, since it functioned as the arena for the multifarious encounters. …

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