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Colonial Opium: A Historical Insight.



  Sep 16, 2023

Opium Wars and the Rise of West: Amitav Ghosh in Smoke and Ashes: a Writer’s Journey through Opium’s Hidden Histories (HarperCollins, 2023)


Until half a century ago, the conventional Western view of the West's (mostly Europe and US) remarkable economic rise since 1700 was explained in terms of scientific progress, technological innovations, entrepreneurship, and relatively free movement of goods, capital, and labor.
 
Fifty years of scholarship and revisionist historiography since then has pointed to other significant contributory factors, including imperial conquests and colonialism, the genocidal expropriation of land from native “Indians” in America by immigrants from Europe, and the deployment of millions of slaves, shipped brutally across the Atlantic from West Africa.To this list might now be added the massive expansion in the cultivation, processing, and cross-border marketing and distribution of opium under colonially imposed conditions of near-forced labor , monopsony purchase, and monopoly sales.In the main, this refers to the production of opium in British India for hugely profitable (often illegal) sale, mainly to China in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The tale is grippingly told by Amitav Ghosh, justly-famed novelist and occasional historian, in his recently published, Smoke and Ashes: a Writer’s Journey through Opium’s Hidden Histories (HarperCollins, 2023), a 400-page treatise, including 75 pages of notes.It is based on nearly 20 years of research , which began with the first volume, Sea of Poppies, of his brilliant three-novel Ibis Trilogy.
 
Small quantities of opium had been used for medicinal (and recreational) purposes in different parts of the world for many centuries, starting first perhaps in Anatolia, and spreading around the end of the first millennium to Persia, Central Asia, and South Asia.Typically, it was taken as a paste , mixed into pills or potions, consumed recreationally by rulers, nobility , and the rich. Processed (and far more potent) “smoking opium” only evolved in the early 18th century but was not an item of mass consumption until the Dutch East India Company (VOC) imported it from east India and marketed it (under monopoly) to their subjects️ in the East Indies️, generating large profits and revenues .Some went to China, where it was banned (ineffectively) by the Qing state in 1729.In Mr Ghosh’s words, “It was the Dutch who led the way in enmeshing opium with colonialism️ and in creating the first imperial narco-state, heavily dependent on drug revenues. But it was in India that the model of the colonial narco-state was perfected by the British.
 
Following their decisive victories at Plassey (1757) and Buxar (1764), the East India Company’s (EIC) troops pushed quickly westwards to incorporate Purvanchal (today’s Bihar, Jharkhand and eastern UP), where poppy was grown, into its Bengal Presidency️.In 1772, EIC’s Governor of Bengal, Warren Hastings, decreed that opium produced in Purvanchal could only be sold to designated EIC Agents, paving the way for a very effective monopsony.In 1799, the EIC established the formidable Opium Department (OD), endowed with extraordinary powers of control, pricing, and enforcement, which allowed it to decide which farmers.


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