'The writing is sublime, the research thorough, the eye for story superb' Sunday Telegraph
When Amitav Ghosh began the research for his monumental cycle of novels the Ibis Trilogy, he was startled to find how the lives of the 19th century sailors and soldiers he wrote of were dictated not only by the currents of the Indian Ocean, but also by the precious commodity carried in enormous quantities on those currents: opium. Most surprising at all, however, was the discovery that his own identity and family history was swept up in the story.
Smoke and Ashes is at once a travelogue, memoir and a history, drawing on decades of archival research. In it, Ghosh traces the transformative effect the opium trade had on Britain, India, and China, as well as the world at large. The trade was engineered by the British Empire, which exported Indian opium to sell to China and redress their great trade imbalance, and its revenues were essential to the Empire's financial survival. Yet tracing the profits further, Ghosh finds opium at the origins of some of the world's biggest corporations, of America's most powerful families and prestigious institutions (from the Astors and Coolidges to the Ivy League), and of contemporary globalism itself.
Moving deftly between horticultural histories, the mythologies of capitalism, and the social and cultural repercussions of colonialism, in Smoke and Ashes Amitav Ghosh reveals the role that one small plant had in making our world, now teetering on the edge of catastrophe.
Bestseller Ghosh (The Great Derangement) offers up a scintillating and kaleidoscopic vision of opium's role in the past several centuries of global history. Centered mainly on events leading to the Opium Wars—19th-century British military incursions to force China to legalize the already booming illicit import of opium grown by decree in British India—the book's many startling revelations include the deep enmeshment of America's 19th-century elite (names like Astor, Cabot, Forbes) in the opium trade, which Ghosh shows was covered up not only at the time, but by their heirs. Contending that this guilt-ridden secretiveness on the part of Western opium-peddlers has had a profound impact on historiography, Ghosh exhaustively demonstrates that the widespread influence of Chinese exports on global culture has been erased from historical memory alongside the drug-dealing that fueled it. (One fascinating chapter describes how many still-treasured 19th-century antiques in the West, like supposed "Shaker" furniture, were mass produced in Guangzhou workshops; another shows that the "English garden" is entirely a Chinese invention.) Drawing on Robin Wall Kimmerer's thinking regarding plant agency, Ghosh deepens his analysis further to contend that opium is itself an agent of history, distinguished by its cyclical activity (parallels between the 19th-century Chinese addiction epidemic and the recent U.S. opioid crisis serve as an example). Exquisitely written and packed with astonishing insight, this is a must-read.