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'Opium financed British rule in India'

Amitav Ghosh
'India was the largest opium exporter for centuries' (Photo: Sanjoy Ghosh)

Leading Indian writer Amitav Ghosh's critically acclaimed new novel Sea of Poppies is set during a time when opium trade out of India was flourishing during British rule.

The novel spans three continents and close to two centuries and is the first in a planned historical trilogy set in the 19th century.

Ghosh, a trained anthropologist and historian with a doctorate from Oxford University, spoke to the BBC's Soutik Biswas on the colonial opium trade.

Sea of Poppies is a historical novel. Is it the fact that the British were the world's biggest opium suppliers two centuries ago that led you into this story?

I should correct you. It was not two centuries ago. Under the British Raj, an enormous amount of opium was being exported out of India until the 1920s.

And no, the opium story was not really the trigger for the novel. What basically interested me when I started this book were the lives of the Indian indentured workers, especially those who left India from the Bihar region.

Before the British came, India was one of the world's great economies. For 200 years India dwindled and dwindled into almost nothing

But once I started researching into it, it was kind of inescapable - all the roads led back to opium. The indentured emigration [out of India] really started in the 1830s and that was [around the time of] the peak of the opium traffic. That decade culminated in the opium wars against China.

Also all the indentured workers at that time came from all the opium growing regions in the Benares and Ghazipur areas. So there was such an overlap there was no escaping opium.

When and how did you end up researching and learning more about the British opium trade out of India?

I was looking into it as I began writing the book about five years ago. Like most Indians, I had very little idea about opium.

I had no idea that India was the largest opium exporter for centuries. I had no idea that opium was essentially the commodity which financed the British Raj in India.

Opium factory in India
'Opium accounted for a large part of India's economy' Photo courtesy: Wellcome Library

It is not a coincidence that 20 years after the opium trade stopped, the Raj more or less packed up its bags and left. India was not a paying proposition any longer.

What did you discover in the course of your research? How big was the trade?

Opium steadily accounted for about 17-20% of Indian revenues. If you think in those terms, [the fact that] one single commodity accounted for such an enormous part of your economy is unbelievable, extraordinary.

In fact the revenues don't account for entire profits generated [out of opium trade] -there was shipping, there were so many ancillary industries around opium.

How and when did opium exports out of India to China begin?

The idea of exporting opium to China started with Warren Hastings (the first governor general of British India) in 1780.

The situation was eerily similar to [what is happening] today. There was a huge balance of payments problem in relation to China. China was exporting enormous amounts, but wasn't interested in importing any European goods. That was when Hastings came up with idea that the only way of balancing trade was to export opium to China.

In the 1780s he sent the first shipment of opium to China. It was a small shipment and they could hardly get rid of it. There wasn't much demand. [But], within 10 years, demand for opium increased by factors of magnitude. It was incredible - within a period of 10-30 years how much the opium trade spread and increased.

Harvesting poppies in Afghanistan
Afghanistan is now the biggest opium producer in the world

In the period that Hastings started exporting opium in the 1780s until about 1809-1810, most of the opium in India was grown in the Bengal presidency (in eastern India).

After that the Malwa region in western India began growing opium. Finally twice as much opium was growing in western India and there was a huge export from that region. What do you think the major princely states lived off?

What kind of human devastation did opium growing wreak on the Indians?

I can't say I have an accurate picture. Whether it was devastation or not we don't know. There is so little we know [about this aspect].

Some reformers were trying to stop the opium trade and we know from their petitions and letters that there was fair amount of resistance. There seem to have been a lot of difficulties for peasants - they were switching to an agricultural monoculture, and that was causing problems.

With so much poppy being grown, didn't local people get addicted to it?

It happened. One of the curious things I was not aware of was that there are many different ways of consuming opium. One of the ways was to eat it in a bowl. This was somehow the commonest way of taking opium in India - either eating it or dissolving it in water.

Sea Of Poppies cover
Sea of Poppies is Ghosh's seventh novel

East of India and eastwards through China there was a different way of consuming it which was by smoking it. That was very much more addictive.

It was not traditionally the case that people smoked opium in India. Opium also was a part of social life - it was offered during certain ceremonies. So it was a very complex picture.

If there was any direct damage to India, it lay in the disruption of the agricultural timetable. But the damage that was done to China was incalculable.

Both Indian and British history appear to have glossed over this part of colonial rule.

Absolutely. Opium was the fundamental undergirding of our economy for centuries. It is strange that [even] for someone like me who studied history and knew a fair amount about Indian history, I was completely unaware of it.

Why do you think that happened?

I think the reason is some sort of whitewashing of the past.

On the Indian side, there is a sort of shame, I suppose. Also, just a general unawareness. I mean how many people are aware that the Ghazipur opium factory [in India] continues to be one of the single largest opium producers in the world? It is without a doubt the largest legitimate opium factory in the world.

Don't you find it ironic that the tables have turned in a sense with Afghanistan becoming the world's biggest opium producer with most of it sold in the affluent West?

It is strange. But it's an irony in which no one can take any comfort. Opium is a destructive thing for anyone, anywhere.

And it remains a potent driver of economies, at least in a place like Afghanistan..

And, before that in Burma.

Sea of Poppies appears to be a scathing critique of British colonialism. Do you think colonialism has had a pretty easy ride in India and there is not enough examination of the extent of how it affected the country adversely?

It's such an ironic thing. Before the British came, India was one of the world's great economies. For 200 years India dwindled and dwindled into almost nothing. Fifty years after they left we have finally begun to reclaim our place in the world.

All the empirical facts show you that British rule was a disaster for India. Before the British came 25% of the world trade originated in India. By the time they left it was less than 1%.

Lot of Indians believe that the British built institutions, the police, bureaucracy.

I don't know what people think about when they say such things.

When they talk about [the British building] modern institutions it amazes me.

Was there no police force in India before the British came? Of course there was. There were darogas (policemen), there were chowkis (police stations). In fact the British took the word chowki and put it into English. So to say such things is absurd.

If you would like to send a comment about this story you can use the form below this selection of comments.


I am sure in 200 years time world will be reading the book about a country growing opium in Afghanistan and then transporting it to the rest of the world. And when the people of Afghanistan refused to grow it, the same country did not think twice to attack it.
Ahmad Chauhdry, Uk

I am currently a postgraduate at Oxford who has been trying to begin a doctorate (DPhil) on this very topic - the 'Old China Trade' of 1820s and 1830s - an Anglo-American endeavor; which, just as Ghosh points out, involved an enormously elongated remittance cycle (i.e. early modern global finance) from Indian, through China and back to the economies of the Atlantic World. As an American, from Boston, MA., I grew up surrounded by museums that held masses of Chinese porcelains and chinoiserie... but, as is apparently also the case in India, the history of the 'Old China Trade' was (and is) not being taught today. I, for one, hope to revisit it and Ghosh's new work gives me hope that people, both in the academy and the world at large, will respond as he did to the story.


Jonathan Sudbury, U.K. (U.S.A.)

The sale and export of opium by the English, later British, East India Company was done in order to redress the balence of payments with China who would not take other British/Indian goods, from when in those day Tea was imported to Europe. By our standards the whole thing was immoral, but opium is still sold under licence and with payment of excise duty in at least one state in India, along with country liquor and beer to my own knowledge, and it just so happens that the state is West Bengal and by his name Amitav Ghosh in some way originates from there. If he still lives in West Bengal then he is benefitting from this dubious official trade. It is always important to look in your back yard before making criticism of the past.
The Reverend Peter M. Hawkins, France

As Mr. Ghosh puts it, this came as a shocking surprise that India under British was biggest expoter of Opium till recent time. In India there is no awareness at all about this aspect. West before lecturing Indians / Developing Countries should look into their past.

I feel that with so much propsperity before Brits came to India, we would have modern institution even without them stepping into ruling role.
S S Pande, India

I an a descendant of Indian indentureship from the Bihar/UP belt and it would be interested to know how this opium trade influenced our migration to the Caribbean and other parts of the world.
D.Hanomansingh, Trinidad and Tobago

Even though this side of the history was never discussed but appears very logical. The British raj was and had been the torch bearer of destroying many nations. I commend the author for bringing such a naked fact into the limelight.
Azmat Shah, Canada

A timely reminder of the fact that the British Empire wasn't as benevolent as it claimed. The introduction of 'cash crops' in India, completely destroyed local agriculture and rural life in India.
Prashant, USA

Lot of the things Ghosh is saying is true. However at the same time, if the British had not come to India,the whole of India would have become Moslem like Byzantyne Turkey did. The Mogul emperors were living in the Middle Ages. The British tried to modernise India through railways, universities, parliamentary democracy, football, cricket etc. albeit for their own interests but it indirectly helped India. There is always a cost-benefit analysis of everything. Britain was conquered by the Romans and the French. While both Rome and France prospered, Britain gained a lot as well as has been demonstrated in many TV programmes.
Samir Chatterjee, United Kingdom

It was Sugar and the slavery from the west Indies which has helped the British Industralization.From the east it was Opium which financed British rule in India.Quite interesting saga of Brtish colonial and entrepreneurial strides.
Dr S S Dash, India

Many thanks to Amitav Ghosh not only for writing such wonderful novels but also for such thorough research on his stories.
SS, USA

It is wellknown that the British used opium trade to their enormous benefit as regards China. Opium habit made the Chinese lazy and they suffered. What is not commonly known is size of this trade which was so important to the British in India. I agree with Dr. Ghosh that we Indians tend to give undue credit for administrative institutions. The institutions they created have been a cause of corruption in India.
Dr. R. K. Jain, Uk

A very nice objective, balanced account of the pros and cons of British raj in India can be obtained in "A case for India" by (none less than) Will Durant. Anyone who reads that account will find it difficult to argue for the (any) benefits of the Raj.
Krishna Mohan, India

it's well known to the chinese that the british were some of the worst criminals in history. finally, there is someone with the audacity to dredge up the buried truth!! i can't wait to buy and read this book !!!
david chang, usa

I think Amitav Ghosh's has given a light about what British Rule was in India. Most of the Indian and even the world population might have not heard anything about this story "Black past of British Rule" I wish that all people should stand against the Evil things. Also the government of India should claim Trillions of Pound from British for their atrocities
Louis JB, Kazakhstan

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