Tuesday, March 24, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

The Ibis is a two masted schooner that was used as a slave transport ship to run the coasts of Africa. The slave trade is no longer legal under British law in 1838, and this particular ship is unable to outrun the law ... so she must be repurposed. Purchasd by an Englishman with a lucrative business in the opium trade, Ibis is renovated. Her hold is cleared of those elements used to restrain human cargo and she is instead made ready to carry opium. It should not be lost on the reader that the Ibis, despite renovation, is still in service to slavery. She no longer carries saleable human cargo, but her new cargo is just as enslaving. The opium trade is very lucrative and those in charge of this business hold mastery over both the producers and consumers of this product.

Before her turn at transporting opium to China, Ibis is to take a trip across the Indian Ocean to the island of Mauritius. She carries indentured migrants who can hardly be discerned from slaves. It is the prelude to and first part of this voyage that is the setting for Sea of Poppies.

Along the journey, the reader is privy to some very interesting conversations on freedom and just war. The arrogance of the British trade barons is such that freedom, to them, applies to their right to freely trade in whatever lucrative business is at hand.

'D'you mean to use [the Ibis] as a slaver, sir? But have not your English laws outlawed that trade?'
'That is true,' Mr Burnham nodded. 'Yes indeed they have, Reid. It's sad but true that there are many who'll stop at nothing to halt the march of human freedom.'
'Freedom, sir?' said Zachary, wondering if he had misheard.
His doubts were quickly put at rest. 'Freedom, yes, exactly,' said Mr. Burnham. 'Isn't that what the mastery of the white man means for the lesser races? As I see it, Reid, the Africa trade was the greatest exercise in freedom since God led the children of Israel out of Egypt. Consider, Reid, the situation of a so-called slave in the Carolinas - is he not more free than his brethren in Africa, groaning under the rule of some dark tyrant?'

A just war is one that will force China to legalize opium ... for the good of free trade, of course.

'...No one dislikes war more than I do - indeed I abhor it. But it cannot be denied that there are times when war is not merely just and necessary, but also humane. In China that time has come....'
'Quite right, sir!' said Mr. Doughty emphatically. 'There is no other recourse. Indeed, humanity demands it. We need only think of the poor Indian peasant - what will become of him if his opium can't be sold in China? Bloody hurremzads can hardly eat now: they'll perish by the crore.'
These British businessmen can not see that they are the source of poverty and starvation among the "Indian peasants." There are no fields with which to grow nourishing grains and vegetables due to the mandate to exclusively plant and harvest poppies, and the money collected by the peasants for their crops is not adequate to feed their families. The peasants get no help from their countrymen because of a caste system that declares them "unclean" and less than human.

Sea of Poppies is not just a sad tale that portrays the ugly history of British traders and a restrictive Indian caste system. The story is character driven and is, at heart, a story of transformation and changeability. Some of those who find themselves on the Ibis learn the veracity of the saying that they "are all on the same ship." They are, as one character claims, "ship siblings." Neither caste, nor skin color, nor gender really matters. These are worldly complexities that can be overcome.

Sea of Poppies is the first in a proposed trilogy. Though the author does not leave the reader with a cliffhanger ending, the journey is incomplete and at a point of transition and transformation. It is gorgeously written and promises to be an epic tale indeed.

Rating: 4 of 5

Note to other reviewers: If you've written a review for this book, please let me know by posting the permanent URL for your review in the comments. I'll be happy to add a link to your review with my post.

Also reviewed by:
Jackie at Farm Lane Books
Eva at A Striped Armchair


  1. SEA OF POOPIES is on my next purchase list.
    Thank-you for your great review.

  2. Madeleine: I hope you do read this. I am curious to hear what others thing about this book. I haven't run across too many blogger reviews yet.

  3. I really want to read this one. Like you, I haven't heard too much about it out there in blogland. I was glad to see you post about it though. Great review, Terri.

  4. It looks as though you enjoyed this a lot more than I did. I thought Madeleine's miss-typing if the title was amusing!