The Butcher, the Brewer, the Opium Smuggler: On Amitav Ghosh’s “Smoke and Ashes”

By Noah SparkesMarch 2, 2024

The Butcher, the Brewer, the Opium Smuggler: On Amitav Ghosh’s “Smoke and Ashes”

Smoke and Ashes: Opium’s Hidden Histories by Amitav Ghosh

IN THE NORTHEASTERN CITY of Patna, India, on the south bank of the River Ganges, there is a neighborhood named Gulzarbagh. At a glance, the area appears fairly typical: bustling with locals, crammed with various shops and services, studded with notable religious sites. Tourists in a rush could be forgiven for ignoring it completely, opting instead to visit Patna’s more publicized attractions. Yet, unbeknownst to the average passerby, Gulzarbagh houses a deep and ignominious history, one significantly responsible for shaping colonial modernity. The source of this influence lies within what is, today, an unremarkable-looking government printing press—a group of buildings that, from their construction in 1781 through to their repurposing in 1911, served as one of the British Empire’s two opium factories in India, vital hubs of what was, according to historian John F. Richards, by the 1880s “one of the most valuable commodities moving in international trade.”

There, behind high walls, an elaborate manufacturing process took place. This was outlined with great pride by surveyor Walter Stanhope Sherwill in his 1851 set of prints depicting the Gulzarbagh factory, Illustrations of the Mode of Preparing the Indian Opium Intended for the Chinese Market. First, raw opium, cultivated by poppy farmers on the Gangetic Plain, was examined by workers, often children. Under the gaze of white supervisors, it was then mixed into a homogeneous paste, balled, and weighed—after which it was dried, stacked, and packaged for shipment. Following auction in Calcutta, private merchants transported the product to the southern Chinese port of Canton. From there, opium was smuggled into the country’s interior and sold. In his booklet, Sherwill expresses wonder at the whole trade’s “mystique”:

[W]hen it is remembered that nearly the whole of this drug is grown for the use of a nation whose very name and existence is unknown to the Hindoo cultivator, and that nation many thousands of miles distant, the desire to know something concerning this drug, its preparation and consumption, is naturally excited.

Amitav Ghosh’s new book Smoke and Ashes: Opium’s Hidden Histories begins by considering this sense of social and geographic disconnect as it played out in the writer’s own life. Its first chapter, “Here Be Dragons,” interrogates Ghosh’s previous ignorance of Chinese culture and history: despite myriad and wide-reaching traces of Chinese influence in India and beyond, the writer admits that “for most of [his] life,” China figured as a “vast, uniform blankness” in his imagination. A desire to correct this “confound[ing]” blind spot fueled Ghosh’s fascination with the complex relationship between the neighboring countries—a path of inquiry that led from his acclaimed works of historical fiction, the Ibis trilogy (2008–15), to this latest, nonfictional account of the opium poppy’s outsized stamp on our contemporary world.

Smoke and Ashes is ambitious in scope and in structure. Setting aside conventional, linear chronologies, Ghosh has carved out space to explore a range of intersecting interests, digging through reams of scholarship and archival material to elucidate every facet of the opium trade. His formal approach varies throughout, shuffling between historical retellings, personal memoir, and digression. The novelist and scholar also demonstrates acute consciousness of the haunting symmetries raised by his subject matter. While the book advertises itself as an excavation of “opium’s hidden histories,” its author keeps one eye resolutely trained on a future defined by ecological crisis, exhibiting the kinds of environmental awareness he displayed in publications such as The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016). The result is a volume of extraordinary breadth, as copious in historical detail as it is in contemporary relevance.


As Ghosh tells it, the beginning of opium’s widespread, recreational use within China was tangled up with the enormous growth in popularity of another, less controversial plant. In the latter half of the 17th century, drinking tea became commonplace among the British upper classes; by the 19th century, the habit had consumed the general public. Yet the plant, which was imported exclusively from China, quickly caused a large and troublesome trade deficit for the British—an empire still bound to the mercantilist ideal of a trade surplus. The solution? Find a new, highly profitable commodity to sell to the Chinese. Opium, extracted from the seed capsules of Papaver somniferum, looked like the perfect candidate.

In many ways, opium’s growth in popularity across socioeconomic lines in China mirrored that of tea in Britain. As Ghosh notes, “[o]nce [opium] escapes, it has a way of quickly transcending class and spreading from elites to those at the other end of the social ladder.” Opium had certainly been consumed in China prior to the British East India Company’s monopoly. Back then, though, its use as a medical panacea—and, later, an aphrodisiac—was isolated to a coastal elite. And, so long as supply (predominantly imported from the Middle East) was limited, the drug remained a luxury among Chinese consumers. It wasn’t until the East India Company identified the nascent market and began intensively cultivating opium poppies—or rather, forcing Indian farmers to do so—that the drug truly flooded the “Celestial Empire.”

It may seem surprising that a book so concerned with Indian and British class dynamics doesn’t pay more attention to opium’s infiltration of China’s own strict social stratifications. As Yangwen Zheng outlines in her magnificent study, The Social Life of Opium in China (2005), the drug represented a refined luxury when smoked by the ruling classes yet was viewed as degrading and criminal in the hands of the poor. But Ghosh avoids fully engaging with this history presumably for fear of lending weight to what Hans Derks, a scholar frequently cited in the book, has called the “consumptive approach”: an analysis that homes in on the addicted individual or culture rather than investigating the larger, enabling apparatus. In short, by focusing on the psychology or sociology of addiction, one risks letting large economic interests off the hook.

More important for Ghosh—and indeed more relevant to currently unfolding crises of late-stage capitalism—are the lengths to which large economic interests and their state backers will go to increase profits, avoid responsibility, and maintain the status quo. As Ghosh convincingly argues, the methods used by drug companies like Purdue Pharma and fossil-fuel giants like Shell may appear novel in their indifference to suffering and their frenzied drive for ever-higher profits, but they are in fact the direct descendants of tactics used in the 19th century by the East India Company, the British state, and opium smugglers. As then, so now: the supposed sanctity of the market continues to absolve corporations of any responsibility. Demand, no matter how convoluted its origin or how damaging its effects, should be met without moral scruple.

Crucially, according to Ghosh, opium effectively differs from any other commodity in its relationship to the laws of supply and demand. Perhaps no other product generates its own demand so efficiently, creating new addicts—and thus new, inexhaustible markets—wherever it goes. In 1818, the British opium trader Robert Taylor gleefully declared that “[o]pium is like gold. I can sell it any time.” And just as the Dutch East India Company had pioneered the opium trade throughout the East Indies in prior years, the British were happy to play their part in the equation, becoming in the process what can only be described as the world’s largest state-sponsored drug cartel.

Ghosh explains how, fearful of the economic and “moral” consequences of opium’s spread, the Chinese state intervened in 1839. Yet their attempts to enforce an importation ban (the drug had been explicitly banned in China since 1796) and destroy foreign merchants’ opium stock were met with strong resistance. Trading companies could enlist the military might of the British navy to protect their interests, and the resulting Opium Wars were disastrous for a Qing dynasty already in decline. By 1860, opium had been forcibly legalized, the Canton System (a protectionist arrangement stipulating that all trade into China had to be conducted through the southern port of Canton) had been abolished, Hong Kong was a British territory, and opium flowed through China at an unprecedented rate. How unprecedented? One of many astounding statistics Ghosh has unearthed supplies the answer: “[W]hen all fetters were removed from the British Empire’s drug-pushing racket, the value of Bombay’s opium exports increased ten-fold.”

The book is most affecting at moments like these, exposing the hypocrisies and contradictions at play within the Enlightenment’s “teleology of Progress,” and detailing the gruesome manner by which modernity was crafted. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to claim that the British Empire’s wealth was built as much on drug trafficking in the East as it was on slave labor in Africa and the Americas; vividly and repeatedly, Ghosh’s latest work evokes Marx’s assertion that capital came into the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”


Smoke and Ashes isn’t unremittingly bleak. Among its many joys is Ghosh’s refusal to lapse into an impersonal, dry retelling of history. Instead, he revels in the unexpected and tangential, identifying residue from the opium trade in nearly every visible pore of society. The book’s interests range from opium’s indirect influence on Ghosh’s family history to its surprising impact on the interior design of many American houses. Ghosh delves into artistic portrayals of the opium factories, elucidating their aesthetic as well as political dimensions; he dedicates almost an entire chapter to the effect of Chinese horticulture on English, American, and Indian gardens.

Some may be skeptical about the book’s attribution of “historical agency [to] botanical matter”—or Ghosh’s specific suggestion that we might consider the opium poppy as a powerful actor rather than a passive object. It’s certainly an unorthodox move within what might have been a more conventional work of scholarship. It’s also a double-edged sword. On the one hand, by challenging the often-assumed historical “primacy of humans,” Ghosh rightfully complicates typical (and reductive) Enlightenment claims of human dominion and mastery over nature. Drawing on the work of Indigenous botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, Ghosh calls for a “species-level humility” in the face of certain plants’ enormous mind-altering power. Later on, he quotes the American diplomat William B. McAllister, who in 2007 said:

[I]t is perhaps appropriate to interpret opium as an actor in its own right. Rather than simply an inert substance, opium might be seen over the last three or four centuries as a sort of independent biological imperial agent. In recent decades its worldwide ubiquity only confirms [its] power; opium appears to have bested all its human contenders.

On the other hand, by attributing person-like agency to the poppy, Ghosh risks mystifying the role of political economy. For centuries, humans have known about opium poppies and their psychoactive properties. The Sumerians called it “Hul Gil,” or “joy plant.” The ancient Greeks considered opium a source of both consolation and oblivion. The Romans—aware of the risk of abuse—continued to rely on the plant for its medical properties well into the fifth century. In other words, it’s only when the addictive qualities of opium interact with the logic of capital accumulation that the trouble (in this case, a history-altering epidemic) begins. David T. Courtwright, a preeminent scholar of narcotics, has termed this profit-orientated encouragement and exploitation of the brain’s capacity for addiction “limbic capitalism.” Indeed, the mass production and illicit trafficking of highly addictive, zombifying substances makes little sense within any other economic arrangement. One could thereby quite reasonably contend that widespread epidemics are not examples of the opium poppy displaying a transhistorical agency and a breaking free of human control but rather its being forced—by centuries of profit-first attitudes—to realize its horrifying potential as a commodity.

In either case, the fact remains: Ghosh has produced, with Smoke and Ashes, a remarkable work of scholarship. His writing is as lush and dramatically effective as it is scrupulously researched, offering readers an image of emergent and contemporary modernity utterly estranged from Enlightenment ideals of progress, equality, and fraternity. However sobering, his argument is a salient one: opium’s path, from the “rosy dawn” of capitalism to our current era of neoliberalism, demonstrates time and again that the moral corrective of the invisible hand proves negligent when exposed to the impulses of an unregulated market. In his multivolume treatise An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith wrote of the butcher, the brewer, and the baker as examples of the healthy, enlightened self-interest on which capitalism was supposedly built. Ghosh traces a more haunting lineage—one as indebted to the opium smuggler as it is to the slave trader.

LARB Contributor

Noah Sparkes is a UK-based writer specializing in film, TV, music, and literature, with a particular focus on the intersection of culture, history, and politics. He has written for a variety of outlets including Jazzwise, Film Inquiry, and uDiscoverMusic.


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