Smoke and Ashes: Opium’s hidden histories, by Amitav Ghosh

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Review by Peter Reason

The term ‘narco state’ usually refers to those countries whose economy has been taken over by the cultivation of the opium poppy and the criminal gangs that profit from it. These are states in which ‘all legitimate institutions become penetrated by the power and wealth of the illegal drug trade’, as Wikipedia has it. In this context one might think of Afghanistan or Ecuador, which leads us to overlook one of the most significant narco-states of all time: Great Britain, with the Netherlands and fledgling United States not far behind. The difference being that in this original trade, the profits went not criminal gangs, but to the East India Company (which, as William Dalrymple points out in The Anarchy(1), laid down the template for the modern joint stock company); via taxes to the British government; and to the highly respectable merchants of London and Boston, who could make enormous fortunes in a very short time through the opium trade.

It is important to remember that no matter how genteel their manners, no matter how earnest their religious fervour, the British and American traders in Guangzhou belonged to an Anglo-American elite that had made a fine art of spouting pieties of various kinds while inflicting immeasurable harm on people around the world. The English in particular, with their endless moralising, were often able to persuade people that anything they did was ipso facto respectable, no matter how indefensible it might appear.

The smuggling of opium into China had its origins in the European demand for Chinese luxuries, in particular tea – ‘the degree to which the fortunes of the British Empire were enmeshed with tea seems astounding in this post-industrial age’. The Chinese were happy to do business, but having no interest in European imports, would only trade in sterling silver, thus depleting the coffers of the East India Company. The solution was found in the opium poppy: originally primarily used by the wealthy and literati, Ghosh shows how the European trading companies discovered that opium could be used as a currency, over time creating a huge – and illegal – market in China.

Opium growing on a small scale was already an indigenous practice in Bengal and the Gangetic plain, servicing the elite of the Mogul courts. The East India Company’s occupation of Bengal and the Gangetic plain in the mid-eighteenth century opened up this to monopolistic expansion. Farmers were forced to grow poppies and sell them, often at a loss, to the Company, whose Opium Department oversaw every aspect of production and distribution of the drug, processing and packaging it in two ‘Opium Factories’. The Company did not export directly to China but auctioned the processed opium in Calcutta to private traders who in turn sold to Chinese smugglers before proceeding up the Pearl River to Guangzhou. When the ships arrived at the Foreign Enclave they could claim they were only trading in legal goods. The Chinese attempts to make opium illegal and put a stop to this trade brought on the violent British attacks which are known as the Opium Wars.

Smoke and Ashes covers this history in detail. Ghosh contrasts the exploitative European monopoly in Bengal in the East and the more distributed, indigenous trade centred on Bombay in the West. This built a wider spread economic activity which is reflected in contemporary India. He writes about the American traders whose descendants remain among the most respectable names of American business; the role of the Parsi merchants; his own family’s involvement in opium trade; and life in the Foreign Enclave in Guangzhou. Did you know that English plant collectors frequented the Pearl River (and in time the whole of China), so that the garden plants of China ‘came to enrich the gardens of the rest of the world’?  

Through this detailed, carefully researched history run two themes, central concerns to Ghosh throughout his recent non-fiction books. The first of these demonstrates the parallels between the exploitative activity of European and American merchants in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries and contemporary business practice. He shows how the principles of Free Trade and profit maximization for shareholders came to completely overrule any ethical principles and long-term consequences. He quotes Robert B Forbes (whose family name remains on the eponymous business periodical), who made a fortune while admitting that the opium trade was ‘demoralising the minds, destroying the bodies, and draining the country (China) of money’; while insisting on a code of silence.  Ghosh draws an exact parallel between this and the ‘aggressive marketing of opiates to vulnerable Americans’, and the way the ‘world’s giant energy companies justify their suppression of the findings of their own climate scientists, even though they know that by doing so they are condemning all of humanity… to fire and flood’. He argues that the ideology of Free Trade capitalism ‘sanctioned entirely new levels of depravity in the pursuit of profit’ that continue to this day.

The second concern is with the active nature of objects and in particular of the opium plant. He devotes a whole chapter to reflect on the opium plant as ‘an actor in its own right’. He challenges the Western understanding that the world is composed of inert objects with only humans as intentional agents, taking forward the argument he makes in The Nutmeg’s Curse for the agency of non-human entities.

In thinking about the opium poppy’s role in history it is hard to ignore the feeling of an intelligence at work. The single most important indication of this is the poppy’s ability to create cycles of repetition, which manifest themselves in similar phenomena over time. What the opium poppy does is clearly not random; it builds symmetries that rhyme with each other… Only by recognising the power and intelligence of the opium poppy can we even begin to make peace with it. 

The power of the opium poppy lies in its ‘unmatched ability to propagate itself by bonding with humanity’s darkest propensities’. This realization haunted Ghosh throughout the project. As he confesses in the penultimate chapter, they led him to abandon this book project, cancelling contracts and returning the publisher’s advance, despite having completed substantial research. Given the current state of the world, with ‘climate disruptions intensifying, and many formerly stable institutions crumbling’ he realized that ‘it is more and more evident that much of what we have been taught about the past is untrue’, that the great economic ‘take off’ of the nineteenth century created a system of indifference to human suffering – a kind of ‘slow violence’. And although Ghosh doesn’t mention it, one cannot but remember that on the other side of the world millions of African people were being enslaved and transported to work in plantations. This, with the opium trade, created the wealth that powered the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution.

In time he grew to realize that it wasn’t just the ‘despicable meanness’ of the story the influenced him:

There is also an inherent conceptual difficulty in telling a story of this kind: the problem lies in the inescapable presence of a non-human protagonist, a plant… It is very difficult to narrate a story in which a botanical entity is both instrument and protagonist.

Ghosh does not claim that he has made the necessary conceptual breakthrough in this book; he may even have backed off a little from the strong position he took in The Nutmeg’s Curse, where he argues that ‘that nonhumans can, do, and must speak’:

The questions of who is a brute and who is fully human, who makes meaning and who does not, lie at the core of the planetary crisis… What if the idea that the Earth teams with other beings who act, communicate, tell stories, and make meaning, is taken seriously?

The answer to this question many indigenous people would take as self-evident, and many Westerners are actively exploring (the posts at Learning How Land Speaks reflect the work of myself and colleagues). Ghosh tells us that what drew him back into Smoke and Ashes, into this story of humans and opium, despite its darkness, was the realization of

 … the increasingly evident vitality of the earth – or rather, Gaia that gave me the impetus to carry on…  [T]here are many kinds of forces – biological, geological and atmospheric – that possess vital agentic properties of their own… they are fully capable of asserting their independence and ascendancy.

Smoke and Ashes is a fascinating and disturbing history of the exploitative relationship between humans in different cultures and the opium poppy, deeply researched and elegantly written – always elegantly written, thank goodness for writers like Amitav Ghosh. It is a critique of our colonial history; a reflection on how that history resonates so strongly with our present; a cautionary tale of human hubris and its unintended consequences. It is also a challenge to move beyond our habitual assumptions the humans are the sole agents in a world of objects which I am sure Amitav Ghosh will develop in future books.


(1) Dalrymple, W. (2019). The Anarchy: The relentless rise of the East India Company. London: Bloomsbury.

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Peter Reason is currently engaged in a series of experiential co-operative inquiries exploring living cosmos panpsychism: He has been regularly sitting with the River Avon and with invocation and ceremony addressing River as a community of sentient beings: “If I call to the world as sentient being, what response may I receive?” (see Learning how Land Speaks). He is writing about this inquiry in a series of posts on Substack Learning How Land Speaks. His most recent publications include The Teachings of Mistle Thrush and Kingfisher,  On Presence, and On Sentience (all with artist Sarah Gillespie). His online presence is at peterreason.net, @peterreason, @peterreason.bsky.social, and peterreason.substack.com.

Amitav Ghosh, Smoke and Ashes (John Murray, 2024). 978-1529349245, 416pp., hardback.

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