You’re probably not looking forward to a summer that is sure to contain a series of outrages from Donald Trump. I’ve got relief for you. Concentrate on Amitov Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy instead.
This series takes awhile to get through. You may want to keep a list of characters. You might need a bigger map than those in the books. Unfamiliar terms and challenging dialect are part of the experience. The first sentence is 63 words long, so the author has warned you this will not be easy. I’m usually a fast reader. Not so with these books. I had to slow down.
The effort is worth it and will likely distract you from the craziness of this summer’s presidential campaign. Start with Sea of Poppies, follow up with River of Smoke and finally tackle Flood of Fire. Ghosh writes about the India-Chinese opium trade and the events leading up the opium wars.
Sea of Poppies is the story of a dingy, Baltimore-based former slave ship, retrofitted to transport coolies (indentured servants) from Calcutta, India to the sugar plantations on the island of Mauritius.
Ghosh introduces us to a woman who grows poppies, a smart, young, free, partially black man who passes for white, a lascar who is the serang or top-level ethnic seaman on the ship, a penniless raja, a young orphaned French woman who is a botanist’s daughter and the Indian man who is like a brother to her because they grew up together, as well as several insufferable English men and women.
Some of the lesser characters in the first novel rise to higher levels in the second and third books. The cause of actions in the first book look different while reading the second and third. Some of the characters aren’t what you thought they were. Look for references to eyes.
While much is made of the new “global economy,” this trilogy shows there is nothing new about a global economy. This is the story of the global economy of the 1830s. It is heinous, but rich for storytelling.
Although New England doesn’t figure greatly in the story, there are enough New Englanders to make you realize that if slavery is America’s original sin, opium may be its second.
John Forbes Kerry’s ancestors, as well as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s, engaged in the opium trade. So did the founders of Boston’s most revered institutions—such people as the Cabots, the slave-trader Thomas Handasyd Perkins and John Cushing, whom the Chinese called Ku-Shing. Cushing, Perkins’s nephew, spent thirty years in Canton, married the daughter of the minister at Trinity Church upon his return and then built a country estate he called Bellmont, after which the town of Belmont is named.
It wasn’t New Englanders who were mainly addicted. It was the Chinese who got the drug from the ship captains and traders who bought the opium in Turkey and India and dumped it in Canton, now Guangzhou.
The British forbade the American colonies from participating in the opium trade. But after the War of 1812, the Americans happily dove right in. They prospered from it because New Englanders wanted Chinese porcelain, antiques and art. The Chinese typically wanted only timber and furs from New England. Opium helped balance the trade.
The Chinese authorities were not happy with the situation and tried for many years to shut down the trade, resulting in opium wars in the 1850s.
Among the 19th-century users of laudanum, or opium, were John Keats, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Samuel Coleridge, Charles Dickens and Thomas DeQuincey, who published “Confessions of an English Opium Eater.” And who can forget Dr. Watson being distressed by Sherlock Holmes’s three-times-a-day-habit?
What goes around comes around. Americans are now addicted to the modern version of opium, which was at first believed to be the answer to pain. Gov. Baker declared his own war on opium addiction, just like the Chinese authorities did. It is unclear whether Baker will succeed where the Chinese did not.
Ghosh relied on images from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem for his books, according to curator Karina H. Corrigan, who has read the first two books of the trilogy. Although many items from this period are in storage while the museum expands, one small installation displays luxuries that can give a reader an idea of the goods New Englanders brought back from China.
Opium still exists in New England. If you go on a garden tour in late June or July in some rural areas, you’ll find pink and red opium poppies happily being grown for their beauty. The seeds can’t be bought, but they are passed around from gardener to gardener.
If you visit Lincolnshire, England in late summer, you’ll find wide fields of lavender opium poppies grown legally for the British pharmaceutical industry.
Such a beautiful plant. Such a sordid history. You’ll be entranced by the Ibis trilogy.
Downtown View is a column by newspaperwoman Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Karen now works from her home in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com. Please feel free to leave responses in the comments section below.