Much more than a pukka seafaring story

2009-08-19 00:00


Sea of Poppies

Amitav Ghosh

John Murray

SEA of Poppies is an engrossing tale of sailors, indentured labourers, runaways and convicts, who are bound for Mauritius aboard the Ibis, a ­converted slave ship.

Although taking place in a context of aggressive colonial trade, there is no simple polarising of perpetrators and victims, but rather a vividly complex portrayal of men and women from different countries, races and social classes, who are driven by ­intricately linked imperatives.

The story begins in India in 1838, just prior to the First Opium War ­between the British and the Chinese. Britain’s East India Company exercised tremendous power in India where peasant farmers were forced to grow opium, which was then ­exported by the British to China. At the same time that the opium mono­culture caused the impoverishment of Indian farmers, the recent abolition of international slavery created a demand for agricultural workers on colonial plantations. These ­circumstances led to thousands of indentured labourers being shipped from India to sugar cane plantations overseas.

The extraordinarily diverse mixture of characters, cultures and ­influences is embodied in a polyglot nautical slang and Indian-influenced English. So, in the company of the young shipmate Zachary Reid, a freedman from Baltimore, the reader learns, for example, that “malum” means mate and “serang” is bosun. Zachary gets used to being greeted by the head of the crew of lascars, Serang Ali, “with a cheerful: ‘Chin-chin Malum Zikri! You catching chow-chow? Wat dam t’ing hab got inside?’”

The passengers — who include a widowed opium farmer, a bankrupt Raja unfairly convicted of fraud, an orphaned French runaway and her childhood friend who is the son of her former wet nurse — come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais or “ship-brothers”, as they are swept away to an uncertain future.

This epic tale of a voyage that spans continents and obliterates old identities is as enjoyable as it is ­interesting. As the first part of a planned trilogy, the book ends rather abruptly — but we have part two to look forward to. Let’s hope it is published soon.

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