GREAT READS FOR APRIL, 2016
The Ibis Trilogy, by Amitav Ghosh
Flood Of Fire, Book Three
Amitav Ghosh concludes his great sprawling saga of the 1840’s opium Wars with the Flood of Fire unleashed upon the Chinese by the British for daring to oppose their ‘lawful, honest and just’ attempts to trade in opium in China. Such was the economic sway of the East India Company and its various powerful representatives that the British Government consented to send troops to China to bring that unruly nation to heel; it was unthinkable that pig-tailed heathen should refuse God-fearing and righteous attempts by virtuous opium merchants to educate and guide them in matters of commerce and trade: they would have to be taught a lesson.
It has taken Mr Ghosh more than five years to produce this last great story, and I have to admit that I had forgotten some of the characters and a lot of the detail of the first two volumes ( see below ) but his account of Britain’s shameful part in subjugating and humiliating a teeming, populous nation in the name of the twin Gods Money and Profit is first rate, written in a style both lucid and exciting.
The fates of several of the characters are resolved for good or ill here; the corruption of Zachary Reid, an honourable young second mate on the Ibis is gradual and inexorable, but one still reaches the end of the trilogy hoping that he will redeem himself, even though he sells his soul to not one devil but two when Hong Kong is ceded to the British.
Throughout this story is demonstrated the casual superiority and careless racism directed by British Officers to the men who laid down their lives for them in China: the Indian Sepoys who fought like tigers for their commanders but were regarded as completely expendable; one such career man being Kesri Singh, whose Army career evolves into different duties, the keeper of terrible secrets being one.
What an epic adventure this trilogy is, but what leaps out more than all the vividly drawn characters – and there are so many! – is the beautiful Ibis, used for slave-trading and opium transport, but untouched by the evil that men used her for: she is the great beating heart of this trilogy, the vital life-saving connection for all who need to escape. SIX STARS!
Sea of Poppies, Book One
This novel is the first book of a trilogy, and an exhaustive account of Britain’s infamous Opium trade, poppies grown and manufactured into the drug in India and sold to China in a bid to unman and enslave both populations – until the Chinese Mandarins decide to block further imports of the poppy to their country, thus starting the Opium Wars in the late 1830s, a conflict championed by all ‘right-thinking’ British importers and supporters of Free Trade everywhere – or more correctly, a fight by them to retain the huge profits and enormous riches gained in living off the misery of others. This story is an ambitious undertaking; a great sprawling mess of a tale centred around the 1838 voyage of the Ibis, a two-masted schooner fitted out originally as a slaver, then altered minimally after the abolition of slavery to transport indentured Indian labourers to the Mauritius Islands. The Ibis’s next port of call is Canton, there to deliver its supplementary cargo of Opium, but such is the detail, the scene-setting, the sheer sweep of the story that at the end of Book One the Ibis is nowhere near Mauritius, but instead fighting a mighty storm, with an officer murdered and several escapees deciding to take their chances in a stolen longboat – Mein Gott! What an ending: I am nearly as much up in the air as the crashing waves and screeching winds so thrillingly described by Mr. Ghosh, and am still marveling at the ease with which he has brought an initially bewildering and polyglot array of characters (almost a cast of thousands, and every one has a backstory) into being, then pared them down convincingly until the remainder through many a different circumstance end up as voyagers on the Ibis. This novel is also notable for the almost unintelligible mixture of Hindusthani, Urdu, Lascar and old British slang used as dialogue, and I had great fun reading the origins of many of our English words still in use today. Mr. Ghosh has crafted an adventure story in the fine tradition of the great 19th century classics; he’s a worthy successor to Conrad, Defoe and Melville and I am looking forward with great anticipation to Volume 2, ‘River of Smoke’. A treat is surely in store, and I hope Mr. Ghosh is hard at work on volume 3. Highly recommended.
River of Smoke, Book Two
This is the second book of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy. At the end of ‘Sea of Poppies’( Book one) the Ibis, a converted slave ship carrying indentured Indian labourers to Mauritius, is caught in a huge storm. Two condemned prisoners and three Lascars murder an officer, escape the ship and are thought drowned : the ship’s first mate is held responsible, not for the loss of life of those worthless monkeys, but for the danger that was caused to the main shipment, a huge cargo of opium on its way to the Chinese port of Canton.
It was cruel of Mr. Ghosh to leave the reader in such suspense, but ‘River of Smoke’ answers all the questions raised in the first novel, and presents us with a host of fascinating new characters to enjoy. There is a welcome reintroduction to some of the main protagonists of Book One, but some take a back seat as the action shifts from Calcutta to Canton. Mr. Ghosh writes of his characters with gusto and verve and it is nothing less than a delight to follow their adventures, framed against the background of Britain’s iniquitous embrace of the Opium Trade, all in the name of ‘free’ enterprise. Exhaustive research has been undertaken to present an authentic account of the everyday life and business in ‘Fanqui-town’ enclave of the fabulously rich British Traders: not permitted to reside in Canton itself, they nevertheless carve for themselves fiefdoms that ignore Chinese laws completely, believing themselves in their monumental arrogance to be above and beyond the control of the heathen devils. Chinese objections to the enslavement of their population to the poppy go unheeded until a powerful new High Commissioner is appointed by the Emperor – a scholar, an intellectual, a poet - and worst of all incorruptible, he takes up the cudgels on behalf of his people and engages the traders in the first battle of what is to become known as the British Opium Wars.
Mr. Ghosh’s meticulous attention to fact and his great gifts for imagery and characterization make this story a winner; my opinion after reading ‘Sea of Poppies’ was that he is a worthy successor to the great 19th century adventure novelists, and this still holds true with ‘River of Smoke’: when Book Three is read, I know that I will regret this great trilogy coming to an end. Highly recommended.