All of Amitav Ghosh’s writing to date has traced connections across cultures. Sea of Poppies, the first part of what promises to be the great trilogy of Empire as seen from the vantage point of characters who, for the most part, were exploited by its transactions, is no exception. The novel is set during the period when the economy of Bengal and the poppy fields along the banks of the Ganges were dominated by the East India Company’s monopoly of trade in Indian-grown opium, and there are hints of the wars of the South China Seas to come. But this is only part of the book’s rich tapestry. The human story of this aspect of imperial commerce is intertwined with that of another tangled and shameful chapter in British history. The novel takes place at the moment in the late 1830s when, shortly after Emancipation, the plantations of the Caribbean, Mauritius and Fiji needed a new labour force and the system of indentureship came into being, with ‘coolies’ signing ‘girmits’ (agreements) to cross the black waters. In so doing, they lost both caste and many of the certitudes of their former lives; but at the same time, the novel suggests, they brought new diasporic communities into being. Ghosh shows these beginning to take shape during the first part of their voyage to their new lives.
Two of the novel’s three sections depict the routes by which a varied cast of characters come to be migrants on, appropriately, a former slaving-ship, the Ibis, which will take them to Mareech-dip (Mauritius) along with its motley crew and two convicts who are being transported to the island’s penal