Amitav Ghosh on cash crops

Amitav Ghosh, A sea of poppies, 2008: [Ghazipur, India, 1838] [T]he factory’s appetite for opium seemed never to be sated. Come the cold weather, the English sahibs would allow little else to be planted; their agents would go from home to home, forcing cash advances on the farmers, making them sign asami contracts. It was impossible to say no to them: if you refused they would leave their silver hidden in your house, or throw it through a window. It was no use telling the white magistrate that you hadn’t accepted the money and your thumbprint was forged: he earned commission on the opium and would never let you off. And, at the end of it, your earnings would come to no more than three-and-a-half sicca rupees, just about enough to pay off your advance.

This is the volume I should have read before River of smoke. Like its sequel, it is absorbing, and full of history I didn’t know going on in parallel with things, like the spread of the British empire, that I know something about.

The motor for the replacement of subsistence agriculture by cash crops, like the replacement of hunter-gathering by cultivation, is an interesting question. (In reality, as I once saw in Kenya, subsistence/cash crop is not a black and white distinction.) Is Ghosh’s way of telling the story believable for the case he describes?

Published by

Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "EnergyEfficiency" at European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy

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