Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Sea of Poppies

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Sea of Poppies

by Amitav Ghosh

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2008, 528 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2009, 528 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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The Ghazipur Opium Factory
For centuries, India was the largest exporter of opium, accounting for 17-20% of Indian revenues. The export of opium to China began in the 1780's at the urging of the first governor general of British India, Warren Hastings, in an attempt to balance trade with China. At the time, China exported enormous amounts of goods including tea, but imported little from Europe. At first, there wasn't much demand for the drug, but over the next decade demand increased exponentially. Indian farmers were effectively forced to replace their crops with opium poppies, and then sell the resulting harvest back to the British East India Company for a pittance.


The 200-year old Ghazipur opium factory in India (which figures memorably in Sea of Poppies) continues to be one of the largest opium producers in the world – and certainly the largest legal opium factory. Ghazipur city is located in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. In Amitav Ghosh's indelible portrayal of the factory, based on historical documents, Indian slave laborers toil in deeply drugged states, sunk waist-deep in tanks of opium, churning and tramping to soften the sludge, "a host of dark, legless torsos circling around and around, like some enslaved tribe of demons."


Today, the 52-acre colonial red-brick factory, now run by the Indian government and formally called The Opium and Alkaloid Works (OAW), employs 900 workers and has an annual revenue of 45 million dollars. The opium is produced and processed using age-old techniques (which we assume no longer include slave laborers toiling waist-deep in the tanks) into a very pure product that is sold across the world for pharmaceutical use in alkaloids such as codeine and morphine.

Photos: Top: An undated photo believed to be of the Ghazipur Opium Factory from the Wellcome Library. Bottom: A view of the gates of the factory today.

Article by Lucia Silva

This article was originally published in January 2009, and has been updated for the September 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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