Sea of Poppies

Amitav Ghosh

Sea of Poppies
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Sea of Poppies

Amitav Ghosh

At the heart of this epic saga, set just before the Opium Wars, is an old slaving-ship, the Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean, its crew a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts.

In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a truly diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a bankrupt Raja to a widowed villager, from an evangelical English opium trader to a mulatto American freedman. As their old family ties are washed away they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais or ship-brothers. An unlikely dynasty is born, which will span continents, races and generations.

The vast sweep of this historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, and the exotic backstreets of China. But it is the panorama of characters, whose diaspora encapsulates the vexed colonial history of the East itself, which makes Sea of Poppies so breathtakingly alive - a masterpiece from one of the world’s finest novelists.


Sea of Poppies is the first in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, set against the backdrop of the Opium Wars. The trilogy takes its name from an old ‘blackbirder’, a ship that once carried slaves from West Africa to Britain and America, and now carries indentured Indians and prisoners of the British to Mauritius, the site of their new colony.

On its maiden voyage to Mauritius, the Ibis is carrying in its crew and cargo Zachary, the mulatto from Baltimore who finds comrades within the ship’s lascar crew, Paulette, a French orphan who would rather escape to Mauritius as a poor Indian woman then stay and pretend to be British; a Raja who has lost his kingdom; and a Chinese opium addict. How they have ended up here, amongst the rest of the itinerant souls on this vessel, is Ghosh’s story. And he is in his element, with his exquisite eye for detail, exuberant historical storytelling and his precise feel for his characters.

I couldn’t put it down, and I am most upset that I have been hooked and left dangling as Ghosh writes the next two instalments.

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