Smoke and Ashes: Opium's Hidden Histories
Named a Most Anticipated Book of 2024 by Foreign Policy, Literary Hub, and The Millions
Ghosh unravels the impact of the opium trade on global history and in his own family―the climax of a yearslong project.
When Amitav Ghosh began the research for his monumental cycle of novels the Ibis Trilogy, he was startled to learn how the lives of the nineteenth-century sailors and soldiers he wrote about were dictated not only by the currents of the Indian Ocean but also by the precious commodity carried in enormous quantities on those currents: opium. Most surprising of all, however, was the discovery that his own identity and family history were swept up in the story.
Smoke and Ashes is at once a travelogue, a memoir, and an essay in history, drawing on decades of archival research. In it, Ghosh traces the transformative effect the opium trade had on Britain, India, and China, as well as the world at large. The trade was engineered by the British Empire, which exported Indian opium to sell to China to redress their great trade imbalance, and its revenues were essential to the empire’s financial survival. Following the profits further, Ghosh finds opium central to the origins of some of the world’s biggest corporations, of America’s most powerful families and prestigious institutions (from the Astors and Coolidges to the Ivy League), and of contemporary globalism itself.
Moving deftly between horticultural history, the mythologies of capitalism, and the social and cultural repercussions of colonialism, in Smoke and Ashes Ghosh reveals the role that one small plant has had in making our world, now teetering on the edge of catastrophe.
Praise for Smoke and Ashes: Opium's Hidden Histories
"[A] bracing new history of the global opium trade . . . Ghosh’s tentacular history embraces opium’s entanglement with furniture, architecture, gardens and its role in modern wars. His forensic analysis of opium-factory paintings is particularly fascinating . . . But it’s Ghosh’s big-picture thinking that has made his nonfiction so influential . . . [A] huge achievement." —Delia Falconer, The New York Times Book Review
“Ghosh’s impressive history of the opium industry is an attempt to acknowledge ‘the historical agency of botanical matter’ . . . As Smoke and Ashes shows in forceful, even thundering, prose, the Boston Brahmins and the East India Company unleashed an evil they could not restrain.” —Becca Rothfeld, The Washington Post
“Propulsive and revelatory . . . A skilled storyteller, [Ghosh] triumphs in laying out the shame of the British empire’s opium trade for all to see.” —Anjana Ahuja, Financial Times
“Expansive and thoughtful . . . Smoke and Ashes is a lovely blend of historical writing, travelogue and personal reflection.” —Peter Frankopan, The Spectator
“A scintillating and kaleidoscopic vision of opium’s role in the past several centuries of global history . . . Exquisitely written and packed with astonishing insight, this is a must-read.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Ghosh's literary prowess supercharges this eye-opening excavation of the full extent of the opium-industrial complex." —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)