Skip to content

A reader's guide to Sea Of Poppies

Updated Saturday 1st August 2009

As emnity grows between Britain and China over the opium trade, the characters in Amitav Ghosh’s novel come together on a schooner...

Sea of Poppies is a ripping yarn that races along, sweeping the reader with it. Amitav Ghosh’s historical novel is set in 1838, on the eve of the first Opium War when the British were planning to resist Chinese restrictions on the lucrative opium trade.

Poppy field Creative commons image Icon Clear Inner Vision under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license
Poppy field at sunset [Image: Clear Inner Vision under CC-BY-NC-ND]

A group of disparate characters is assembled on board the Ibis, a former slaving schooner (a so-called "black-birder").

The ship’s mission is to transport indentured Indian workers – girmitiyas – from Calcutta to Mauritius.

The jahaj-bhais (ship-brothers) include:

  • Deeti, a widowed opium grower;
  • her devoted lover-protector, Kalua;
  • the second mate, Zachary Reid, a mulatto freedman from Baltimore;
  • the bankrupt Raja Neel Rattan Halder, who forges a friendship with
  • a Chinese opium addict, Ah Fatt;
  • Paulette Lambert, a Frenchwomen evading her odious British guardian, the influential merchant Benjamin Burnham;
  • Paulette’s foster-brother, Jodu;
  • Serang Ali, leader of the lascars (deckhands); and
  • Burnham’s gomusta, Baboo Nob Kissin, a disciple of Ma Taramony, suffused with her spirit.

It has been suggested that the European characters are stereotypes. Certainly they are bigoted and objectionable, but there is a worrying ring of truth in the depictions.

Ghosh litters his texts with unfamiliar vocabulary: Indian words, Anglo-Indian colloquialisms, slang expressions, nautical terms and traders’ argot. Some may find this distracting, but it’s fun to go with the flow!

Be warned: Sea of Poppies is the first part of a trilogy, so you will not find any neat resolutions at the end of the volume; however, this exciting romp will almost certainly leave you wanting more!

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Famous beds: William Morris Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: PKM via Wikimedia article icon

History & The Arts 

Famous beds: William Morris

William Morris was moved to poetry by his bed:

Article
Jorge Luis Borges: A short reading list Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Grete Stern article icon

History & The Arts 

Jorge Luis Borges: A short reading list

"My father's library has been the chief event in my life...the truth is that I have never emerged from it" wrote Borges. Perhaps; but works by and about the man have certainly expanded that library.

Article
Legacy of the Romantics Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

History & The Arts 

Legacy of the Romantics

Who were the Romantics and what did they stand for? Stephanie Forward explains.

Article
A Victorian Christmas: Thackeray goes to the pantomime Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Jesse Harrison Whitehurst article icon

History & The Arts 

A Victorian Christmas: Thackeray goes to the pantomime

In this extract from Roundabout Papers, William Makepeace Thackeray describes a festive entertainment which takes liberties with history. Not that Thackeray is above taking a few liberties of his own...

Article
Approaching poetry Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 2 icon

History & The Arts 

Approaching poetry

Do you want to get more out of your reading of poetry? This free course, Approaching poetry, is designed to develop the analytical skills you need for a more in-depth study of literary texts. You will learn about rhythm, alliteration, rhyme, poetic inversion, voice and line lengths and endings. You will examine poems that do not rhyme and learn how to compare and contrast poetry.

Free course
20 hrs
Quiz: Which Brontë sister wrote it? activity icon

History & The Arts 

Quiz: Which Brontë sister wrote it?

Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë had very different writing styles but can you tell their writing apart from the other? Try our interactive quiz to find out.

Activity
Faustus Interviews: Janet McTeer, Evil Angel & Tanya Moodie, Good Angel Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team audio icon

History & The Arts 

Faustus Interviews: Janet McTeer, Evil Angel & Tanya Moodie, Good Angel

The two angels talk about their different roles in Dr Faustus.

Audio
5 mins
What was Lewis Carroll like? Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Public domain article icon

History & The Arts 

What was Lewis Carroll like?

In her memoir, The Story of Lewis Carroll Told For Young People By The Real Alice In Wonderland, Carroll's young friend Isa Bowman describes a man whose behaviour might feel uncomfortable viewed from the 21st century; and a man who found the fame of being the author of Alice In Wonderland too much to take. This is an edited extract from her memoir.

Article
How a centuries-old poem hints at Shakespeare’s herbal ‘muse’ article icon

History & The Arts 

How a centuries-old poem hints at Shakespeare’s herbal ‘muse’

Evidence from a poem and sonnett suggest that William Shakespeare drew at least some of his inspiration from cannabis.

Article