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 Creative commons image 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

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

History & The Arts 

More Than Tales

The society Chaucer wrote about is changed beyond recognition, yet ordinary English men and women emerge with greater vitality in his brilliant narratives than in the writings of many more recent poets. Owen Gunnell introduces his life and work.

Article

History & The Arts 

Reading the War: The People's War 100

We have a comprehensive reading list for anybody interested in the Second World War

Article

History & The Arts 

Andrew Motion: Poetry and life

Poet Laureate and OU honorary graduate Andrew Motion spoke with Ozone about his life in the spotlight and the role poetry has to play in the modern world

Article

History & The Arts 

Motion on... Betjeman

Andrew Motion enthuses over one of his predecessors.

Article

History & The Arts 

Shakespeare's family

Peter Thomson describes Shakespeare's family life.

Article
The man behind Matilda – what Roald Dahl was really like article icon

History & The Arts 

The man behind Matilda – what Roald Dahl was really like

Roald Dahl: the incredible storyteller loved by millions or a belittling bully? Find out what his character was like in this article.

Article

History & The Arts 

Harper Lee's life was as surprising as any work of fiction

Harper Lee, who has died at the age of 89, had a life that was as curious as any plot from a novel. Writing in 2015, before the publication of Go Set A Watchman, Professor Richard Gray shared some of the story.

Article

History & The Arts 

A reader's guide to Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist

As part of the celebration of Darwin's bicentenary, we invite you to join us reading what is considered by many to be the definitive biography. Stephanie Forward introduces 'Darwin' by Adrian Desmond and James Moore.

Article