It sometimes appears, from the nature of current historical debates, as if the British empire in India was purely an orientalising mission whose discourses generated a politics of identity but that it was little more than an ideological apparatus that hegemonised us. It is difficult therefore to connect back to the earliest nationalists who decried the drain of wealth from India, who lamented India’s deindustrialisation and the economic exploitation of our people by foreign occupiers.
It is easy, in the miasma of post-colonialisms emanating from American universities, to forget that the Empire came into being and remained in force as an economic entity, that it was instituted by traders, that there was also something called economic imperialism.
Amar Farooqui’s Opium City — The Making of Colonial Bombay is welcome because it reorients us to the fundamentals of how and why we were colonised by the East India Company. It is a new title by the Three Essays Press, a Delhi-based outfit, which has been publishing tracts in the form, as its name implies, of three essays in slim volumes by renowned and radical academics in a style and on subjects that are of general interest.
Opium City, like everything else published by it — ranging from Hindi film music to the search for an Indian enlightenment — breaks new ground at the same time as reorienting the debate into a radical yet suitably indigenous direction.
In our school histories we have read about the opium triangle, the unholy trade nexus established by the East India Company, wherein it forced Indian peasants to grow opium, under its own monopoly and control, smuggled it to China and sold it in return for Chinese tea and repatriated profits back home. They addicted entire generations of Chinese to opium because it was the only way to solve the balance of payments problem. This opium trade, once the commonest polemic against Empire, has today virtually passed into oblivion.
Amar Farooqui’s book returns it centre stage at the same time as showing us how important the opium trade was for the businessmen of western India, particularly Mumbai, and how significant a role it played in generating the capital that later on built Mumbai.
The peculiar nature of Britian’s piecemeal conquest of India meant that they could control the monopoly of opium growth, sales and import far better in Bengal and Bihar than in western India.
Since large chunks of territory in western India was not directly under British rule until the 1850s, Portugese Daman to the north of Mumbai and Goa to the south, numerous indigenously ruled states in western India and Sind were out of bounds for opium merchants in British territories.
Merchants could, therefore, only access opium grown in Malwa by smuggling it via Pali in Rajasthan, to Jaisalmer and then to Karachi and from Karachi by sea to Daman.
By the 1820s a large number of Parsis, Marwaris, Gujarati Banias and Konkani Muslims had moved into the opium trade at Mumbai. Of the 42 foreign firms operating in China at the end of the 1830s, 20 were fully owned by Parsis. Indigenous shipping and opium trade too were closely interlinked.
For two decades the figure who dominated the opium trade at Bombay was Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy (1783-1859). He was the first Indian to be knighted (1842), the first to win a baronetcy (1857) who partnered Jardine and Matheson, the largest opium trading network in China. Apart from owning ships, agents and commercial clearing houses, he was also one of the six directors of the Bank of Bombay.
It was the capital accumulation of these years that allowed these same people to later on lay the foundations of an industrial Bombay and build the grand public buildings that survive in south Bombay. From being an obscure port which could not even generate its own revenues, Bombay’s transformation into one of the leading cities of the Empire occurred fairly rapidly within the space of about half a century, between the 1790s and 1840s.
The share of Bombay in 1820-40 for bullion inflow, especially for opium, was much larger than Calcutta’s. During this period, the Malwa opium was worth Rs 15-20 million annually to India and unlike Bengali opium, which directly benefited the colonial state, earnings from Malwa opium largely represented private, mainly indigenous profits, giving it a great multiplier effect.
This effect was evident in the geographical make up of the city. It was the Parsis, many of them beneficiaries of opium’s huge profits, who developed South Bombay. The bungalows of Malabar and Cumbala Hills, of Breach Candy and Walkeshwar were mostly Parsi-owned and unexceptionally lent out to Europeans.
But in the 1830s and 40s’ they also owned and developed many of Bombay’s quintessential suburbs. Cursetji Manockji owned Anik, Dhakji Dadaji owned Varasavy (present day Versova), Framji Cowasji (Poway estate), Jamestji Bomanji (Vila Parla, Jhu); Cursetji Cowasji (Goregaum); Ratanji Edulji (Gatkopar); Krushnarao Raghunath (Borvday); and Laxman Hurrichanderji (Chincholi).
Opium City, a distillation of the same writer’s bigger treatise ‘Smuggling as Subversion-Colonialism, Indian Merchants and the Politics of Opium,’ (Lexington, 2005) also shows how this opium trade caused no pangs of conscience among community leaders in Bombay, who engaged in numerous moral crusades on other issues while simultaneously shipping the drug to China.
We know that the Indian nationalists too in the last quarter of the 19th century showed no inclination to oppose the opium trade, actually extending tacit support to it.
These businessmen, remembered as great public figures by us, would not countenance paying taxes to improve the city’s water supply (in the 1850s) while ratifying stringent provisions, like some of our present day politicos, for sending aliens off the island-particularly those who live “idle without work”.
The biggest merit of the book, however, is to show us how it was “the poppy fields of Bihar that built Bombay”.
~ book review of Opium City: The Making of Early Victorian Bombay, (by Author Amar Farooqui, Professor of History at the University of Delhi)