Author Amitav has penned the Ibis trilogy that brings alive the history of the flourishing opium trade in Asia in the 19th century, and the wars that followed. His latest is a tome on a more current topic — climate change.
So, was it easier to write about the past from a safe distance or the present, an evolving challenge?
What was interesting about writing the trilogy was really [discovering] how our present world of consumption came into being. That’s what the opium wars were about. They were about free trade, about bringing the whole consumption model to Asia. And it’s really the adoption of that model that has precipitated the climate crisis. So, it was very clear to me that what I’m really writing about is the foundation of climate change.
What role did India Inc play in the opium trade/war?
They [Indian companies] played a pioneering part. In large parts, the opium war was financed by Indian money — by old Bombay money. Many of the big Indian families made their money in opium. This is equally true about America. Many American companies and families have made their money in opium — President Franklin Roosevelt’s family, the Calvin Coolidge family, Forbes family from where you get the current secretary of state, John Kerry, even institutions like Yale and Brown. Singapore and Hong Kong wouldn’t exist today without opiu m. Essential ly opium was the most important commodity of the 19th century.
Are companies hesitant to acknowledge their past connections to opium?
Very hesitant. Jardine Matheson was one of the most important opium trading companies in the 19th century. Their closest partner was Sir Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy, who built half of Bombay. To this day, Jardine Matheson does not like this connection mentioned. In fact, they’ve been known to threaten journalists. Similarly, people who’ve been trying to work with papers of various Indian companies find it very difficult to access documents. Let me just say it tactfully that several companies don’t like this to be spoken of in public.
Would it have been difficult for companies to hide their past if there was social media at that time?
The opium war was a very modern war. It was sold to the British government by merchants. They collected money and sent William Jardine to London to bribe politicians into starting this war. It’s a collusion between the State and the private sector, which benefited not only from the policies of the opium trade, but also from the whole war being sub-contracted to them, in terms of provisions, supply ships etc. It was the template of the Iraq war. First, you pick up something, drum it up by publishing some articles about it, the people will get worked up, then you start the war. You keep hidden what is actually happening.
Social media has accelerated these patterns, but they always existed. It has become a great platform for dissemination of false news, which overwhelms the truth. What must be hidden can always be hidden
The heroic tale of great entrepreneurs is nonsense: Amitav Ghosh
The whole history of capitalism is the creation of mythology, says Ghosh. (Image: BCCL)
Is the business biography then just a creation of a mythology?
It’s completely the creation of mythology. The whole history of capitalism is the creation of mythology. The way it is written is like this heroic tale of great entrepreneurs. It’s nonsense.
Opium was produced in India under an East India monopoly. The only part that entrepreneurs played was taking it from here to China and selling it. It was essentially a smuggling trade.
The history of capitalism is sold to us as a great history of financial innovations. That too is nonsense. To give you a minor example — if you look up commodities futures market on Wikipedia or any standard business history, what they’ll tell you is that it started in Chicago in the 1850s. But the commodities futures markets existed in India going back to the early middle-ages. There was a very active opium futures exchange in Calcutta from the 18th century onwards. British tourists used to go see it. It wasn’t a secret.
How do you feel the biography will capture events like the not so-amicable change of leadership in a company? Will there be a hero? Will there be a villain?
There is this whole discourse around crony capitalism, which is meant to be bad capitalism.
Whenever I see this term, I think, is there any other kind?
This is the part they won’t tell you in business biographies. There is a very interesting thing about Dhirubhai Ambani. He was a careful student of news and politics. He understood that money is made through understanding how the government works. The idea that there is something out there where people are freely building fortunes, that’s a mirage. It’s an illusion. It all works within this sort of collaborative system.
Are wealth and climate change co-related?
There is a direct connection between wealth and emissions. The West’s wealth is fundamentally built on greenhouse gas emissions. One of the real lessons of the Paris Agreement is that they have swept all real issues under the carpet. It closes the door completely on any future reparations for countries, victims and the poor who are going to suffer. It is trying to do a few minor fixes while preserving status quo. It’s better than nothing you might say. But is it really? In some ways it’s worse because we are pretending we are doing something while doing nothing.
US President-elect Donald Trump does not believe in climate change. Did the election result affect you personally?
It affects me because my wife and children, who are American citizens, are upset. I am an Indian citizen. But I’m not as surprised as they were. It’s one of the things that I have discussed in my books. We live in an age where images and media have overwhelmed all rational thought. It doesn’t surprise me that someone like him, who is just a creature of the media and significantly a creature of social media, is actually able to overwhelm all other discourse. I think it’s a real warning to the world. Except you can’t warn of something that has happened. This is going to happen everywhere. We have to prepare ourselves.
Courtesy : Economic Times