'Colonial India’s link to opium trade neglected' | mumbai | Hindustan Times
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'Colonial India’s link to opium trade neglected'

The conflict over a drug, gave rise to a nation. The Opium Wars of the 19th century fought between China and Britain over the opium trade, marked the founding moment for modern Chinese history and the fount from which China still derives its nationalist identity, states Julia Lovell’s new book, The Opium War.

mumbai Updated: Jul 30, 2011 01:18 IST
Bhavya Dore

The conflict over a drug, gave rise to a nation. The Opium Wars of the 19th century fought between China and Britain over the opium trade, marked the founding moment for modern Chinese history and the fount from which China still derives its nationalist identity, states Julia Lovell’s new book, The Opium War.

This colourful period – which also serves as a prism for understanding Sino-British relations since – is the focus of Lovell’s book. “In China it’s hard to overestimate the nationalistic passions and sensitivities that memories of the opium trade and war generate among many Chinese people,” said Lovell, a professor at Birbeck College, University of London, who was in the city on Friday to launch the book.

The Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) broke out after China tried suppressing the opium trade, because it found its population hopelessly addicted. The British, on the other hand, were pushing for free trade.

Colonial India was an important triangular point in the trade; as the place where opium was grown, the ships were built, where the fleet gathered. “I think that this is a very interesting cultural and political link – and I would agree with Amitav Ghosh that this link has been neglected,” said Lovell referring to Ghosh’s novel, River of Smoke, which was released last month and uses the backdrop of the same period.

“The Opium War is productive of a lot of stereotypes that live on about China today… the stereotypes that China is isolationist, anti-foreign, anti-free trade,” said Lovell. “In the West, non-specialist reporters writing about China sometimes instinctively frame debates about China’s rise in terms of the question: ‘Is China a Threat’ – as if the West is predestined to have a clash of civilisations with China. The tone of debate doesn’t often exist when the West is talking about the rise of India, Russia or Brazil.”

Lovell is planning her next project on the international spread of Maoism.