Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Triangular trades

More colonialist chronicles here in a new book by Amitav Ghosh (earlier in this blog). Reviewing the book 'The Sea of Poppies', the Financial Times book review section says it like it is:

Poppies revolves around Deeti, a poppy farmer’s wife who escapes from her husband’s Sati pyre and, like Naipaul’s forbears, is forced to sell herself into a form of legalized slavery as an indentured laborer bound for the plantations of Mauritius. Ghosh’s anger at the hypocrisy and violence inherent in this trade is well justified: it is one of the most shocking episodes in the violent history of the British Empire. By the late 1830s, the European market in spices that had first brought the British to India had slumped.

The East India Company kept itself solvent by a triangular trade that involved growing opium in India, and selling it in China. In China, the company then bought tea, which it sold in Britain. In order to grow the opium needed to buy enough tea to satisfy British appetites, the company wreaked havoc across the Gangetic plain, compelling peasants to abandon their traditional food crops and plant poppies instead

I thought the only triangular trade the Brits were involved before this was with slaves, but what do I know. Need to read more history...

Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1889, Snake Charmer, 33" X 48", Oil on canvas. Image from here.
Note: This painting is the cover of Edward Said's book Orientalism and is mentioned in regard to an exhibition titled ‘The Lure of the East’ currently underway at Tate Britain that looks at British Orientalist paintings and the related effects of cultural imperialism.

A review of the exhibition here traces some of the roots of cultural imperialism and notions of self-pity in the minds of the oppressed (as seen from the passage below). Reading it also made me re-think the commonly touted, romanticized version of India as being the land of fakirs, snake charmers and gilded elephants that was held in thrall in most Western minds before the current (and hopefully not temporary) aphrodisiac of globalization and outsourcing…

Said’s cover featured Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “The Snake Charmer”, a tangle of naked boy and serpent performing to a ragged assembly slumped against crumbling tiled walls, which embodies the orientalism of historic western prejudice. According to Said, by misrepresenting the Middle East as a place of exacerbated sensuality and decadence, incapable of adapting to the modern age, western cultural discourse licensed European strategies for political domination of the region. Reread that today as America’s battle for hearts, minds and oil, add the west’s panicky interest in Islamic culture, plus a recent backlash against “orientalism” by scholars such as Robert Irwin and Ibn Warraq, who claims that Said “taught an entire generation of Arabs the art of self-pity”, and the painting becomes more inflammatory than ever.