Why Historians and Linguists Should Read the Ibis Trilogy


Historians and linguists of the world: you should be reading Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy – Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and the recently released Flood of Fire. (For those who have already started Flood of Fire, don’t worry, there are no spoilers ahead.)

I’m hoping the historians don’t need too much convincing. Ghosh’s trilogy is set in the years leading up to the First Opium War of 1839-1842. It follows the intersecting lives of the Ibis’s passengers and crew who – from an American sailor to a half-Chinese-half-Parsi convict to a disgraced raja to a hold full of Bengali migrants – all end up affected and displaced by the events of the 1830s.

The Opium War itself is a fascinating period in British (and Indian, and Chinese) history, although not one you ever seem to see anyone clamouring to put on the UK National Curriculum. I’m guessing that’s probably because of just how tricky it would be to make the British seem like the good guys, given that this was a war fought to support the interests of drug smugglers. The Opium was fought on behalf of wealthy western “Free Traders” to force Chinese officials to re-legalise the sale of opium, mostly grown in India by the East India Company. The fact that opium had been banned in China to try to limit the spread of drug addiction and that its sale was heavily restricted in Britain did not deter those who continued to smuggle the drug in. When their goods were seized and destroyed by the Chinese authorities, the traders demanded that the British army back them up in demanding millions of pounds of compensation – and they got their way.

The opinions of the Free Traders – often taken verbatim from speeches or articles written by the men themselves – show an absolutely breath-taking sense of entitlement. “God,” declares one, “would not have endowed Man with a love of profit if it were not for his own good.” A few dissenting voices condemn these views, but in the end cannot win out. Ghosh’s research of the Free Traders and their writing is impeccable, and his use of the material is masterful. His talent for making history immersive and immediate is probably second to none.

But if you are a linguist or a historian of language, then it’s even more important that you read these books.

Ghosh’s characters come from all over the world, from all kinds of backgrounds. The attention to the detail of the language is absolutely engrossing. Nuggets of different languages – Bengali, Hindi, Bhojpuri, Persian, Cantonese, Chinese Pidgin, Mauritian Creole – are left on almost every page, but without making the text at all opaque. If anything, the Hobson-Jobson English of the British characters living in India is the hardest to understand. Zachary, an American sailor, has trouble with this too, and gets an explanation somewhat reminiscent of the recent “cheeky Nando’s” debacle:

Knitting his eyebrows, he said: “Cu- cuzzanah? Now there you go again, Mr Doughty: that’s another word I don’t know the meaning of.”
This naïve, if well-meant, remark earned Zachary a firm dressing-down: it was about time, the pilot said, that he, Zachary, stopped behaving like a right gudda – “that’s a donkey in case you were wondering.” This was India, where it didn’t serve for a sahib to be taken for a clodpoll of a griffin: if he wasn’t fly to what was going on, it’d be all dickey with him, mighty jildee. This was no Baltimore – this was a jungle here, with biscobras in the grass and wanderoos in the trees. If he, Zachary, wasn’t to be diddled and taken for a flat, he would have to learn to gubbrow the natives with a word or two of the zubben. (Sea of Poppies, 2008)

As a reader, this takes a little getting used to, but Ghosh is careful that the plot is never lost in this dense dialogue.

Many characters are multilingual, and show an amazing array of contact phenomena in their speech. Paulette Lambert, for example, is raised by a French-speaking father in India. As a teenager, circumstances mean that she is left to live with an English-speaking family. Though her English is relatively good, she is not up to speed with English idiom or Indian English slang. In general, her French interference is very subtle, though it becomes more pronounced when she is affected by some strong emotion, and sometimes interference even gets her into trouble. As her friend Robin writes to her from Canton:

As for the query with which you ended: why, of course, you can certainly depend on me to do whatever I can to help you with your spoken English! But in the meanwhile, I do strongly urge you to exercise some care in your choice of words. There is nothing wrong of course in speaking words of encouragement to the crew, but […] I confess that I too would be quite astonished if a young lady of tender years were to felicitate me on my dexterity in “polishing the foc-stick”. Far be it from me to reproach you for your spontaneity, Puggly dear, but you must not always assume that it is safe to transpose French expressions directly into English. The English equivalent of bâton-à-foc, for instance, is definitely not “foc-stick” – it is “jib-boom”. (River of Smoke, 2011)

Ghosh’s fascination with language comes out in the character Neel who, as an aristocrat in rather reduced circumstances finds that his skill with languages and writing must become his meal ticket. Living in the trading community at Canton, he hopes to write an English-Pidgin dictionary. Though a Chinese-Pidgin dictionary already exists, he finds that many English speakers assume that Pidgin is just baby-talk English, despite its use of Cantonese syntax and morphology. Neel often acts as a bridge and interpreter between communities, culturally as well as linguistically.

The skill with which Ghosh tells is story is so absorbing that I now feel (completely unfairly) that I know all about the world of 1830s India-China trade routes. I’ve learned so many things that surprised me, including the fact that “pidgin” is Chinese Pidgin for “business”, and the non-English origins of various English slang like “chop-chop” and “dekko”.  I’m a geek about these things, and I can’t help enjoying it.

But in the end this is just a fantastic story, and one I have never heard told before.

“How was it possible that a small number of men, in the span of a few hours or minutes, could decide the fate of millions of people yet unborn? How was it possible that the outcome of those brief moments could determine who would rule whom, who would be rich or poor, master or servant, for generations to come?” (Flood of Fire, 2015)

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