Set in the run-up to the First Opium War of 1839-42 between British India and China, Flood of Fire
(2015) is the third installment in Indian author Amitav Ghosh’s The Ibis Trilogy
. It follows on from 2008’s Sea of Poppies
and 2011’s River of Smoke
. Described by reviewers as a “saga” (Kirkus Reviews
) and “an excellent history of the First Opium War” (Publishers’ Weekly
), Flood of Fire
was shortlisted for the Hindu Literary Prize and the Crossword Book Jury Award.
Where Sea of Poppies
focused on opium production in Bihar, India and River of Smoke
centered on Canton, China, where Indian opium was sold, Flood of Fire
is more wide-ranging, following the opium trade back and forth across the Indian Ocean as political, military, and commercial concerns come to a violent head. River of Smoke
ended with a show of force by the British Army. At the beginning of the third novel, “along with many other demands the British [have] asked for a sum of six million Spanish dollars in compensation for the opium that Commissioner Lin had confiscated the year before. In addition, they [have] demanded that an island be ceded to them, as a trading base.”
Against this backdrop, Flood of Fire
picks up the story of Zachary Reid, an amoral seaman from Baltimore. The son of a “quadroon” slave by her master, everyone he meets takes Reid for white. At the beginning of the novel, he is acquitted of murdering the first mate of the schooner Ibis
(for which he was detained at the end of the previous novel). To pay off some debts, he takes a job as a “mystery” (that is, a craftsman), aboard the “budgerow” (riverboat) belonging to the wealthy Anglo-Indian Burnham family.
One day, Mrs. Burnham observes Reid from a distance as he enthusiastically polishes a belaying pin. Drawing the conclusion that Reid is masturbating, Mrs. Burnham supplies him with pamphlets describing the dangers of “onanism.” Later, after Reid cuts a dash at a toga party thrown by the Burnhams, Mrs. Burnham invites him to go to bed with her, and the two begin an intense physical affair.
With Mrs. Burnham’s encouragement, her husband, Benjamin Burnham takes a shine to Reid. Mr. Burnham attempts to inspire Reid to join him in the opium trade with a vision of British entrepreneurship: “A new age is dawning, you know – the age of Free Trade – and it’s men like you and I, self-made Free-Traders, who will be its heroes. If ever there’s been an exciting time for a venturesome white youth to seek his destiny in the East, then this is it.”
Reid is hardly convinced by this speech, but he is “sick of sailing, risking your life every day, never having any money in your pocket.” Although entering the opium trade will be risky, Reid tells a fellow servant: “I don’t want to be one of the deserving poor anymore, I want to be rich, Baboo; I want to have silk sheets and soft pillows and fine food…I want to own ships and not work on them…I want to live in Mr. Burnham’s world.”
When he visits the slums of Calcutta to make his first purchase, “through the odor of dust and dung he recalled the perfumed scents of Mrs. Burnham’s boudoir. So this was the mud in which such luxuries were rooted? The idea was strangely arousing.”
As Reid’s star rises, he spots an opportunity to advance himself further by blackmailing Mrs. Burnham and destroying her marriage.
Meanwhile, Shireen Modi, an Indian Parsi woman, is coming to terms with her husband’s death: “‘Is there really nothing left? Nothing?’ she asks herself. ‘Bahram had left behind nothing but debts. Such were the circumstances that his flagship, the Anahita
, had perforce been sold off at Hong Kong, to one Benjamin Burnham an English businessman, for a price far below the vessel’s value.’”
She takes over her husband’s late business and begins slowly to recoup her wealth. However, “money is only one small part of the problem. I have to consider my family’s name and reputation.” Shireen’s husband has left behind not only debts but also an illegitimate child somewhere in China. Defying propriety, Shireen sets out to find this child. Along the way, she develops feelings for her husband’s close friend, an Armenian man whom Shireen’s orthodox family will not approve of.
Alongside these central stories, subplots abound. One-time king Neel Rattan Halder escapes from British imprisonment and goes on the run. He faces jail for forgery, having been convicted on charges trumped up by Mr. Burnham. Havildar Kesri Singh (the brother of Sea of Poppies’
protagonist Deeti) is a sepoy
in the East Indian Company’s Army. He accompanies Captain Neville Mee to China, where their task is to force the Chinese to meet the British government’s demands.
It is this conflict that brings the strands of the novel together. As Reid, Shireen, Halder, Singh, and the Burnhams converge on China, the British declare war and begin a bombardment of Chinese ports. In the novel’s climactic final battle scenes, none of the characters’ stories are fully resolved. Instead, Ghosh insists that history simply continues, its individual agents ultimately powerless in its narrative.