Opium Trade and the Making of Bombay

VT/CST Station Bombay/Mumbai

Bombay’s impressive 19th Century public buildings: Read on for their connection with the Opium Trade. Click here for photo source.

I found a really eye-opening article on the connection between Bombay and the British Opium Trade with China (a most sordid chapter in the history of Empire) by Mahmood Farooqui recently on the SARAI listserv. I am pasting it below in its entirety. You can also read it here. It is a review of a book published by the Three Essays Collective. The books name is “Opium City: The Making of Early Vistorian Bombay” by Amar Farooqui.

by Mahmood Farooqui
December 23, 2005

“This opium trade is a sin on England’s head and a curse on India for her share in being the instrument.”Dada Bhai Naoroji-1880.

It sometimes appears, from the nature of current historical debates, as if the British Empire in India was purely an Orientalising mission whose discourses generated a politics of identity but that it was little more than an ideological apparatus that hegemonised us. It is difficult therefore to connect back to the earliest Nationalists who decried the drain of wealth from India, who lamented India’s deindustrialization and the economic exploitation of our people by foreign occupiers. It is easy, in the miasma of post-colonialisms emanating from American Universities, to forget that the Empire came into being and remained in force as an economic entity, that it was instituted by traders, that there was also something called economic Imperialism.

Amar Farooqui’s “Opium City-The Making of Colonial Bombay,” is welcome first of all because it reorients us to the fundamentals of how and why we were colonized by the East India Company. It is a new title by the Three Essays Press, a Delhi based outfit, which has been publishing tracts in the form, as its name implies, of three essays in slim volumes by renowned and radical academics in a style and on subjects that are of general interest. Opium City, like everything else published by it-ranging from Hindi film music to the search for an Indian Enlightenment-breaks new ground at the same time as reorienting the debate into a radical yet suitably indigenous direction.

In our school histories we have read about the opium triangle, the unholy trade nexus established by the East India Company wherein it forced Indian peasants to grow opium, under its own monopoly and control, smuggled it to China and sold it in return for Chinese tea and repatriated profits back home. They made entire generations of Chinese addicted to opium because it was the only way to solve the balance of payments problem. This opium trade, once the commonest polemic against Empire, has today virtually passed into oblivion.

Amar Farooqui’s book returns it centre stage at the same time as showing us how important the opium trade was for the businessmen of Western India, particularly Bombay and how significant a role it played in generating the capital that later on built Bombay. The peculiar nature of British, piecemeal, conquest of India meant that they could control the monopoly of opium growth, sales and import far better in Bengal and Bihar than in western India.

Since large chunks of territory in western India was not directly under British rule until the 1850s-Portugese Daman to the North of Bombay and Goa to the South, numerous indigenously ruled states in western India, Sind- it was therefore possible for merchants to access opium grown in Malwa and smuggle it via Pali in Rajasthan, to Jaisalmer then to Karachi and from Karachi by sea to Daman.

By the 1820s a large number of Parsis, Marwaris, Gujarati Banias and Konkani Muslims had moved into the opium trade at Bombay. Of the 42 foreign firms operating in China at the end of the 1830s, 20 were fully owned by Parsis. Indigenous shipping and opium trade too were closely interlinked. For two decades the figure who dominated the opium trade at Bombay was Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy (1783-1859). He was the first Indian to be knighted (1842), the first to win a baronetcy (1857) who partnered Jardine and Matheson, the largest opium trading network in China. Apart from owning ships, agents and commercial clearing houses, he was also one of the six directors of the Bank of Bombay.

It was the capital accumulation of these years that allowed these same people to later on lay the foundation of the industrial Bombay as well as the grand public buildings that survive in South Bombay. From being an obscure port which could not even generate its own revenues Bombay’s transformation into one of the leading cities of the Empire occurred fairly rapidly within the space of about half a century, between the 1790s and 1840s. The share of Bombay in 1820-40 for bullion inflow, especially for opium, was much larger than Calcutta. During this period, the Malwa opium was worth Rs 15-20 million annually to India and unlike Bengali opium which directly benefited the colonial state, earnings from Malwa opium largely represented private, mainly indigenous profits, giving it a great multiplier effect.

This effect was evident in the geographical make up of the city. It was the Parsis, many of them beneficiaries of opium’s huge profits, who developed South Bombay. The bungalows of Malabar and Cumbala Hills, of Breach Candy and Walkeshwar were mostly Parsi-owned and unexceptionally lent out to Europeans. But in the 1830s and 40s they also owned and developed many of Bombay’s quintessential suburbs. Cursetji Manockji owned Anik, Dhakji Dadaji owned Varasavy (present day Versova), Framji Cowasji (Poway estate), Jamestji Bomanji (Vila Parla, Jhu); Cursetji Cowasji (Goregaum); Ratanji Edulji (Gatkopar); Krushnarao Raghunath (Borvday); and Laxman Hurrichanderji (Chincholi).

Opium City, a distillation of the same writer’s bigger treatise “Smuggling as Subversion-Colonialism, Indian Merchants and the Politics of Opium,” (Lexington, 2005) also shows how this opium trade caused no pangs of conscience among community leaders in Bombay who engaged in numerous moral crusades on other issues while simultaneously shipping the drug to china. We know that the Indian nationalists too in the last quarter of the 19th c showed no inclination to oppose the opium trade, actually extending tacit support to it. These businessmen, remembered as great public figures by us, would not countenance paying taxes to improve the city’s water supply (in 1850s) while ratifying stringent provisions, like some of our present day politicos, for sending aliens off the island-particularly those who live ‘idle without work.’ The biggest merit of the book, however, is to show us how it was “the poppy fields of Bihar that built Bombay.” Biharis and Karachiites, therefore, have more than a natural right to live in Bombay.


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