How drugs shaped the world we live in

Chennai-based writer Thomas Manuel’s ‘Opium Inc’ investigates how British colonialism was funded by a global trade in the drug

In the vast tree-dotted campus of St Andrew’s Church (the Kirk), where for nearly 150 years many Scotsmen who made up the rank and file of the East India Company worshipped, stands an old hall now in ruins. Under its shadow, where 30-year-old journalist-writer Thomas Manuel is being photographed, two worlds mingle — the long-forgotten glory days of the British Raj and a book on how a drug built the empire on which the sun never set.

Thomas’ first book Opium Inc. – How A Global Drug Trade Funded The British Empire, published by Harper Collins, was written over the course of the pandemic.

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“For nearly 100 years, the British knew that the drug was dangerous but continued to trade in it. The story of opium trade is not just about narcotics that were stored in chests and shipped. It is about how that trade shaped the world we live in. Its legacy in India, whether the poverty of Bihar or the wealth of Bombay, is still not acknowledged; the story is one of immense pain for many and huge privileges for a few,” says Thomas, who, in 2016, was the winner of The Hindu Playwright Award for his script Hamlet and Angad.

A glut of literature has been written on how infuriated merchants in London founded the East India Company (EIC) when the Dutch who controlled the spice trade increased by five shillings the price of a pound of pepper. By the 19th Century, when opium made its appearance on the global stage as a commodity, Britain had moved from commerce to conquest, its scarlet stains spreading across the world map, marking the extent of its empire. While the empire is no longer a hallmark of British identity, the world still moves to the tidal shifts of its colonial policy.

Global saga

It is this — how the EIC took opium from India to China, tea from China to Britain and brought colonial rule from Britain to India — that Thomas examines in his book, traversing continents and time frames in a matter of 250-odd pages.

Thomas embarks on a historian’s journey, without maps, piecing together a jigsaw from reading and reconstruction. “I was raised in Chennai in a family of chartered accountants. I joined the family firm after school and graduated in Commerce via correspondence. Three years later, I decided to become a freelance journalist.”

As a journalist, most of his incisive articles are on history, science, art and education, written without being weighed down by a formal degree. His article on Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, the opium trader from Bombay who became one of India’s richest men and founded iconic institutions such as the JJ School of Art and JJ Hospital, set him on the road to Opium Inc.

Opium Inc is published by Harper Collins | Photo Credit: Ravindran_R

But before that, came India Ink, a public history forum that Thomas runs along with Viswak P, a journalist, and Shireen Azam who ran the Economic & Political Weekly’s digital initiative.

“We do two things — take an academic paper, simplify it and retell it for a larger audience with a focus on political issues, and write on how history can educate the political debates we are having today. We also make animated whiteboard-style videos with narration for YouTube on social history, caste, class and gender,” says Thomas, adding, “We rectify misinformation that may spread through WhatsApp and communicate, especially to a younger audience, what is widely agreed on by academicians across the world. There may be disagreement among them, but there is also a very clear majority opinion.”

An approach to complexity

Thomas also compiles a podcast directory. Another of his passions is data journalism, where he extracts data such as crime data from Government PDFs across years and states from the National Crime Records Bureau, formats and visualises them to make it easily available for the public. “I like to simplify complex things,” says Thomas, adding that reading to write Opium Inc was just as complex, repeatedly switching between characters and corporate power.

“I prefer to tell stories peopled with various characters, multiple locations and interesting angles,” says Thomas who is keen on writing a book on ancient Indian scientific discoveries next.

Thomas writes the story of opium with a capacious sweep of history, beginning with the Greeks, travelling with the Safavids of Iran and the Mughals; the contention for dominion of trade by the European colonial powers with Asia as their battleground; the forays into Canton and the Malwa plateau and the tragedy of child labour.

Opium Wars; the anti-crusaders in both China and India and their place in our Freedom Struggle; slavery; opium’s influence on the Romantic poets; the war on drugs today; India’s own struggle with addiction in states such as Punjab, and the need to examine the drug’s place in our folk medicine, medical and justice systems are also explored.

Opium Inc is not a litany of Britain’s inglorious empire, although it investigates its role thoroughly. It is a compelling story in brilliant prose that throws light on some narratives for the first time without taking sides. Built on a foundation of academic articles, books and a 500 words-a-day schedule, Opium Inc is a reminder of how even as imperial nostalgia is dying, its impact still resonates around the globe.

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