How Bombay’s Parsis cracked the opium trade

In the opening chapter of Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke, Bahram Modi of Navsari, recently married into the Mistrie family of Bombay, is trying to persuade his wealthy fatherin-law to let him get into the opium trade with China.

By Dibyendu Ganguly | Economic Times

He starts with a philosophical construct on how the greatest profits in business come from selling useless things and ends with a more practical pitch: The British haven’t succeeded in turning the opium trade it into their monopoly in the Bombay Presidency, so what is the harm in making some money from it? Sassraji eventually agrees to finance his wimpy son-in-law’s trip into Canton (modern day Guangzhou) where he becomes a leading player in the opium trade.

28892435The transformation is vividly described: “stripped of the multiple wrappings of home, family, community, obligation and decorum, Bahram experienced the emergence of a new persona, one that had been previously dormant within him: he had become Barry Moddie, a man who was confident, forceful, gregarious, hospitable, boisterous and enormously successful.”

A glimpse into the life and times of some of the real Bahram Modis of the 19th 12 Time Passages century is currently on display at Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). Titled Across Oceans & Flowing Silks: From Canton to Bombay, the exhibition is all about the Parsi participation in the opium trade — and the fabulous wealth it generated, which eventually went into building the city of Mumbai (including the structure that is now the NGMA).

Many Indian business communities tried their hands at the opium trade but it was only the Parsis who really flourished. What accounts for the community’s success? Some would credit it to adaptability, willingness to travel the seas and friendship with the British. But historian Amar Farooqui, author of Opium City: The Making of Early Victorian Bombay, attributes it to the larger forces of history. “I find it difficult to believe some inherent cultural traits are responsible for any community’s success,” he says.

“The Parsis succeeded because they operated from Bombay, where the East India Company had less control. In Calcutta, where it was omnipresent, Indian businessmen like Dwarkanath Tagore made investments in opium, but failed.” In the 18th century, when the British were focused on trade between the continents, the first moves to promote trade within Asia were initiated by the Dutch.

The Dutch were based in Surat, which is where most Parsis lived till Bombay was developed as an alternate port. The first Parsis to land in Canton were the brothers Readymoney, who set themselves up in premises rented from the Dutch East India Company. The Ching dynasty had allocated a strip of riverside land in Canton to foreigners, where the various European nations and America had ‘factories’, which were essentially large buildings where the traders lived and conducted business (see pic).

By the end of the 18th century, when the British had supplanted the Dutch in India, a large number of Parsi traders are recorded to be living in Canton’s British factory. It is here that the Parsis are believed to have acquired a taste for things European, from chandeliers to wooden furniture.

The growth of the opium trade had much to do with trade reciprocity — and the British appetite for tea. Sweetened tea had become an item of mass consumption in Britain, which also fuelled demand for Caribbean sugar (which in turn resulted in the export of indentured labor from India, but that’s another story).

Since China had no taste for woollies and such, British ships would land in Canton empty, making tea import very expensive. This prompted the British to expand the market for opium in China. The manufacturing base was India, where the market for opium continued to remain small.

China, on the other hand developed millions of addicts. When the Chinese government banned the import of opium, the traders continued to smuggle it. When their goods were finally confiscated in 1840, the British government waged war on behalf of its merchants and won, forcing China to allow imports again. “It was a great human tragedy,” says Farooqui. “Even now, the Opium War arouses enormous nationalist sentiment in China. But not everyone there knows of the Bombay connection.”

Meanwhile, many of Bombay’s opium merchants had moved to textile manufacturing in the 1830s, not over guilt for the havoc their trade caused but because repatriating profits from China had become difficult. Earlier, profits would be repatriated through bills of exchange issued by the East India Company, which served as currency, but the system broke down.

“The move into manufacturing wasn’t a natural progression for the Parsis of Bombay. Rather, it was a solution to the problem of not being able to repatriate profits from the China trade,” says Farooqui. The move into cotton textiles proved to be very fortuitous for Bombay’s former opium merchants. The American Civil War of the 1860s saw demand for cotton zoom and those in the business made fortunes.

Alas, Bahram Modi was not one of them. He entered the trade at the end of its golden era and was unlucky enough to be in Canton with a ship load of opium when the Chinese emperor ordered the seizure of rouge consignments. Unlike his British counterparts, Bahram faced bankruptcy, for he lacked the deep pockets needed to wait out the coming war.

  • Janet Childs Price

    I believe the Parsee involvement with the opium trade helped to finance the British wars with France?
    Janet Dinshaw