Ibis trilogy

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The Ibis trilogy is a work of historical fiction by Amitav Ghosh. It comprises Sea of Poppies (2008), River of Smoke (2011), and Flood of Fire (2015). The story is set in the first half of the 19th century. It deals with the trade of opium between India and China run by the East India Company and the trafficking of coolies to Mauritius.

Cover of Sea of Poppies
Cover of River of Smoke

The trilogy gets its names from the ship Ibis, on board which most of the main characters meet for the first time. The Ibis starts from Calcutta carrying indentured servants and convicts destined for Mauritius, but runs into a storm and faces a mutiny. Two other ships are caught in the same storm - the Anahita, a vessel carrying opium to Canton and the Redruth, which is on a botanical expedition, also to Canton. While some of the passengers of the Ibis reach their destination in Mauritius, others find themselves in Hong Kong and Canton and get caught up in events that lead to the First Opium War.

The novels depict a range of characters from different cultures, including Bihari peasants, Bengali Zamindars, Parsi businessmen, Cantonese boat people, British traders and officials, a Cornish botanist, and a mulatto sailor. In addition to their native tongues, the novels also introduce the readers to various pidgins, including the original Chinese Pidgin English and variants spoken by the lascars.

The trilogy has been well-received for the most part. Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize, while River of Smoke made it to the long list of the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011.

Historical background[edit]

Two major historical phenomena act as a backdrop to the plot of the Ibis trilogy - the "Great Experiment", which involved transport of indentured labour from India to work on the sugar plantations of Mauritius, and the trade of opium between India and China. The British played a significant part in both of these.