Colonial India and Genealogy At Sea

Colonial India and Genealogy At Sea


Half the action in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (2008) takes place on a ship, the Ibis, in the years before the First Opium War (1839-42). Near the beginning of the novel, the ship’s British pilot Mr. Doughty asks the American sailor Zachary Reid to do something very strange. He asks him to learn a language, learn it well enough to know what’s speaking well in it is like, and then asks him not to speak it well. He asks him to deliberately speak it badly, that is, to speak his-being-bad-at-it, very, very well. He tutors Zachary into this very studied poverty of language, an immaculately performed inadequacy, a very careful carelessness about what and how he speaks to those around him in Calcutta.

In this pre-Opium War, early-mid 19th century colonial Calcutta of Sea of Poppies, Mr. Doughty’s lessons to Zachary are in the consolidation of power. If Zachary wants to be seen as a Sahib, and not a “right gudda – ‘that’s a donkey in case…’” Zachary was wondering, then he will have to learn “a word or two of the zubben”, of the zubaan, of the “flash lingo of the East” (49). “It’s easy enough to jin,” to learn, Mr. Doughty says, “if you put your head to it.” (ibid.). You need to know the language of the natives to “gubbrow the natives”, to ghabrao them, to plant fear and awe in them, to come across not as easily befooled but as someone in the know, as someone confident enough to dominate (ibid.).

The tutorial, however – How to be Seen as a Sahib – becomes increasingly difficult. Zachary should know his “Oordoo and Hindee” but he should “mind” that when he speaks it, his “Oordoo and Hindee doesn’t sound too good” (ibid.). It is a deliberate incompleteness of the grasp over the language, a grasp that is enough but not more than enough – because if it is too good, Mr Doughty warns, the world will think that “you’ve gone native” (ibid.). That you’ve lost your Sahibness, you’ve lost your critical difference, your superiority to the native by becoming too indistinguishable from him. By speaking his language too well, you’ve become too similar to him, too similar to the ruled to do the ruling.

There is an interesting paradox here. In this tutored badness of the tongue. A paradox that is at the heart of the colonial anxiety to maintain power, as premised on a qualitative segregation between the rulers as people and the ruled, an unbridgeable breach between their persons, that manages how power flows between them, especially as colonial trade – opium trade, after all, is the primum mobile of the novel – swelled into administration as the 18th century unwounded. Think about this. To express his ‘purity’ as a Sahib, Zachary should intentionally deploy a ‘mixedness’ of language, “a little peppering of nigger-talk mixed with a few girleys,’ gaalis, abuses (ibid.). A mixedness of his tongue would imply that he is not too good at it, that he is not its native speaker, that he does not risk becoming the same as those he lords over. So you go at lengths to be pidgin, to be mixed, in fact you anxiously perform this mixedness, to vouch for your own unmixedness, your pukkaness. You speak admixture as a way to promise your own limpidness, your own pristineness, that there is nothing mixed about you, that you are, as in the words of the lascar overseer Serang Ali earlier, a “pukka sahib” (20). All this anxiety over mixedness is above all a genealogical conceit interested in race. Unmixedness is a racial metaphor which before it promises anything else, promises good pedigree in the times of ‘interminglings and bastardy’ (Foucault; 1971: 92).

That is why Mr. Doughty’s tutorial does not end there. It elaborates one more condition – one that has more squarely to do with genealogy as racial, now not only a metaphor of mixedness or unmixedness, but the very thing, racial blood-line. Zachary should not be “too good” in Urdu or Hindi, but when speaking it, he should not “mince” his “words either” (49). So in effect speak badly, but speak badly really clearly, enunciate your inadequacy. Because if you “mince” your words, Mr. Doughty warns, you’ll be “taken for a chee-chee” (ibid.). Zachary of course does not know what a ‘chee-chee’ is, so Mr. Doughty has to explain. This explanation rests on deeply guarded ideas of racial purity and the threat of impurity that organized the relations between the colonist and his world as colonial trade with the East gainfully coupled with the governance of the East. A ‘chee-chee,’ was one, which that famous testament to mixedness of Europe and Asia, the late 19th century dictionary of ‘Anglo-Indian words’, the Yule and Burnell Hobson-Jobson, described as a

“…disparaging term applied to half-castes or Eurasians [children born to mixed racial, European and Asian, parentage]…and also to their manner of speech. The word is said to be taken from chi (Fie!), a common native…interjection of remonstrance or reproof [Chi!], supposed to be much used by the class in question. The term is, however, [the dictionary entry goes on to say] also a kind of onomatopoeia, indicating the mincing pronunciation which often characterizes them” (1886: 186)

By this time, Mr. Doughty’s protocol for being seen as a Sahib has become extremely difficult, its rehearsal of the appearance of Sahibness fairly complicated. To be seen as a pukka sort of Sahib, Zachary realizes, is to walk the very thin tight-rope on either side of which are the pit-falls of either going native or being taken for a chee-chee. Of losing the ‘innate’ power, the animating charm of your blood’s purity, that is, of going native, or of losing that blood purity itself, that is, of being a victim of genealogical short-circuiting, by becoming the damned chee-chee. Sahibness, then, emerges as not a thing but instead, as a laborious choreography.

Genealogy is at sea in Ghosh’s novel. It is a phantasm difficult to keep, a stage-name hard to say, a purity tough to maintain. It is at once the object of such smooth claims and such incredible anxiety that you see it as a deeply constructed artefact, a choreography, an object whose marshalling holds immense importance for the wielding of power. The very dialogue between Mr. Doughty and Zachary Reid is testament to the constructedness of this half-gift-half-curse of genealogy which hangs like a shadow over all the scenes of the novel. This making visible of constructedness of genealogy in Ghosh’s text operates in two ways. I will highlight what those two ways are.

Briefly, let me state both. One is the very particular articulation of the problem of genealogy as an interior truth of the person which is however always available as an exterior symptom on the person and hence, subject to outside scrutiny. That is, genealogy as inscribed on the body of the person. What this does is that it essentially renders genealogy – that truth par excellence – as performative, as something that can be practiced, as evitable, as against inevitable. And the second way in which genealogy is outed as constructed, is how its resonances in the novel are deepened from being a mere record of one’s family-line (genea is Greek for family), to a more substantial idea of the genealogical as a way of doing an animated literary-history, here, of colonialism. The genealogical here is not to throw back a continuous line to one person’s sublime origins, instead, it is a way of seeing the world as made up of errant particularities, of naughty connections. Here, the genealogical becomes more than just a search for one’s pure origins, it is rather, a way of seeing things as always, already derived from something else, a wayward derivativeness which outs the idea of sublime origins and its search as mythical. The movement, simply, is from Nietzsche’s Ursprung, the idea of origins, to his concept of Herkunft, the idea of descent, as famously mapped by Foucault in ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ (1971).


First, genealogy as performative. The American sailor Zachary Reid once tells Paulette: “I’m good with secrets, Miss Lambert” (149). He surely is. His most well-kept secret is of genealogical mixedness hiding under the intended surface of genealogical neatness, in a colonial world where now exercise of power asks for the marshalling of the latter; your race ought to be as clear as daylight. When the Ibis sailed from Baltimore, Zachary Reid was among the nine crew members who “were listed as ‘Black’,” a case of hypodescent in which the child of mixed-raced parentage is classified as belonging to the race which is socially subordinate (12). His mother, a Maryland freedwoman, was a “quadroon” and his father “white” (507). This is Zachary’s inner secret, but in the novel it always manifests in a haphazard relationship with his external appearance, which throughout the text, is projected as a hermeneutic puzzle, an object of much confusion, insecurity, and guesswork, by the lascar Serang Ali, by the first mate Mr. Crowle, by the French-Bengali Paulette Lambert, and most comically, by the gomusta Baboo Nob Kissin Pander, who imagines Zachary to be the reincarnation of Krishna, complete with flutes, butter and maidens.

Zachary is both the master and the victim of the reigning myth that genealogical purity and nobility is manifest in one’s appearance, that there is definitely some causality between the two, a kind of colonial Darwinism that would be solidified in the decades to come. Also, early nineteenth century is the high noon of pseudo-sciences like phrenology, post Franz Gall and George Combe, often instrumental to colonial discourse, which measured the external physical features – here, skull-size – to make determinations about the inner faculties of the person. What this exact causality between blood-line and appearance was, was always speculative and thus it took many forms. It also ended up framing racial purity, quite counterintuitively for the colonists, as something that has a window of performance. We are told that Zachary’s skin was “the colour of old ivory and mass of curly, lacquer-black hair…tumbled over his forehead” thus qualifying him for that window of performance (10). Near the beginning of the novel, when Zachary has to alight on the island of Mauritius to deliver a letter to a plantation-owner, Serang Ali warns him, that given his appearance – he mainly implied his workaday clothes – he would be pressed as a slave by some press-gang who’d deliver him to a black-birder. This gives Zachary “pause for thought,” considering his genealogical secret (18).

Following this pause, Zachary’s Sahibness is carefully put onto him like a costume. Genealogical purity as the guarantor of Sahibness is here revealed to be a costume, a careful management of external appearances. “Under Serang Ali’s direction,” we read, “the team went to work, rifling through Zachary’s bags and trunks, picking out clothes, measuring, folding, snipping, cutting” (19). “While the tailor-steward and his chuckeroos busied themselves with inseams and cuffs,” Ghosh writes elaborating this scene of the-making-of-the-Sahib, “the barber-topas led Zachary to the lee scuppers and, with the aid of a couple of launders, subjected him to as thorough a scrubbing as he had ever had” (ibid.) At the end of which, we find, “Zachary…looking at an almost unrecognizable image of himself in the mirror” (ibid.). Serang Ali calls him a “one-piece pukka sahib” (20). Sahibness is revealed to be an administering of images, as a mining of hermeneutic confusion. The premise of racial purity flows out of blood veins and onto surfaces, a careful exteriority now projects genealogy, showing it to be constructed in the process. An 1867 poem “The Chee-Chee Ball” published in Calcutta by William Henry Abbott, which was about the “chaperoned parties hosted…in Calcutta [for]…girls of mixed ethnicity…[who were there] presented to their suitors”, also relied on a visualization of the genealogical. “The Chee-Chees held high festival in old Domingo’s Hall,” writes the poet, “And I was there, tho’ I was not invited to the ball; / But they receiv’d me kindly, all owing, as I trust. / To my appearance proving me one of the “upper crust”” (in Gibson; 2011: 382; emphasis mine).


And second, genealogy as a way of doing ‘effective history’ (Foucault; ibid. 88). Think of this. In Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, a metif Baltimorean, after passing Mauritius, reaches colonial east India, and the ship that has brought him there represents the interests of British Opium trade spanning between the fields of (present day) Uttar Pradesh and Bihar whose produce reaches till the ports of Canton in the South China Sea. Think of this. Imagine this breadth. Ghosh has to populate, not the nation that is land-locked, but the dispersed transnational, looking seawards. With characters that have identities which are apposite of this dispersed transnational, that are seaworthy. What would these identities look like, we may ask? And the question is inevitably genealogical, now in the Nietzchean sense. Foucault gives us a clue about what these sea-worthy identities might look like, when, towards the end of his now famous essay on genealogy, he outlines the second use of the Nietzsche’s ‘historical spirit’, the second use being the very dissociation of identity and a radical embrace of mixedness (see Foucault: ibid. 93-5).

No line in Ghosh’s literary-history of colonialism runs back smoothly. No line reaches, over land or water, a distant, grandiose origin. As you go back, you encounter only a series of accidents and misbehaving knots. “The purpose of [such a] history, guided by genealogy,” Foucault wrote, “is not to discover the roots of our identity, but to commit itself to its dissipation” (95). Think of the accident of indentured labourer Kalua’s name as recorded by the ship’s pilot Mr. Doughty. The name Madhu Kalua, itself a reversal for the sake of disguise, to the Hobson-Jobson ears of Mr. Doughty sounds like “Maddow Colver” (284). No sublime history of caste now, which could have been written about the indentured labour diaspora from colonial India, will be left uninterrupted by this accident. Sheer racial arrogance and an accident of hearing by the ship’s pilot, for all his language lessons earlier, brings about a break, an important discontinuity in this history.

A genealogist of caste will have to take this accident into account. Because such a genealogist of caste will not be interested in defining a “unique threshold of emergence, the homeland to which metaphysicians promise a return; [instead, she will]…seek to make visible all of those discontinuities that cross us” (Foucault: ibid.). An racially arrogant, bad ear is the discontinuity that crosses the effective history of caste here. Not for many descendants of Kalua, though. “Later,” Ghosh writes, “within the dynasty that claimed its descent from him, many stories would be invented about the surname of the founding ancestor…While many would choose to recast their origins [like good 19th century historians, Foucault might have added], inventing grand and fanciful lineages for themselves, there would always remain a few who would cling steadfastly to the truth…” that the name was an accident (284-5).

A similar sea-worthy historical spirit guides several other figures, Paulette’s French-Bengali-Englishness, Deeti’s caste reversal, the oceanic transformations of fortunes, the on-board elaboration of the concept of “jahaz-bhai” and “jahaz-bahen”, “the children of the ship”, the emergence of documents about Zachary Reid’s actual parentage (356). Genealogy in Ghosh’s novel – moving over land and sea – turns out to be a protracted, knotty affair, given to painstaking construction. It is such that it analyses not origins but derivedness, “descent,” in such a way that it “permits the dissociation of the self, its recognition and displacement as an empty synthesis,” and thus ends up liberating “a profusion of lost events” (Foucault: ibid. 81). It opens up the conceptual watertightness of nations and borders to the insinuations of history, of history of precisely of those lost events. Yule and Burnell, for instance, in introducing Hobson-Jobson (1886) had conceded that “[w]ords of Indian origin have been insinuating themselves into English ever since the end of the reign of Elizabeth and the beginning of that of King James…” (xv; emphasis mine). In Ghosh, such insinuating connections, derivations, accidents are the guiding forces of the long-duree of his literary-history, not origins, points of return, or purity of the past. In doing this, he has produced in the Sea of Poppies, a genealogy that is truly sea-worthy.



Burnell, A.C. & Yule, Henry, 1886 (1996), Hobson-Jobson, Wordsworth Editions: Hertfordshire.

Foucault, Michel, 1977, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”, in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Bouchard, D.F., Cornell University Press: Ithaca.

Ghosh, Amitav, 2008, Sea of Poppies, Penguin Books: London.

Gibson, Mary Ellis (ed.), 2011, Anglophone Poetry in Colonial India, 1780-1913: A Critical Anthology, Ohio University Press: Ohio.