Monday, March 9, 2015

All Things In Common

I read for many reasons, to lose myself for some time, for pure entertainment, to feel all of the emotions, and to learn. It seems to be this last reason that so often finds me seeing commonalities in the books I read.

Not long ago, I reviewed Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, the first in his Opium Wars trilogy. I'd heard of the opium wars but never had the least clue what it was about and part of my enjoyment of this book was in learning about this part of history. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy to learn more. Imagine my surprise, though, when reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the story of a black man who rose to prominence in the United States civil rights movement, to find the opium wars come up.

 Malcolm X was writing about all the wrong and damage white men have done in other countries, to other peoples (can hardly argue with him there).
"When the white man professes ignorance about why the Chinese hate him so, my mind can't help flashing back to what I read, there in prison, about how the blood forebears of this same white man raped China at a time when China was trusting and helpless. Those original white "Christian traders" sent into China millions of pounds of opium. By 1839, so many of the Chinese were addicts that China's desperate government destroyed twenty thousand chests of opium. The first Opium War was promptly declared by the white man. Imagine! Declaring war upon someone who objects to being narcotized! The Chinese were severely beaten, with Chinese-invented gunpowder."
Now, if I had not recently read Sea of Poppies I might well have thought that Malcolm X was, perhaps, making things sound worse than they were. He wasn't. Great Britain found itself in much the same position then that the U.S. finds itself now where China is concerned; they were buried under a terrific trade imbalance. Opium was their way to try to even the scales and when China threatened to stop importing opium, Great Britain was hearing none of it.

Malcolm X also addressed what the white man had done in India and across the African continent. Here I was not as clueless  as I was about the opium wars; I'd been better educated on the history of these areas in my schooling. Certainly it would come as no surprise to anyone that tremendous damage was done to Africa due to the slave trade. But its in my own reading that I have really developed a fuller knowledge of the situation in India and the "chess game of naked exploitation and power from Cape Horn to Cairo" [Malcolm X], thanks to authors like Thrity Umrigar, Barbara Kingsolver, Alexandra Fuller, Elaine Neill Orr, and Henning Mankell. It's not a pretty picture but one I'm always interested in learning more about. It explains so much about what is happening now in the world. And understanding the world through reading is one of the great reasons to read.

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